Happy woman with arms stretched out wide and up cos she's stress-free

4 Proven Steps to Reduce Stress & live Happier

9 December 2016
Even in the darkest depths of your stress, there is a way to take back control. it may sound ridiculous, but bear with me...
The following techniques have been proven to be effective by neuroscientists as well as scores of stressed-out individuals like you who've finally found relief - relief from habitual thinking patterns and feelings. Come on, which of these thinking patterns gets you and would you love to be free of?

#1: You have too much to do. You're stressed because you don't think you can do it all.

#2: You secretly fear you're not up to the job; that you'll be exposed as a fraud. Your fear of being found out is stressing you.

#3: You hold yourself to extremely high standards. You're stressed because you're worried you'll fail to reach these standards; that you'll crash and burn. 
Did you notice I wrote “thinking patterns" above? 

So here it is, the neuroscience fact: It’s your thoughts that cause your feelings. It’s your thoughts that cause your stress.

And because it’s your thoughts causing your stress, you can learn to change them. All you need to know is how, and that’s what I’ll teach you in this article.

Until I was 41, I didn't know this. I kept blaming things and people ‘out there’ for my stress. For me, this neuroscience fact has been life changing. Knowing it has enabled me to take responsibility for my automatic thoughts and change them.

Let me elaborate. When you’re feeling stressed, it’s because you have negative thoughts unconsciously running in your head. These negative messages are being whispered to you by your ‘critical inner voice’, ‘inner critic’, ‘gremlin’, or whatever else you want to call it, triggered into action by your limbic brain which has sensed some kind of danger and released cortisol into your body.

 ‘What now then?’ I hear you asking. 'How can I change my thoughts if they are unconscious?'

There are 4 steps to learn and practice. These 4 steps will change the way you respond to events and thereby handle your stress. You will feel less at the mercy of events, more relaxed and happier.

Consciously listen into your critical inner voice at trigger moments.
Step 1 is to consciously listen into your critical inner voice at the moments when you experience a stress trigger so your unconscious negative thoughts become conscious. Why? Because when you are aware of them you can change them and step free of the effect of your inner critic.

I’ll run you through an example using one of my trigger moments.

I return to my desk from a meeting and look at my screen. I have 21 newly arrived emails. They are in bold as they are ‘unread’. It’s a trigger.  I breathe in sharply. I feel a tightness in my chest, neck and shoulders. I feel panicky. My heart starts to beat faster. I feel stressed. 
I think ‘oh god, I shouldn’t have all these new messages. I’ve only been away an hour. I can’t do all this. I can’t cope. It’s too much.’  I notice I can’t think straight. I can’t work as I can’t concentrate – my mind is too busy. 

Sound familiar?

Yet, these are only the top few lines of what your inner critic is telling you. There are deeper, more vicious messages it’s whispering to you which you won’t notice until you learn to listen in.

How do you listen in?

Here’s a tool, which I learned from the personal development charity ‘More to Life’. You relive the moment of your stress reaction in your mind’s eye, which enables you to hear the unconscious talk of your inner critic.

Here’s how. Have a pen and paper ready.
Select a specific moment you had a stress reaction to. Close your eyes. Now go back in your memory to that moment and see yourself there again in your mind’s eye.

Imagine you are re-playing a video of how it was at the stress moment. Go back and forth in the video of your mind’s eye until you get to the video frame that is the ‘trigger moment’ – the precise moment when you were triggered and feel stress. Freeze that frame.

In my example, the trigger moment I freeze frame is when I looked at my screen, saw 21 bold emails, and felt panicky.

For you, it may be when you hear someone say something or you see a certain expression on someone’s face.
When you are at the ‘trigger moment’ and have it ‘freeze framed’, relive the moment again in your mind’s eye. Take time to re-experience your stress feelings. It can help to take some breaths to amplify your feelings.

Focus on your feelings at the trigger moment and now use your feelings as the doorway into your thoughts.

Tune into your thoughts. What can you hear your mind saying? Write down what you hear.

Ask yourself these questions as prompts:

What is it I’m telling myself I have to do?
How am I telling myself I have to be?
What is it I’m believing about myself?

When I listened in to my inner critic at the moment I looked at my screen, I discovered my thoughts predicted catastrophic events and harshly criticised my value as a human being. They ran like this:
‘I’ll have to do all this or else I’ll get into trouble. I’ll be sacked. I’ll have failed. I’ll be out on the streets. I’ll starve. I’ll die. I should die. I’m useless. I don’t deserve to be alive.”

Was it any wonder I felt stressed?

What are your inner critic thoughts?
Challenge the thoughts of your inner critic
Step 2 is to challenge the thoughts of your inner critic (which is why you write them down at step 1).

Examine each statement very literally. Ask yourself this question: is it fundamentally 100% true?

