International Stress Awareness Week - Day 2:
Be aware!

“One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a horse master. He told me to go slow to go fast. I think that applies to everything in life. We live as though there aren’t enough hours in the day but if we do each thing calmly and carefully we will get it done quicker and with much less stress.” Viggo Mortensen

When stressed in the moment:

Focus on one single aspect of your reaction to the stressful situation – be that your behaviours, the sensations in your body, or the thoughts running through your head. Take notice. Accept what is happening. How would you like it to be? What one small thing could you do differently?

What’s happening? By focusing your attention on one aspect only, instead of remaining wide-eyed and vigilant to all that is going on for you, you are in effect distracting yourself. It is your emotional-thinking brain that is trying hard to be aware of all potential threats in your environment; it’s exhausting and keeps you trapped in perpetual hyper-vigilance.

If you are able to pay attention to just one thing, it must mean that the other aspects are not so threatening, and so on those fronts you can be a little calmer and more relaxed. Instead of experiencing sensory and cognitive overwhelm, you choose where you want to dedicate your powers of attention. You reduce the chances of being distracted by other things, allowing yourself some time to regain a sense of control – even if it is for just a short moment and only narrowly-focused. Yesterday’s tip of thinking about your breathing is one example.
 
An important part of being aware and taking notice of how you are when faced by a perceived challenging situation is accepting your reaction for what it is. It is so easy for us to beat ourselves up for feeling the way we do or having the thoughts we have. We disappoint ourselves by having unhelpful emotions that we think we ‘should’ not have. We jump quickly to judge before understanding why we think, feel and behave this way. We are our own worst critic and enemy.
 

Taking an interest in yourself is the start of objective thinking and the basis of reflective practice. If you want something to be different, you need to break the cycle you are in. If you don’t do that, don’t be surprised when you find yourself going around the same old loop again and again.

Focusing on one aspect helps you take that small step back to observe, accept and eventually understand what is going on. Seeking meaning and feeling that you have the power to do something about it (even the smallest thing) are important basic human emotional needs, which, when satisfied, help to increase your sense of feeling in control, or at least more aware of what is happening. No more headless chicken: perhaps just chicken instead, but at least it’s a start in the right direction.
 

With practice, you can expand your focus of attention to other aspects of your stress experience. The greater the attention paid to observing and reflecting on your experience, the greater the distraction from whatever the stressor is [NB. Clearly, if the stressor is something that represents a clear and present danger to you or someone else’s well-being, then sitting back to draw a sketch of it in a notebook is not advisable! Trust in your emotional response to keep you safe]. The Rub section contains a handy 7-letter mnemonic for the aspects you can observe in yourself and others.

How to make the most of this technique? Take the time to read through the 7 aspects listed below and use them every day to observe and evaluate the way you react to challenging situations.

Better still, rather than simply assessing how you actually react, take it one step further and decide how you would like to react. Some might struggle with believing that they can act in a more positive manner: the important thing here is to dare to dream. The human brain does not distinguish between reality and fantasy. Let your imagination out and begin with the end in mind. Systematically run through the list below and come up with at least one way in which you could change your response. Remember that we make progress through a series of several small steps, so use your ‘actual’ response observations as your baseline measure and plan your positive steps from there.

The 7 aspects or ‘modalities’ by which we can observe and assess our response to challenging situations are known by the mnemonic ‘BASIC ID’. Created by a South African clinical psychologist called Arnold Lazarus (1932 – 2013), who was a co-founder of cognitive-behavioural therapy, together they serve to educate individuals rather than attempt to ‘heal’ them. They are outlined here:

  • B represents behaviour, which can be manifested through the use of inappropriate acts and habits, or the lack of appropriate ones
  • A stands for affect – the emotions one experiences
  • S is sensation – pain, tension, sweating, nausea, quick heartbeat
  • I stands for imagery – the existence of mental pictures
  • C represents cognition or the degree of thoughts, attitudes or beliefs we have
  • The second I is for ‘interpersonal’ – our ability to form and maintain relationships with others
  • D is for Dependency – our physical health, substance use and lifestyle choices, including the ways in which we attempt to cope with stress

 

As in the quote at the head of this newsletter, go slow with the BASIC ID – choose one of the 7 modalities – and take the time to observe your reaction to a specific challenge. Notice. Understand. Accept yourself. Then think of one small action that you can commit to that will start to change your response for the better.

Coming up in Day 3: Let it all out!

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