by Susan Andrews, PhD
“The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James
This reminds me of a saying I once saw on a T-shirt: “Meditation: It IS what you think.” Of course, William James is taking for granted that most people are capable of controlling their minds well enough to actually choose to think about one thing and NOT to think about something else. Obviously, if everyone could do that, the world would be a much more relaxed and stress-free zone. The trouble seems to be coming from 2 possibilities: (1) many people do not realize that stress can be managed by controlling what they are thinking about and (2) too many people in the world today lack the ability to control what they are thinking.
Stress is absolutely a function of what we think. It is our thoughts about what is happening in the moment that actually trigger stress. And, as James points out, humans can choose to think about something that would normally cause them stress whereas nonhumans do not have that choice. For example, mice can be exposed to chronic stress in a laboratory a number of ways, such as by keeping them in a small space for 21 days. Mice, thus treated, show behavioral and brain cell changes in the amygdala associated with anxiety and depression1.
Research indicates that “reappraising” our situation – i.e., changing the way we think – can actually improve our body’s physiological and cognitive reactions to a stressful event. A team of Harvard and UC San Francisco researchers1 tested this theory by simply instructing participants in a reappraisal condition to think about their physiological arousal during a stressful task as “functional and adaptive.” There were two control conditions: attention reorientation and no instructions.
The participants instructed to “reappraise” their physiological arousal by thinking of the arousal as being more adaptive or functional showed measurably better cardiovascular stress responses (in terms of increased cardio efficiency and lower vascular resistance) and decreased attentional bias. Thus, changing our thoughts and thereby our perception can significantly improve the effects of stress on our body.
The suggestion to reappraise how we are looking at a stressful situation so that we think of it as somehow benefiting us or helping us do something better may be a much easier way to help people learn to control what they are thinking. Often when clients are instructed to try to control what they are thinking and NOT to think of the “X” that is upsetting them, they respond by saying they cannot control what they are thinking. Thus, using the suggestion of “reappraising” or reframing how they think about something may be much more successful at getting a stressed client to think differently – and feel less stressed.
1 T Lau, B Bigio, D Zelli, B S McEwen, C Nasca. Stress-induced structural plasticity of medial amygdala stellate neurons and rapid prevention by a candidate antidepressant. Molecular Psychiatry, 2016.
2Jamieson, J. Nock, M. and Mendes, W. Brief Report: Mind Over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress. 2012. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2012, 141, 3, 417-422.