iCope Blog

How To Stop Panic Attacks

When stress gets out of control it can lead to a “panic attack.” These can be frightening experiences, especially when it happens for the first time. These are unforgettable experiences because there is a very heightened physiological reaction with considerable anxiety and sometimes even a fear of death while in a panic state. It is not unusual for someone with a first time panic attack to end up in the emergency room of a hospital because these can feel like a heart attack.

If you have ever had a panic or anxiety attack, we do have some good news: these can be treated successfully with a variety of techniques depending on the severity of the problem. Fortunately, for most people who have ever had a panic attack, these are infrequent episodes that are not likely to cause any major social or medical problems. A combination of the skills taught in the iCope books and possibly medications for those who have had several panic attacks will provide a successful approach to preventing and managing these intense experiences.

If you have had one or more panic attacks that ended up with a visit to an emergency room, it would be wise to get a medication evaluation from your family physician or a psychiatrist. There are some medications that can be quite helpful. One approach is to use a mild tranquilizer on what is called an “as needed basis.” In these instances, you only take the medication when you feel that a panic attack is pending. Even if you rarely need the medication, having it readily available provides a sense of security even if you never have to take the pills. A second approach with medication is to regularly use one of the anti-depressant medications that help keep the neurotransmitter serotonin at the right level, which tends to have a calming effect over time. This seems to help decrease panic attacks, especially if the person has generally high levels of emotional arousal. In some cases, your doctor might prescribe both types of medication.

The strategies that we will discuss in more detail below are the ones that go along with the iCope methods. These are the specific steps to use when you are trying to prevent or short-circuit a panic attack. However, if you take some of the preventive steps to increase your resilience to stress in general, this will help minimize any vulnerability to panic attacks. As you will see below, relaxation skills, rational self-talk, and proactive problem solving will all be helpful in controlling panic.

KEEP THE PANIC IN PERSPECTIVE

From a psychological perspective, it helps to remind yourself that even though these attacks can be very scary, they do not mean you are in a life and death situation. As indicated above, when someone has their first panic attack and does not understand what is happening, they often go to their doctor or an emergency room as a safe guard. If you have done this, and your doctors have reassured you that you are having a panic attack and not a major medical problem, then you will be better prepared to keep any future panic attacks in perspective.

What does this all mean? Well, you would want to remind yourself of certain things if you are experiencing a panic attack, or beginning to sense that a possible attack might occur soon. You want to remind yourself that although scary, “there are things I can do to short circuit the panic.” Even if you do experience a panic attack, these are typically short time-limited experiences that often end within 30-60 minutes. Our bodies literally get exhausted and the panic eventually has to stop, even if you do nothing about it. Try to remind yourself that a panic attack will typically be a short-term event.

FOCUS ON YOUR BREATHING TO RELAX

When a panic attack begins, our breathing changes. We start to breath faster and take shorter shallow breaths. This creates a cycle that can lead to hyperventilation where the faster you breathe, the less oxygen you actually get into your body. As soon as you feel stress increasing and begin to fear a pending panic attack, one simple thing to do is to focus on your breathing. Just as described in the iCope books, take a few slow deep breaths and hold them for a while before breathing out slowly. A good pace is 4-5 seconds to breathe in and 4-5 seconds to breathe out. After that, purposely slow your breathing and try to take slow deep breaths until you feel calmer and more in control of your arousal. This will begin to short circuit the production of adrenalin and other stress hormones and allow you to relax. For added practice when you are NOT trying to control a panic attack, try to use the 5-minute mindful meditation exercises, which can also help as a preventive strategy.

TALK CALMLY AND RATIONALLY TO YOURSELF

Actively talk to yourself in order to reassure yourself that you will be okay. If you have had any prior successes with short circuiting panic, this is the time to focus on that previous success. Say positive things like:

I’ve handled these in the past and I can get through this.

I am not in danger and my goal is to just slow down the high arousal.

