People often feel stressed by situations or events over which they feel they have no control, and many times, people do not have control over external circumstances. However, they can develop control over their emotional responses, thought patterns, beliefs, and behaviors, which are usually the determining factors in whether a person experiences a situation as stressful or not. If a person believes a situation is stressful or an event brings up emotions of fear or anxiety, this person’s stress level will increase. Because the experience of stress is related to a person’s perception, identifying and changing a person’s responses to stressful situations, rather than focusing on all of the external circumstances that can’t be controlled or changed, can reduce their level of stress.
In The Courage to Heal, authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis describe the process of changing old behavior patterns and emotional responses in seven steps:
- Become aware of the behavior you want to change. It is much easier to make change when you know exactly what it is you want to change. Being specific allows you to focus and take action to address those particular issues. Everyone wants to reduce the stress in their lives but the actions people need to take to achieve that goal can be very different depending on the sources or stress and the ways people handle and respond to those stressors.
- Examine the reasons you developed that behavior to begin with. By understanding why you started a behavior pattern or the source of an emotional response, you may be able to recognize the need that behavior or response was filling. By recognizing this need, you can then find healthier ways of meeting that need. When your needs are met in healthy ways, you will probably not perceive as many situations as stressful because you will have better resources to be able to cope with your stress.
- Have compassion for what you’ve done in the past. Even if you didn’t make the wisest, healthiest choices in the past, you made the best choices you could for those circumstances, which have most likely led to the responses to stress you have now. Recognize that you can make better choices for yourself and learn how to respond to previously stressful situations in healthier ways. Everyone continues to learn and learning healthier behaviors now doesn’t mean that previous patterns were wrong or bad-they just don’t serving you any more.
- Find new ways to meet your needs. By meeting your needs in the healthiest ways for you, you will have greater resources to reduce your stress and will probably not perceive previously stressful events in the same way. Meeting your need in healthy ways will also help you to make the best choices for yourself to maintain your health when there are stressful times.
- Get support. The environment in which you live and work will affect your ability to make as well as maintain your changes. You are trying to learn new ways of being that will lead you to less stressful responses when difficulties arise. Learning these new patterns can be difficult and the process will be easier and more enjoyable, and the changes will be more likely to last if you have support along the way.
- Make several tries. Changing oneself doesn’t happen overnight, and the everyday, small steps will take you to your goal, even though it may not seem like you are making much progress. Remember that you are learning about yourself and making changes from within, which takes time.
- Be persistent. When you are learning new behaviors, you may fall back into old patterns the first time you are challenged with a stressful event. The important thing to keep in mind is that you are trying. Just like no child learns to ride a bike after one lesson, you will probably not respond using your new patterns perfectly the first time you try to use them. In these situations, remind yourself of all the other new things you’ve learned in your life, which took time to learn, and which you also finally mastered. Just as with those things, you can learn how you respond to stress and make healthier choices. Keep in mind that at some point, these new patterns will come naturally and reward yourself every time you handle your stress a little better.
Ellen Bass and Laura. Davis. The Courage to Heal. Harper & Row Publishers:New York, 1988.