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Managing Unavoidable Stress


Have you ever looked at one of those pictures containing a hidden image? At first you look and look from every angle, but all you can see is the regular picture. Then suddenly your focus shifts, the hidden image appears and you see it so differently that it becomes impossible not to see it that way.

Reframing is a similar process of changing focus in which new information and/or a new point of view alters the way you see something. When you change how you see something, you also change how your body responds. That is why one of the most effective ways to lessen the stressful effects of an unavoidable, difficult situation is to reframe or refocus your perception of the situation. This often allows you to adapt yourself to the situation in a more positive way or gives you a key to changing the situation for the better.

It takes some imagination and effort but reframing can literally be a lifesaver. Sometimes, the way circumstances unfold allows us to reframe miserable experiences into beneficial ones (like finding out that a negative lab test result was an error). However, it is usually up to us to “turn lemons into lemonade” by consciously altering how we see our difficulties in order to experience them as something better.

If we wait around hoping life will present us with a series of happy endings we will probably be disappointed. However when we choose to use reframing techniques to shift our perceptions about situations that have been wearing us out with stress, we empower ourselves to stay healthy. We change how our bodies actually experience and respond to these situations. The psychological changes produce physiological changes that directly affect our health.

Many times, changing the impact of a situation is not as difficult as you might imagine. If you look at a situation from a different angle or allow your attitudes or beliefs about it to change, quite often the stress and tension that the situation provokes will begin to diminish. For example, if you go to work every day and think your boss hates you, or you dread going because of the unpleasant people you work with, you are really seeing yourself as the victim in this situation. Instead, you could decide that this is really a master’s training course on how to handle difficult people that you are taking while looking for another job. This way you can benefit from studying these people and your reactions to them. Changing your responses puts you back in control of the situation.

You can then pick one reaction each week that you want to change, or somehow diffuse, and continually work at mastering yourself so you are no longer a victim. In other words, turn it into an opportunity for getting something you want or need instead of allowing it to be an obstacle to what you want or need. Each time you lose your temper or get uptight, instead of blaming or criticizing yourself, realize that you need more practice in deflecting other people’s negativity and maintaining a positive emphasis on your own perceptions and goals.

The positive changes you make will give you more confidence that you can actually find a work situation that you would enjoy–something you might have thought was impossible a few months before. Remember: we are not required to sell our souls in order to work. That is a belief that some of us hold and, as a result, we find ourselves working for companies that demand it.

It surprises many people to discover that not only is it possible to change a belief about something, but that changing the belief often changes the situation. If, for example, you believe you must exhaust yourself at work in order to get ahead, then you are in a real bind. The only way you can win is to lose. If you win at your job, you lose with your health and if you are not exhausted, you must not be doing your job.

A belief is like an internal equation you live by. In this example if you can replace your equation that job success=exhaustion with an equation like job success=focus with relaxation, then new possibilities can arise for you. In the first equation you have a sense of powerlessness and your job controls you; in the second equation you are empowered to have much more control over yourself and your job experience.

What you believe (your equation) about success in this case governs your freedom to choose work attitudes and behavior that either lead to health or to debilitation, and possibly to actual success or failure. For example: if you have to work late some evenings, you can set a limit on how much is reasonable for you to finish and how many extra hours you are willing to put in to meet your job goals. Then while doing the work you can use techniques like deep breathing to stay focused and relaxed. In a relaxed state, you will usually work more effectively than you do when you put yourself under the gun, so you might even get the job done faster. The important result for your health is that you can do whatever you have to do with less stress.

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