Monday, November 24, 2008

Managing Stress Without Wearing Rose Colored Glasses!

Throughout the years of my career as a psychologist, I have come to understand fear to be a negative emotion from which most other negative emotions originate. Fear is essentially anxiety. Fear often underlies anger, similar to the proverbial cat with its back up against the wall. The cat lashes out in anger, because it is afraid of being attacked. Anger turned inward is often referred to as depression. And, when one feels guilty, it is typically an indication that one is either afraid of having done something wrong or is afraid of being punished. Managing fears, therefore, can also help to ease a variety of negative emotions.

Nonetheless, fear can be legitimate reaction to the situation. It is important to distinguish illegitimate and legitimate fears. The physiological and emotional reaction to real danger (i.e. - the "fight or flight response') helps one to protect oneself. The rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, and muscle tension assists in allowing oxygen and nutrients to prepare the body for protective fighting or fleeing. Overactive fear can be an interfering and potentially unhealthy reaction to a perceived danger that is not real.

In situations that do not merit the intensity of the debilitating fear reaction, the level of the fear could also originate from a disturbing memory that has been resurrected by the current environment. The person may be reacting more to the anxiety surrounding the upsetting memory than the current situation. Illegitimate fear could stem from a misperception of the current situation. Illegitimate fear can also originate from a biochemical imbalance, wherein psychotropic medication could be a corrective intervention.

Fear and anxiety can be exacerbated by the words we use. "Should", "Have to", and "Must" are particular culprits. For example, if someone is running late for an important meeting, he or she may complicate the tardiness by suggesting that "I have to get there on time." The "have to" insinuates that if he or she is late that it would be "terrible." The word terrible is emotionally analogous to threat of nuclear warfare.

Running late for a meeting is not terrible. Emotionally, one does not necessarily know the difference between truth and exaggeration. If the perception is terror, the reaction is fear. Questioning self-talk, therefore, is vital since thoughts affect how one feels, while feelings affect how one acts. In this example, the tardy person can remind his or her self that it is his or her choice to arrive on time. It is important to affirm the fact that if the meeting starts late, he or she would actually be early. Even if he or she were late, it would be alright, since it is only a choice to arrive on-time. Although the choice is for responsible reasons, it still remains a choice. As the feelings associated with this new perspective resonate, the effect is a calmer disposition that affords this person to depart sooner, without literally tripping over his or her feet.

Some of my patients have questioned me, regarding how feelings (and not thoughts) primarily dictate one's actions and behaviors. In this regard, I like to share the following analogy. Most people probably have brand name toothpaste or soap in their bathroom. Although they intellectually know that generic toothpaste is basically the same as (and less expensive than) brand name, they pay more for the brand name, because they feel that it will provide them with "fresher breath and whiter teeth." The behavior, within this example, is to pay more for something that is basically the same as the cheaper brand. In essence, feelings trumped thought.

In essence, thoughts affect feelings. Feelings affect behavior. Behavior affects one's future experiences. Understanding the interplay between one's thoughts and feelings can afford one the opportunity to better manage one's feelings, behaviors and resultant experiences. No one is suggesting to look at oneself, others, and the world with "rose colored glasses." It is suggested that one attempt to look at oneself, others, and the world in the most balanced, positive, and accurate manner possible.

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