When you are feeling stressed out, where is your mind?
For some, stress keeps us in short-term worries.
We sometimes can’t see a long-term future that is different from the stress we are experiencing now, and that clouds our ability to show up solving problems.
I am overwhelmed at work…and I can’t see a time when it won’t seem that way.
My kid is in trouble at school…and I see more trouble in front of them.
I am sick and getting behind at work…and it’s going to be hard to get caught up.
Stress can make our mental world very small.
Here are ways you can tell if your mind is in stressful short-term thinking:
- Your mind is asking “what if…” on a loop.
- The thinking is primarily negative.
- There’s a sense of worry or overwhelm.
- The mind is “this or that” – it’s suggesting limited options.
- Your mind can’t focus on a step to take next because you’re worried about making a wrong move.
One of the best ways to know if your mind is in a short-term thinking loop that’s amplifying your stress response is to pay attention to your body.
Is your breathing shallow?
Are you doing a lot of small movements that seem a little frantic?
Maybe you’re mentally creating a long to-do list, scrolling up and down your inbox but not picking a single email to tackle, wanting to escape by eating or venting to a friend.
Is your mind asking questions like “What’s going to happen?” or “Why is this happening to me?” or even “When will this stop?”
When you notice these or similar behaviors, ask yourself:
“What time is it in my mind right now?” or “What day am I thinking about right now?”
These are unusual questions that can introduce a mental pause.
Is your mind focused on what it can do now to take action…or is it spinning out?
There are the usual stress relief techniques like breathing, and those can certainly be helpful.
Yet often the mind will continue to spin or ruminate on its previous topic if we don’t’ connect with our thinking.
Asking an unusual question is like introducing a hazard on the road – it makes your brain pay attention.
Here are other example questions that can short-circuit stressful short-term thinking:
- What would Beyonce do? (or Chandler Bing or any other person, real or imagined)
- Which superhero could solve this problem?
- What would a tiger do about this situation? (or a bunny or a squirrel or your dog)
Choose an interrupting question that’s a little silly and open-ended (not answered by a simple “yes” or “no).
The point is to get yourself to see that the thinking is in a loop instead of using your mind power to take a step toward a solution you want to create.
Thought interrupting questions can pull you back into thinking about solutions, including solutions that will serve you well over time.
Then you can ask:
“What will this situation look like for me in 5 years?” Allow yourself to explore the worst case and best case and other scenarios in between.
From that longer term vantage point, you can better decide what you’ll do next.
You might be able to truly calm your nervous system and tap into your mind’s better thinking.
P.S. I invite you to fall in love with the “Less Stress, More Fun” podcast. Subscribe today! Each week’s episodes offer smart, fun ideas to reduce stress and boost your sense of playfulness.