 Let me focus on slowing my breathing. This is something I can control.

This might take a little time, and even though I hate this, I can manage it.

Avoid any catastrophizing, which exaggerates your panic and will only generate more adrenaline and stress. If you say things like “I’m going to die,” or “this scary feeling will never end, you will actually fuel more anxiety. If you happen to have a prescription for a mild anti-anxiety medication, remind yourself that you have this backup “insurance” available. However, whenever possible, try to stop the panic if you can without the medication. This will build your confidence should you ever be in a situation without medications.

MAINTAIN YOUR SENSE OF CONTROL

Psychologically a panic attack is challenging because it makes us feel out of control. The more out of control you feel, the worse the panic will be. In order to combat this, you want to have some ways to remind yourself that you do have some control of physical and emotional arousal. Your first defense will be remembering to change your breathing. If you can change this, you have direct evidence that you have some control of the situation. Your next step is to think about what steps you can take to gain even more control. Think of options you can use to take more control when panic is building. For example, some people find that being active like going for a walk in or around your home, office, or school can actually help you feel better. Simply getting up and going to get a drink of water might be helpful. If you are driving, and if it is safe to pull off the road, do that and focus on your breathing or listen to some music in the car until you feel back in control. The main point here is to generate some proactive problem solving steps and think of behavioral ways that you believe will help restore a sense of control. Then, when you begin to have any signs of panic building, use those steps to give yourself more control of the situation. This will be a much better approach than waiting until you are in a panic attack to do your problem solving at that time.

SUMMARY

When you feel panic building or find yourself in the midst of a panic attack, try to do the following:

1. Keep your physical and emotional reactions in perspective. Remind yourself mentally that you know what to do to manage your panic attacks. Expect that this will be a time limited situation lasting on the average of less than an hour.

2. Take a few slow deep breaths. Remember, a good pace is 4-5 seconds to breathe in and 4-5 seconds to breathe out.

3. Adjust your regular breathing pattern into a pace where you take slow deep breaths rather than rapid shallow breaths.

4. Use positive and rational self-talk about what you are doing to manage the situation. Remind yourself of any prior successes in handling panic and look at this as a practice exercise to get more skilled at short circuiting panic. You will get better with practice.

5. Avoid feeling out of control. Maintain your awareness of all of the things you can do to keep the panic under control. Remember to use your problem solving alternatives like taking a walk, getting a drink of water, talking to a friend, or even taking your medication if needed.

If you continue to have difficulty with panic attacks after trying these strategies and you have not already done so, contact your doctor or a therapist through your health plan or EAP. Most psychologists are familiar with treating panic with various strategies, but they cannot prescribe medications. You can also read the book iCope: Building Resilience Through Stress Management, which can help you learn to manage stress more effectively and indirectly prevent panic.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

Resilience Factor: Self-Esteem

Although the term “self-esteem” is a very general term, most of us have a pretty good idea of the concept. As you would expect, it is better to have generally positive self-esteem, which can help us in many ways, including our thoughts/opinions about ourselves, our emotions, our behavior, and our social life. As you would expect, all of these areas can be affected in a negative way by low self-esteem. This is important because low self-esteem will cause greater stress, and improved self-esteem will enhance your overall resilience to the negative effects of stress.

COGNITIVE FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM

Three psychological or mental habits can erode self-esteem: negative labeling, rejecting positive feedback, and making unfavorable comparisonsIf you regularly give yourself negative labelsuch as “loser,” “unattractive,” or “failure,” this will definitely affect your self-esteem. If you hold on to those labels, new life experiences like doing poorly in a particular class /job assignment or having a relationship end will then strongly reinforce the label or self-image. Holding onto a negative label forces you into an all-or none view of yourself. If you hold onto any negative labels, you need to begin challenging the basis of those specific beliefs as soon as possible. As discussed in a prior blog, you can use rational self-talk to counter various negative labels as an “irrational or unhealthy belief.

