Paar kocht und die Frau schaut auf die Uhr
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Whether we get angry, aggressive, panicked, anxious, insecure or irritable, our feelings have a lot to do with what we think. In the specific situation, but also generally about the world and about ourselves. If you're having a particularly stressful day at work and think 'Oh my god, how am I going to deal with this?', you will feel differently than when you are standing in line at the supermarket checkout and moaning to yourself, 'Oh my god, this is the slowest line ever!'. Whether stress makes you anxious or angry largely depends on your thoughts, experiences, attitudes, and mindset.

Self-awareness helps

Examine how you feel when you're under stress and what you are thinking at that time. You will find that your thoughts and feelings are similar even in different situations. If you do this systematically for a while, you will become more aware of your thinking habits when you are stressed. Not only that, you can then also evaluate whether what you are thinking is really realistic or if you are having thoughts that are actually pointless.

For example, if you're stuck in a traffic jam on your morning commute, what good does it do to get mad and start hitting the steering wheel, fuming 'what kind of idiots are these in front of me! Can't you drive faster?'. Or when you break into a sweat thinking, 'Oh no, I'll be late! This is terrible! What will my boss think of me?!'. Is that going to get you out of the traffic jam? Will it help you get traffic moving again? And do you really need to think that way, making yourself angry or worried? No. You could also tell yourself: 'Darn, I'm stuck in traffic. Can I do anything about it? No, not right now. So just relax. Call work to let them know, and then listen to the radio.' You will endure the traffic jam with less stress. 

How we put ourselves under pressure

Often, we are our own stern taskmasters. The demands we put on ourselves, such as 'It always has to be perfect' or 'I have to make sure that everyone likes me', put us under pressure and deprive us of opportunities for taking action. We are often not consciously aware of these demands, but they have an impact on us internally. We believe that we absolutely must fulfil them. If we don't, we worry that something awful could happen. In most cases, we don't even consciously know what that could be. But by reflecting on a few questions, it's possible to find out. 

Frequently, that are quite straightforward, personal catastrophes that we fear - such as not being loved, or being abandoned. These fears are the fears of a child. Because for children, permanent withdrawal of love is a threat to their survival, and so they develop strategies to avoid that. And then what often helps: Do not make mistakes. Always be nice. Be cautious and careful. Or if the withdrawal of love is already a reality: learning to cope and get by on your own. 

The demands we put on ourselves are early-learned, successful ways to avoid such catastrophes.  And since they have proven effective in the past, we usually do not question them even as adults. The price for this is anxiety and stress in situations where we don't think we can meet these demands. 

Stress-inducing mindsets

A few examples of mindsets that can make life difficult:

  • Be perfect!  Never make mistakes. 
  • Be popular! Avoid conflict. 
  • Be strong! Don't show any weakness and don't be needy or dependent. 
  • Be cautious and careful! Make sure you re 100 per cent sure before you decide. 

Reality check

Recognise any of this in yourself? Then ask yourself how realistic these demands are and whether you really have to always and completely meet them. Maybe you will discover that 'always' actually only means 'sometimes'. Perhaps you'll realise that the consequences you fear would not be as devastating now. Figure out where you might be able to let go of the demand and give yourself the space to act differently, take things easy and relax. Or clearly stand up for your own opinion. Or accept help when it is needed. 

Positive self-talk 

In stressful situations, thoughts like 'I'll never make it', 'this won't work' or 'I'm not capable' often arise. If you notice such thoughts, try to replace them with more encouraging ones. This will take a little practice and preparation. Here's how to do it:

  • Write down the thoughts that crossed your mind in a stressful situation.
  • Divide them into positive and negative thoughts.  
  • Think positive thoughts instead of negative ones.  It is important to make sure that you can accept the positive affirmations. So instead of thinking 'I know I'll make mistakes', don't say to yourself 'I know I won't make any mistakes', but rather change it to 'if I make mistakes, it won't be that bad'. The key thing here is that you believe that the positive thought you want to use is essentially true. 
  • Think about other positive thoughts you can use to support yourself. 
  • If the stressful situation occurs again, replace your automatic negative thoughts, as soon as you notice them, with the encouraging thoughts. 

For example, when you're facing a challenge, instead of saying 'I can't do this' or 'this is bound to go wrong', you could tell yourself 'just give it a try first' or 'take it step by step'. If you are in the middle of it, automatic thoughts like 'shoot, I'm so nervous again' or 'oh God, I'm going to fail' or 'my heart is beating like crazy' might come up.  See if thoughts like 'just relax, take it easy' or ‘okay, you're nervous, that's normal' might help you. And when the stressful situation is over, be kind to yourself, no matter how it turned out. If everything didn't go perfectly, thoughts like 'it's great that I got through it' or 'I did the best I could; it is okay that I'm not perfect yet' can have a positive effect. 

Get some distance

In stressful situations, it sometimes helps to simply ask yourself: What will I think about this situation in ten years? This can put many things into perspective.