How to Reverse the Cycle of Stress

Turn a Stressed Day into a Great Day

A positive attitude can give you the energy to run and smile.
A positive attitude can help you to create more energy and minimize stress. Here's how. Cultura RM/Philipp Nemenz/Getty Images

A little stress can keep us on our toes, motivate us to do our best and challenge us in ways that make us stronger. More than a little stress can actually lead to more negative consequences if we’re not careful: chronic stress, which can adversely affect physical and emotional health, and even self-perpetuating cycles that lead to more and more stress. These negative stress cycles can ultimately put us at risk of experiencing feelings of anxiety, depression, and burnout.

This process is a downward spiral of stress, and recognizing when you are moving in that direction can be an important part of moving away from the pattern.

It is important to realize when stress is beginning to take on a life of its own and know how to stop the process from accelerating. It is even more valuable to know how to turn these negative patterns into positive ones—patterns that can actually make us stronger, more resilient, and less stressed. Here are some ways to take yourself from a place of feeling stressed and overwhelmed to being in a place of empowerment and peace. Here are some strategies to consider.

Replace Rumination: Reminisce

One of the most significant ways that we keep ourselves stressed or even turn relatively small stressors into larger challenges is the human tendency toward rumination. We can all be prone to rumination from time to time—this is the tendency to play and replay frustrating conversations in our heads, go over and over the details of a stressful event in our near or even distant past, and otherwise revisit stressful situations without actually changing anything for the better.

 The problem with rumination is that it keeps us in a negative headspace and robs us of our mental peace in the present, without bringing any real payoff in return.

When you find yourself in the throes of rumination, distracting yourself by shifting your attention to the present moment, even practicing mindfulness, can offer an effective antidote.

 Listening to music can get you into a more positive place as well. Distracting yourself by getting involved in anything more positive can also do the trick.

However, if you find your mind still fighting you and moving toward thoughts of the past, you can instead turn your mind to positive memories. This uses the same process—your memory—and instead focuses it on something that will bring you happiness and positivity rather than stress and frustration. And positivity doesn’t simply move you away from a bad mood or get you into a better one, it can literally build resilience toward stress as well.

Use Idle Time for Mindfulness

If you are generally feeling stressed or are stressed because of tedious aspects of your day such as traffic or waiting in long lines, you may find yourself becoming increasingly drained or tense as a result. This may not be an obvious downward spiral, but it is a common way that stress can gain momentum, moving you from a relatively neutral experience into a negative mood.

If you are feeling particularly stressed already, these experiences—especially if they are threatening to make you late for your next commitment—can be quite stressful and can put you into a full-blown bad day.

As you move through your day, you can find these mildly stressful “waiting times” and use them as opportunities for stress relief by utilizing them for the practice of mindfulness, meditation, or breathing exercise. Research shows that focusing on the present moment for even a few minutes—the practice of mindfulness—can help you to relieve stress in the present moment as well as in the future. In this way, you are really using the mildly frustrating times in your day to your advantage. With practice, you can find yourself even looking forward to slow traffic, long lines, daily chores, and other seeming time wasters.

Stop and Reframe

Another way that you can reverse the negative momentum of common daily stressors is by changing the way you think about them. If you find yourself becoming stressed by setbacks, a series of minor setbacks can conspire to put you in a stressed frame of mind, and that can lead into a negative pattern of seeing more of the negative than the positive in everything that follows.

One way that you can reverse this trend is by simply becoming more aware of it, and realizing that you have a choice. You may not have a choice in the specific circumstances of your day—you can’t always choose what crises drop into your lap or what fires need to be put out—but you can choose how you interpret them, to a great extent. By taking your next frustrating situation and actively looking for the benefits that you’ll gain from it, you can reframe it into something more positive. In this way, at least in your mind, you can turn a “bad day” into a “good day,” or a “crisis” into an “opportunity.” Here are some specific ways that you can reframe a stressful situation and reverse what would have been a downward cycle of stress in the process.

Change Your Script

Similarly, if you find yourself facing a series of unexpected challenges in your day, you may begin to see most of what happens unexpectedly as a negative rather than as a potential positive. If you automatically see the worst in most of what presents itself to you, you will likely begin to react from a place of negativity and literally create stress and frustration where it doesn’t need to be. You can spread this negative bias to others, and it can take on a life of its own.

If this sounds familiar, you can purposely change the way you talk to yourself and the way you interpret what happens to you as it’s happening. Rather than expecting bad things to happen and seeing things as mostly negative, you can stop and actively try to expect the best. As you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about what could go wrong, start to think about what can go right. See everything as an opportunity, and then find out what the opportunity is; become determined to find the silver lining in each dark cloud. This is somewhat distinct from mere reframing because you are actively looking for ways to use what is happening in your life to your advantage rather that simply thinking about it in more positive terms. This is easier said that done, but the results are more powerful than they may seem at first, too.

Replace Stressors With “Pleasures”

It’s not always possible to cut out every stressor that comes into your life, but there are usually several things that create daily frustration that you could get rid of if you really thought about it. These little stressors, known as “tolerations,” are minor energy drains (or sometimes major energy drains) that can take the form of a toxic friend, a cluttered home where things are frequently lost, or an inefficient routine. They are things we tolerate out of habit, but wouldn’t choose if we thought about it. Cutting these things out of your life can have a distinctly positive effect on your stress levels.

Beyond simply eliminating tolerations, however, you can take things a step further to relieve stress in your day. You can replace tolerations with “pleasures,” or things in life that get you into a better mood and give you a little boost of resilience against stress. For example, rather than avoiding a friend that drains you, you can make a concerted effort to spend that same time with a different friend who nurtures and uplifts you. Instead of simply cleaning your cluttered space, you can add little decorative touches that bring you joy or stress relief, such as aromatherapy or a sound system that plays music you love. You get the idea—replace your tolerations with things that actually make your day better, and you’ll reverse your downward stress spiral into an upward spiral of positivity.

Sources:

de Frias, C.; Whyne, E. (2015). Stress on health-related quality of life in older adults: the protective nature of mindfulness. Aging & Mental Health, 19(3): 201-206.

Garland, Eric L.; Fredrickson, Barbara; Kring, Ann M.; Johnson, David P.; Meyer, Piper S.; Penn, David L. Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology.   Positive Clinical Psychology Clinical Psychology Review. 2010 30(7):849-864.

Peterson, C. A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.

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