The second psychological habit is rejecting positive feedback, which can be a mental habit as well as a behavioral habit. Individuals with low self-esteem psychologically filter out positive comments or feedback because it does not fit with their perception of themselves. Behaviorally these individuals react to positive feedback or compliments by discounting them, saying things like “oh, I was just lucky,” or it wasn’t that big of a deal.” If this is the case for you, you want to start accepting positive messages. It’s much better when complimented to say something like “thank you, I appreciate that,” or “it was nice of you to say that.” Try to practice both mentally and behaviorally accepting positive messages from others to enhance self-esteem.

The third mental habit that is damaging to self-esteem is making unfavorable comparisons between yourself and others. From a rational perspective, it is important to recognize that all of us can find others who are “better” with respect to certain qualities. Think about Labron James, Lyndsey Von, etc. Who could compare themselves favorably to these elite athletes in terms of their skills in their sport? However, comparing yourself to others is not the best measure of your self-esteem. It would be irrational to think that you could compare favorably to everyone else on all or even most of your personal qualities, not just athletic skill. Each of us has to do our own inventory of our strengths and begin to value those areas in which we are satisfied, proud, and genuinely positive. None of us can be perfect, but each of us must learn to recognize our qualities that are positive and strive to correct those that fall short.

BEHAVIORAL FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM

The cognitive factors discussed above focus on belief systems and mental habits that can damage self-esteem. Behavioral factors focus on things you are doing or not doing that make you disappointed with yourself. Although none of us is perfect, it does not mean that we cannot improve in certain behavioral ways if this is important to our self-esteem. For example, if you have very few hobbies or extracurricular activities, and this limits your confidence or social contacts, you could identify some behavioral changes that could improve this. You could learn a new skill (e.g., playing chess, bowling, shooting pool, taking a dance, yoga, or acting class, etc.) that might open new social opportunities. If you are not very athletic and if playing a sport would improve your self-esteem, participating in a sport by taking lessons for an individual sport (e.g., tennis, golf, karate) or taking a chance on a team sport in school or at your company (e.g., softball teams, bowling leagues, or biking or ski clubs) could be a positive step. However, you do not even have to participate in a sport to deal with any lack of athletic skills if that is what affects your self-esteem. You could accept the fact that you are not athletic using cognitive coping skills, and focus on doing something that is more meaningful and positive to you. You could become a volunteer at a community organization, learn to play a musical instrument, or join an after-school club or work group even though these have nothing to do with athletic skills. Many community organizations like Habitat for Humanity can provide great opportunities for your involvement. The main behavioral point here is to do positive and meaningful things that enhance your self-esteem. Resilience is often directly related to finding and establishing these meaningful activities throughout our lifetime.

SOCIAL FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM

In addition to the cognitive and behavioral factors that can enhance or hinder your self-esteem, social factors also play a key role in your self-esteem. Being accepted by others is likely to enhance both social skills and self-esteem. Although it is irrational to strive to be loved and accepted by everyone, it is imperative to find and nurture some healthy social relationships. Learning the skills for positive well-balanced relationships is a key task to start developing as early in life as possible. It is important to keep in mind that the quality of friendships, not quantity is most important. It would be better to have one or two really close friends and a handful of good relationships than to be elected “prom queen” or “captain of the football team.”

Sometimes shyness or social anxiety will be a barrier to establishing these needed social relationships. If this is the case, you would want to find safe non-threatening activities or good environments to spend your time around others who have similar interests. If you avoid too many social opportunities, you will not be able to make the social connections that can then lead to positive relationships. As mentioned above, getting involved in making some behavioral changes in your lifestyle will involve getting into these social environments and overcoming some of the social anxiety you might feel. Take small steps if necessary to build your confidence to expand healthy social networks.