I’ll show you how by working through some of my inner critic thoughts:

“I shouldn’t have all these new messages.”

Is it fundamentally 100% true that I shouldn’t have all these new messages? No, because the fact is, I do have them. That is the reality. I may prefer for them not to have arrived but that’s a preference which is different. I cannot control whether other people send me emails.

“I can’t do all this.”

Is it fundamentally 100% true that I can’t do all this? No, the fact is I am a fit and healthy adult and I choose to do what I do, and it takes the time it takes. The sense of ‘all or nothing’, having to ‘do it all’ with no other option is the interpretation of my inner critic. I could choose to go home and never reply to the 21 emails. My life doesn’t depend on me dealing with the new emails. I have a choice.

“I’ll be fired”.

Is it fundamentally and 100% true that I’ll be fired? No. I cannot predict the future. There are many possible outcomes and it seems very unlikely I’ll be fired as a result of getting 21 new emails.

Go ahead, examine and challenge your inner critic thoughts very literally. You will find they are nearly always nonsense and false.

By challenging the thoughts of your inner critic, you will be able to reframe them and step free of them.
Physically shake off the effect of your inner critic
Step 3 is to physically shake off the effect your inner critic has just had on you. By which I mean the stress feelings in your body.

In my example, I felt tight in my chest, neck and shoulders.

So, in step 3, I let the stress out of my body.

I go somewhere quiet and private, such as the toilet, then stamp my feet and shake my arms while imagining the stress flowing out of and away from my body through my fingers and toes. I like to imagine the stress running off and away like water. A client imagined her stress flowing out of her as red paint. Sometimes, I shout – either out loud or under my breath - to further expel the stress. When I’ve physically let go of the stress, I feel a ‘shift’ in my body. I feel looser and my mind is clearer.

Now it’s your turn. Physically let the stress out of your body in a way that makes sense to you. Continue to physically let go until you feel a ‘shift’. You will know when you're done.
Reframe your thoughts more positively
Step 4 is to reframe your thoughts more positively. I like to imagine I’m my own benevolent mentor talking with myself.
In my example, rather than my critical thoughts:
‘oh god, I shouldn’t have all these new messages. I’ve only been away an hour. I can’t do all this. I can’t cope. It’s too much. I’ll have to do all this or else I’ll get into trouble. I’ll be sacked. I’ll have failed. I’ll be out on the streets. I’ll starve. I’ll die. I should die. I’m useless. I don’t deserve to be alive’.

I reframe them as: 
‘So you have 21 new emails, Jo. You decide when you want to open them and what you want to do with them. It’s a chance to delegate more to your team, to empower them more. You have lots of help available to you. You get to decide’. 

For me, this is a very empowering mind set. I feel calmer, more in charge of myself (rather than being at the mercy of my emotions). I'm able to make a sensible decision and carry on working.

So go ahead. Reframe your thoughts positively.

When you have decide on your next step.

The tool I’ve just taught you consists of four steps. Here they are again: 

1. Listen in to your critical inner voice
2. Challenge the thoughts of your inner critic
3. Physically shake off your stress feelings
4. Reframe your thoughts more positively

Can you see how you can use your stress to become more resilient? And in turn get more of what you want in your life.  

To really get the full benefit from the tool, you'll need to practice it.

What you are doing here is re-programming your neural pathways, and research shows it takes on average 40 days to break an old habit/ create a new one so stick with it. 

It really is possible to learn to manage and step free of your critical inner voice. I’ve done it and there’s nothing unusual about me. With practice, your inner critic will become quieter and your stress will be more fleeting. 

Is your stress a sign of something else? Do you want to re-assess your career and life but don’t know where to start? Click on the image or button below to grab your inspiring free guide - my Rethink Your Life Toolkit.

This Toolkit will get you unstuck! Inside you get my 7 step Rethink Your Life system that I use with my clients, and you learn the 7 questions you need to ask yourself to create a career and life that's more balanced and fulfilling for you. Click on the button or image below and get your free Toolkit today. 
About Jo Maughan
Jo Maughan is the founder of YourThinkingPartner. Her first career was as a FTSE 100 Tax Director. After suffering a fall and a significant brain injury, she overcame her fears to follow her calling as a coach and artist. She is now living the life she was meant to live, inspiring successful mid-life professionals at or near the top of their careers to rethink their careers & lives for more balance, fulfillment, purpose & joy. She and her clients use her 7 step system 'Rethink Your Life'. Jo is also a sought after speaker and is currently writing her first book.
Career coach, Jo Maughan, in a red coat, smiling.
Quite Interesting....
  • 50-80% of people in the western world are unhappy in their jobs. Don't let this be you!
  • Your mind takes just 1/12 of a second to interpret something and jump into its automatic thought pattern.  
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