The key to stress-free living
“The greatest weapon we have against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”— William James, the father of modern psychology
The quote demonstrates the immense power that we have in our minds, but don’t use. In fact, most of us are not even aware of this power.
We know when we are in highly stressful situations, we are unable to perform at our best and several of our mental abilities get compromised. Our limbic system (the part of our brain that generates emotions) is ruling our actions, while our Prefrontal Cortex (the thinking, reasoning part of the brain) isn’t given a chance to come forward to perform. Some of the functions that get compromised are:
- Critical Thinking & Decision making: We are unable to weigh the pros and cons of the situation and therefore the decision making is compromised
- Logic: Rational problem solving is a task of a calm mind. When we are stressed, we are incapable of deductive or inductive logic.
- Inability to focus: When we are under-going excessive stress, our mind will keep wandering. As soon as we begin a task, it will go to the cause of stress. Research has suggested the 47% of times human mind is wandering. When we are stressed, its even more.
- Thought racing and negative spirals: Often we notice that when we are stressed, we keep imagining the worst possible outcomes of every situation.
- Forgetful and Disorganised: Because we are constantly focused on the stressor, we tend to overlook important details of the task at hand.
Stressful situations will occur as long as we live. How do we ensure that we maintain inner peace so that we can function better? In the times of crisis or stress, how do we exercise the power of our minds to choose. Make that choice of a calm rational action over the irrational action which is not dictated by the limbic system. What can give us this mental strength to choose the right emotion in the time of stress?
It is our mental wealth.
What is this mental wealth and how do we accumulate it? Just like the wealth in our bank accounts doesn’t get accumulated in a day, similarly, our mind also doesn’t build this mental wealth instantaneously. This is something that we need to build a little every day. When the moment of crisis occurs, we can make a small withdrawal from this wealth and choose the right emotion at that time, so that we can ride the wave of adversity with a powerful mindset and come out stronger. Let’s understand what this wealth is and how we can acquire this mental wealth.
Here are the four basic tenets of our mental wealth.
- Tenacity: If there is one thing that I could teach my children, it would be tenacity or grit. It can be defined as our ability to get up and restart every time we fail. It is said that failing is necessary for succeeding. Most of us cannot succeed without failing a few times. My favourite example is Thomas Edison. He failed 1,100 times before he finally got the light bulb to work. Successful people have failed a lot more. They just find it in them to get up again. The trick is that when we fail, we get up. We fail again, we get up and keep going. With every successive try, the resilience level will go up.The trick to build this would be to set up very clear goals when making the next attempt. Then have a plan and a schedule to meet those goals. When you fail, think about the key learnings you will take. Get someone (who is knowledgeable in that area) to give you feedback. Be ruthless with your rigour in your next attempt. Be very sharply focussed when re-attempting.
- Optimism: This simply means we get into situations expecting positive outcomes. It is a scientifically proven fact that when life gets tough, our optimism helps us deal with problems in a better way, while lack of optimism will make us avoid problems. If we look around, we will notice that the most successful people have an optimistic demeanour. The reason is that they choose to handle the problem and therefore get a better chance at succeeding. When we assume the outcome will be positive, then we see adverse situations as short-term blips, not something cataclysmic, so we are more likely to strive harder.This has also been called ‘Law of Attraction’ by some. When we visualise our success, we are programming our subconscious to believe in positive outcomes and hence our efforts have more strength.
- Confidence: Self-confidence is attained when we know we are proficient in what we do. It is achieved by practising a task till it becomes our second nature. Let’s take an example, if I am asked to sing, my confidence will be low. However, if I am to give a lecture in psychology, my confidence will be very high. The reason is because I study and teach psychology regularly.Another aspect about confidence is this. When we see Sachin Tendulkar hit a big six that wins the match for India. We stand up and applaud him. We say “Oh what a genius” or “he is really a champion”. What media is showing us this that one great moment of glory. But what we have completely failed to notice this that he practiced for tens of thousands of hours before he could demonstrate that skill.Therefore, the confidence with which he hit that shot only came from developing skill with constant practice.
It does not really matter, what is the area in which skill is required to be build. The answer for everything is practice.
- Enthusiasm: Bringing enthusiasm into whatever we are doing makes the journey joyous. The chances of success increase automatically. Enthusiastic people are happier and enjoy their success.Enthusiasm means that we are going to do the task with passion. Trying to achieve excellence in that task. And not be worried about what the outcome might be. Will we get rewarded, will we get more money for it. None of those. We could call it – doing it ‘for the love of the game’. Zest as an emotion is a game-changer that makes us engage with everything at a far deeper level.
To sum up…
It’s a proven fact that having these four positive emotions increases our chances of success manifold, not just at work, but in life. All these four traits demand to be practised in our everyday schedule so that whenever a stressor comes up, we are ready to face as well as beat it. When we are able to constantly choose the Action, Feeling and Behaviour with tenacity, optimism, confidence and enthusiasm, we constantly accumulate mental wealth. No matter what situation the world or personal life brings before us, this wealth will carry us through.
Shruti Varma is a Counselling Psychologist. She is a Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania Alumnus. Having held several leadership positions in various MNCs, Shruti is a leading Counsellor, Coach and Trainer in Emotions Management and Emotional Intelligence. Having been a practitioner of Yoga, she combines Yogic Sciences in her Counselling practice, Coaching as well as Trainings.