In summary, our self-esteem is very important to your overall well-being in many ways. For resilience to stress, avoid the mental traps and irrational beliefs that limit your confidence and self-esteem. Take charge of the things about which you are dissatisfied and change your behavior whenever possible with reasonable goals and expectations of what you can change and what “imperfections” you need to accept about yourself. Since your social life will be an important factor in self-esteem, work to improve your own skills and develop the willingness to take the reasonable but necessary risks to expand your social network to a level that is right for you. These cognitive, behavioral, and social skills will be extremely helpful in many arenas throughout your lifetime. Improved self-esteem will definitely improve your overall resilience to whatever stressors you might encounter.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

Using Rational Self-Talk to Defuse Stress

In a prior blog (Thoughts that Cause Stress) I discussed how certain mental habits and specific beliefs can actually increase our stress in very powerful ways. For the past 50 years psychologists have researched the best ways to change these stress-inducing mental habits and beliefs. These methods, which are sometimes called “cognitive restructuring,” require a few steps. The first step is simply becoming more aware of which habits and beliefs are causing you the most stress. You can improve your awareness by periodically reviewing the prior blog’s description of the major habits and beliefs that are likely culprits in increasing your stress.

When you become more sensitive to the fact that your thoughts and beliefs about a stressful event can magnify your reaction, you can begin to diffuse any irrational or negative thinking. These types of thinking patterns which are probably going on throughout your daily activities are likely to be somewhat automatic and unconscious. However, you can become more aware of them by asking yourself some basic questions whenever you notice that your stress level increasing in certain situations. For example, when an event occurs that increases your stress noticeably, ask yourself what you are thinking about the situation. What am I telling myself? Is this stressor triggering any of my irrational beliefs? Are some of my stress producing mental habits such as catastrophizing or focusing on the negative kicking in?

Blank Stress Analysis Charts can help you become even more aware of your stress producing self‑talk, which in turn will allow you to change it.

Make several copies of the charts, and whenever you notice a significant stress reaction, record your thoughts and your reactions in the left column. You then try to challenge the stress‑producing irrational thoughts with more rational self‑talk. As you get in the habit of noticing any of your irrational or negative thinking, you will be able to begin to learn a new language. This language produces less stress because it keeps things in perspective ‑ it keeps us more rational. This new language is represented on the right hand column of the chart. Here, truthful thoughts and statements about the stressful event are likely to be more rational and positive. Many of these statements directly challenge and dispute any irrational thoughts that were identified. This does not mean that tragic, painful, or upsetting situations will feel good. However, what it does mean is that the event will not be made any more stressful than it has to be.

The key goal here is learning a new way of thinking ‑ essentially learning a new language. Our old language that magnifies stress can be so strong that it will take a lot of patience and practice to learn the new one. Just as if you were learning a foreign language you would go through stages where the translation process is awkward and cumbersome. You have to consciously think of the correct way to say something and then translate from one language to the other. This is also true with learning how to talk rationally to yourself. Over time, you will begin to speak fluently with a rational dialog if you continue to practice. However, anyone who has taken a foreign language in school will recall that when it was not used regularly we could barely speak that language. You will need to use the language of rational self‑talk regularly in order to be successful in developing this coping skill.

A QUICK REVIEW

Here are a few general reminders about talking rationally to yourself. When you notice uncomfortable stress, take a few seconds to think as rationally and positively as you can.

  • What is making me so stressed?
  • It is probably not as bad as I think.
  • I’ve handled situations like this before.
  • I can calm myself and feel better later.

If these thoughts are not controlling your stress effectively, try to get more practice using the disputing and challenging skills on the Stress Analysis Charts. Make your statements specific to the exact stressor you are facing. Again, the goal is to keep things in perspective so that your stress is not exaggerated unnecessarily. Remember you are still going to feel some emotional reaction, especially if this is a significant event. This skill can become a powerful psychological tool that can be used anywhere, anytime.

