Changing How You Perceive Stressors

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

You can’t control every high-stress thing that life throws at you. But you can reframe your view of those things — and thereby reduce your feelings of stress. If a stressor is recurring or distracting you for more than a couple of hours, try techniques like these.

1. Ask yourself, Will this matter in one month? One year?

Try it when: You’re consumed with the idea that the event you’re experiencing is a total disaster.

You’re at risk of losing a big customer. You had an argument with your boss. In the moment, stress can shrink your whole world to the worry you’re feeling — so you can’t think about anything else. But most stressors are short-lived. That big thing that’s stressing you out right now? In a month or two (or a year, depending) there’s a good chance it will barely register on your radar.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to step back and gain much-needed perspective. Ask yourself how much this situation really matters in the context of your long-term goals and priorities. From this zoomed-out view, immediate stressors can begin to feel less consequential — so you can refocus on doing your best rather than spinning your wheels with stress.

Caveat: This technique tends to be helpful for single events with a concrete deadline, like a project that has you working late or an upcoming difficult conversation. It may be less helpful for ongoing stressors, like economic uncertainty for your company.

2. Notice and challenge your negative thoughts around the situation.

Try it when: You find yourself spiraling into pessimism about what will happen and its impact.

I missed an important deadline — my boss will never trust me again!
This goal is impossible — we’ll never meet it!
These budget cuts won’t be fair — my team always gets short shrift!

Stress can lead to negative thoughts, which can lead to worrying about how a situation will turn out — which then leads to even more stress. It’s a vicious cycle that can land you thinking about worst-case scenarios.

To break the cycle, start by simply noticing negative thoughts as they arise. Then, before your mind has a chance to run wild, try to challenge your negative thinking by asking yourself whether your story about the stress is true and accurate. Hint: If you find yourself using words like “always” and “never,” it probably isn’t.

To separate your stress from reality, try asking yourself questions like:

  • How much of this story is a likely outcome, and how much of it is anxiety talking?
  • If a friend were in this same situation, would I think differently about it?
  • What are some other possible outcomes of this situation, besides the one I’m imagining?
  • When has something like this happened in the past? What was the outcome then?

3. Reframe the stressor as an opportunity to grow.

Try it when: You respond with dread and self-doubt to something that pushes you out of your comfort zone.

Psychologists talk about the power of a growth mindset (i.e., believing your talents can be developed through learning and hard work) over a fixed mindset (believing your talents are innate and can’t change). Could a fixed mindset be getting in the way of your ability to handle stress? For example, let’s say your boss asks you to present at a company-wide meeting, and you’re anxious about public speaking. Consider the following reactions:

  • Fixed mindset: “Ugh, I’m terrible at public speaking!”
  • Growth mindset: “I’m nervous about presenting in front of so many people, but it’s a great chance for me to improve my public speaking skills.”

By reframing the stressor as an opportunity to grow, you change your thinking to be more productive. The stressor isn’t gone, but it has become something you can proactively prepare for and learn from, not a force that’s acting upon you. Who knows? You might even start to feel excited to meet the challenge.

4. Reflect on past challenges you’ve overcome.

Try it when: You feel unequipped to handle what you’re facing.

Every challenge feels uniquely hard when you’re in the thick of it. It’s easy to forget that you’ve already overcome lots of other stressful situations in your life. Even if previous events seemed awful at the time, you got through them — and you have what it takes to do so again. It’s good to remind yourself of this every once in a while.

Reflecting on past challenges can also help you remember what you learned from them — adaptability, determination, and other attributes that have made you into the person you are today. The past challenges you think about don’t necessarily have to be similar to whatever you’re facing now (although it may be helpful if they are).

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What did I do the last time I faced a situation like this? Or any stressful situation?
  • How did I overcome it?
  • What did I learn or how did I grow from that experience?
  • How can I use those lessons to help me with what I’m facing now?

5. Make a plan (any plan).

Try it when: You’re feeling stressed out by the uncertainty of a situation.

Loose ends (i.e., what might happen in the future) tend to challenge the human brain. Far off and even unlikely possibilities can clutter your thoughts, cause your attention to wander, and create lots of anxiety.

Making a plan to deal with some aspect of an uncertain situation — even if you don’t end up using the plan — can help your brain mentally resolve those loose ends. Psychologists call this “proactive coping,” where you anticipate a potential stressor and make a plan to address it. Start by mapping “what would happen if” scenarios, then pick a likely possibility, and plan how you could respond to it. Just having that plan can help you feel more focused, relieved, and in control of your own destiny, regardless of what actually ends up happening.

6. Seek an outside perspective on your stress.

Try it when: You’re feeling powerless or too inside your own head.

Stress is a very personal and introspective experience, sometimes too much so. When you talk about it with someone you trust, you’ll feel less alone, at the very least. And you may come away with a different interpretation of the situation, new information, or ideas on how to move forward.

Consider who might be best to approach, depending on what you want — a willing listener, an outsider, or someone experiencing the same situation. Then, ask for what you need. For example, “I’ve been really stressed out about the budget shortfall. I know you’re facing it, too. Do you have a few minutes to share perspectives on the situation?”

Share your experience, too, and elicit helpful responses by asking follow-up questions like:

  • “I just said a lot. What are the most important things you heard?”
  • “How have you handled situations like this? What advice do you have?”
  • “What would you do in my situation?”

Caveat: If you’re dealing with a companywide stressor such as layoffs or a merger, it’s easy to compare yourself to others. Resist. Everyone copes with stress differently, and you aren’t flawed or inferior for having a stronger reaction than someone else. Besides, the colleague who seems totally unflappable may be really stressed on the inside. You won’t know until you ask them what they’re experiencing.

7. Treat the stressor as an exciting challenge, not a threat.

Try it when: You notice your pounding heart, sweaty palms, or shallow breathing — and the ball of emotions that comes with those reactions.

Stress is your body’s natural response to help you cope with a situation that pushes you beyond your norm. When your hands start to shake before a big meeting, your body isn’t trying to sabotage you by betraying your nervousness to the world. It’s pumping extra blood and oxygen through your veins to help you meet the challenge. You get stressed when you’re testing your limits and growing, not when you’re chilling on your couch watching a movie. Sometimes, feeling stressed is a sign that you’re doing something right!

Your body’s physical response to stress is the same whether you feel excited or threatened — the difference is all in whether you perceive the stressor as positive or negative. Some research suggests that giving yourself a quick, minimal pep talk (e.g., telling yourself, I am excited) might be enough to help you actually feel excited, which can give you a confidence and performance boost.