Here’s one of the simplest principles to guide your coping with stress: The only two things you can realistically hope to control are your thoughts and your actions. The first step in coping effectively is accepting that fundamental reality. You can try to control others, but in the long run you will fail. In most situations, you are not in control.
But even when you accept that fundamental truth about control, you still have to accept some limits. For instance, how many times has someone said to you, “You have to stop thinking that you’re weak and worthless! You’re not, so stop feeling that way!”
Easy for them to say, right? The problem is, if you feel something about yourself, even though controlling your feelings is something you can manage, how can you force yourself to stop feeling that way? Is that what we mean by effective coping? Fortunately, no, it’s not.
So, here’s an important rule to follow when trying to exercise your circle of control: You must stop focusing on trying to get rid of unwanted and unpleasant thoughts and emotions. You may want to force yourself to be less anxious, or less angry, or less jealous. You may feel that these emotions – and your thoughts about them – make you weak and vulnerable. But, remember, they are a part of you. Your emotions are not only a natural part of being human, but they are also you. Don’t deny a part of yourself.
You might say, “I’m just too damn anxious. I get worked up over every little thing.” Hey! Anxieties are just thoughts, just emotions. Who says you have to subdue them, or be influenced by them, or get overly attached to them? They’re not perfect reflections of reality so why be obsessed by them? You may think that you’re too anxious, but that thought doesn’t make you a victim; you may think you’re a loser, but that thought doesn’t make you a loser. By the same token, you cannot think your way out of being a loser, or being anxious, or being hostile, or being depressed.
The only way to deal with those conditions is to modify your actions to become consistent with your values, and with having a purpose and goals to pursue. For instance, if you’re anxious about giving a presentation at work, your first inclination is to avoid having to do it – find some way to convince the boss that someone else should do it. You have learned from reading this blog, however, that avoidance is coping poison, and is the first step to increasing your stress. So, you should reject that option. Instead, accept the reality that you will be anxious, and begin preparing your presentation well in advance. You might also ask several colleagues for input you can include, and tips on how you can make sure the audience understands the importance of their input. When you begin speaking, start by thanking everyone who provided you with data and ideas to include in your plan, and point them out in the audience. Not only will those people immediately be supportive of you, but your audience will shift their focus away from you onto your helpers. That can have a calming effect, plus give you some time to acclimate your voice, audience eye contact, and general likeability to the audience.
There are other things you can do, of course, but the point is, do things that will make you feel at one with the audience. Your anxiety is based on a threat of failure; implicitly and indirectly encouraging the audience to join you in your task will reduce that threat in your mind. You can’t think your way out of your anxiety, so “action” your way out of it.