You now have a major technique for mentally or psychologically controlling your stress. Remember these general principles of the cognitive methods covered in this blog:

  • Talk calmly to yourself when a stressor occurs.
  • Try to keep the stressful event in perspective.
  • Reassure yourself of your improved abilities to manage stress.
  • Avoid catastrophizing, maintaining unreasonable expectations, and focusing on the negative.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

Building Resilience Through Mindfulness Exercises

One popular strategy to enhance resilience to stress is “mindfulness training,which focuses on improved self-awareness, better attention skills, and deeper relaxation experiences. Research on mindfulness training methods has found numerous positive effects, including several improvements in health which suggests that this approach could provide a significant boost to overall resilience. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, describes this as a way of purposely and non-judgmentally paying attention in a particular way to what you are experiencing in the present moment. He and many other researchers have published extensively over the last 30 years on the benefits of mindfulness training.

In the most general terms possible, mindfulness training teaches us to pay attention to whatever we are experiencing. We all tend to tune out a considerable amount of mental information throughout any given day. In essence we go on “auto-pilot” as we engage in many activities. Many drivers will admit that when they are driving their cars, they can think of times when they would be miles down the road and suddenly be aware that they had not paid attention to what they saw or did over the prior few minutes – sometimes for many miles! Similarly, how common is it that we rushed through eating a meal and did not pay any overt attention to what we tasted or experienced in other ways during the meal? Some would call this “mindless” behavior versus a healthier “mindful” pattern. It has a been a cliché for many years, but the notion of “stopping to smell the roses” captures the essence and importance of what mindfulness encourages.

One way to understand this is to try to focus your attention (mind) on what you are experiencing right now. For example, if you closed your eyes and began to focus on your breathing, you would pay attention to the sensations, movement, and physiological reactions that you experience. Here, you would not want to judge the experience, such as: “Oh wow, my breathing is too fast or too slow.” You would just try to attend to your experience. A moment earlier before you focused on your breathing you were not even aware of each breath you took.

In mindfulness training you learn to become aware of your sensations and feelings, but want to avoid making any judgment about that experience. For example, if you focused on your breathing, you would not want to be thinking something negative like: “There must be something wrong since I cannot get calm or relaxed doing this.” Prior to this brief exercise you would be breathing without any conscious awareness or judgement of it. During the exercise you would become “mindful” of the breathing experience. Again, the purpose of mindfulness is to focus your attention on the experience in the present moment without judging it in any way. A potential, and very beneficial, byproduct of mindfulness is that when we focus attention on a current experience, we cannot be worrying or thinking about past or future problems. Obviously that could be helpful for dealing with certain sources of our stress. This may account for the general sense of “well-being” reported by many of those who go through mindfulness training programs.

Some of the basic exercises in mindfulness training are aimed at teaching a form of meditation to help you learn how to focus your attention. In this process, people can learn to achieve deep levels of relaxation. This part of mindfulness training clearly would help you with two of our iCope skills – self-awareness and physical relaxation. However, mindfulness training is much more than just relaxation training. You could practice mindful eating, walking, taking a shower, sitting at your desk, etc. Athletes, musicians, artists, and stage performers have used mindfulness training to enhance their health, relationships, productivity at work, as well as their performance skills. You can read many success stories of mindfulness training within professional sports teams. A recent web search for “mindfulness training in professional sports” produced over 8 million hits.

Here is a basic exercise that is often taught in most mindfulness classes:

This is quite different from the relaxation exercises in a previous blog where you were asked to focus on something like a word or a visual scene. In mindful breathing you are simply focusing your attention on the act of breathing and noticing what that experience feels like. It is described here, but if you have access to the internet, listen to a sample recording of the instructions that will definitely enhance the experience.

Get into a comfortable position, sitting up straight in your chair, or lie down if you prefer. It is helpful if you close your eyes during this practice, but if you do not feel comfortable doing that, you can keep your eyes open. Begin to focus on your breathing, paying attention to each breath as you inhale and exhale. You can breathe in and out through your nose if that is more comfortable, or inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.

