Tuesday 22nd August 2017

THOUGHT OR FACT? A practical stress management exercise



When we feel stressed or are combating a difficult situation, our minds often become clouded with negative thoughts and worst-case scenarios. We spend a huge amount of time worrying and ruminating about problems, which we’ve turned into monumental disasters in our heads.

I know of friends who consistently worry about losing their jobs over small mistakes they’ve made, or clients who struggle to control the constant thought that someone close to them is mad at them for something they said.

I always start with a simple question: what is thought and what is fact?

I ask them to write a list of everything they think and know about the situation. They should include all the things they’re worried about, possible outcomes and what has already happened. Then take a highlighter to this list and highlight what they know to be true. Not their worries, projections or assumptions about the situation, but the facts only.
The list often looks a little like this:

*I emailed a proposal to a prospective client with our old pricing list in*
My boss is going to be livid when she finds out
I’ll have to tell the client and they’ll think I’m an idiot
They’ll probably choose to take their business elsewhere
It will make me look incompetent to my boss
Maybe they’ll dock the difference in price from my pay
I could even lose my job over this.
I always seem to make stupid mistakes
*The document was saved in the wrong folder*, which is annoying
Why didn’t I check? I’m such an idiot
It’s an easy mistake to make but I’m not careful enough
My boss will probably even tell her boss
My notice period is two months so at least I’ll have a chance to look for another job
Unless they class it as gross misconduct and dismiss me without pay right away

Look at how many potential scenarios our brains dream up and it’s worth thinking about how often the worst-case scenario actually comes true? Is it likely that our worrier above will lose his or her job? Probably not.

The issue is our brains struggle to separate thought from fact. When something goes through our mind, we take it as gospel. We often do this without even being conscious we’re doing it. We don’t challenge our thought patterns enough to take a moment to distinguish that these are just thoughts – concerns, worries, projections, not facts. This can cause us a huge amount of stress and moreover it’s completely exhausting. A vast amount of energy is required to deal with all these potential scenarios happening in our heads.

Recognising our thoughts for what they are, just thoughts, will help us liberate ourselves from them. They no longer have to dominate our consciousness and cause us stress. Observing our thoughts can also be another very useful tool and we can do this through meditation. To read more about this, see our blog on busting mindfulness myths.

This is a useful exercise to do in any crisis situation. When written down in black and white, some of the concerns we have might even seem silly, but until we make the effort to work out that our minds have hijacked the situation, we don’t have any clarity.

It’s hard to focus and think rationally about what damage control can be done, when we’re in this state. Next time you find yourself in a crisis, take to pen and paper and list the true facts.

Rush Talent Collective provide workshops and programmes in stress-management, mindfulness and other aspects of wellbeing.


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