As you settle into your mindful breathing, simply pay attention to what you experience. Notice any sensations throughout your body. It also helps to pay attention to how your breathing is being done. Check to see if you are using your belly as you breathe in and out. Using your belly (actually your diaphragm) does seem to help with relaxation. If you put your hands on your belly, you most likely will feel your belly expand as you breathe in and it will compress when you exhale. Sometimes emphasizing this type of breathing feels even more relaxing.

Focus on your breathing for about 4-5 minutes. A normal and expected part of this exercise is that you will find that your mind will wander. Your breathing will serve as an “anchor” to return to when you get distracted. You might start thinking about other things, typically from the past or things you need to do in the future. Noticing aches, pains, and physical sensations, or paying attention to sounds around you is also likely to happen. Again, this is normal and to be expected. You simply want to catch yourself when your mind drifts, and try to re-focus gently back on your breathing. Remember, this is a non-judgmental experience so there is not a good or bad experience. This exercise will give you a little sample of what mindful breathing is like. Try to do this at various times throughout the week to see if it leads to a sense of peacefulness, relaxation, or well-being. Regular practice is recommended for some of the health benefits of mindfulness training. Our website has links to some sites that have lengthier breathing exercises recorded.

Here is another easy exercise which only takes a couple of minutes at home:

Get a pleasant aromatic hand soap such as lavender or any other pleasant smelling one that you prefer. Wash your hands for two minutes in fairly warm but not hot water. Try doing this with your eyes closed, and as in the breathing exercise, focus your attention on whatever sensations that you experience. After 2 minutes, open your eyes dry your hands and see if you feel just a little more relaxed. Aside from getting good mindfulness practice by doing this exercise on some regular basis, is the physiological fact that warmer hands go along with the relaxation response and cooler hands typically indicate a stress response.

After you have had a little experience practicing these exercises, look for times throughout your normal daily routines where you can focus on your breathing and other activities, even if it is only for a minute or two. For example, if you drive to/from work you might practice your breathing exercise when you are stopped at some of the red lights; or focus on your breathing for a minute before any breaks you take away from your desk at work. These little practice exercises will help keep your awareness high to look for other situations in your daily activities where you can become more mindful and spend less time being on “auto-pilot.” If you take a mindfulness class, which is recommended, your teacher/leader will work with you to increase the amount of time that you can devote to the basic breathing exercise and add many other exercises to improve mindfulness.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.

Thoughts That Cause Stress

When we encounter most stressors we mentally process them quickly like a computer. Many times this processing seems automatic and unconscious. Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to process stressful events in a way that magnifies our stress. What could be neutral becomes worrisome and stressful. What typically would create some distress now creates a much more intense reaction. Significant stress can then create panic. The adage “we can make mountains out of molehills” summarizes how we do in fact increase our own stress.

Some specific beliefs or values that we have learned in our culture from our parents, teachers, peers, and religious authorities, act as magnifiers of stress to some degree in just about all of us. Fortunately, we can change how we look at, perceive, or interpret situations so that we do not overreact to stressful events. Rather than magnify our stress, we can learn to filter out some of its negative impact on us.

We can separate these cognitive/mental factors that magnify stress into two categories: mental habits and specific beliefs.

MENTAL HABITS

Four mental habits are very common in our culture. First, you might catastrophize or make things seem dramatically worse than they really are. If so, you often see situations deteriorating or leading to tragic conclusions. You would tend to exaggerate and blow things out of proportion. A second mental habit is where you tend to see things in absolute terms. Do you think in an all or none fashion? If so, you would see things in black and white and have a hard time seeing the gray in between. This would lead you to “over-generalize” in response to certain events and your language will reflect this. Words like “never,” “always,” “everyone,” “no one,” and “impossible” are frequently heard. A third common mental habit is when we have a strong tendency to focus on the negative and tend to ignore the positive. If this is true for you, you may operate as if you have tunnel vision and your attention is likely to focus on what is “wrong,” “bad,” “terrible,” etc. You can easily spot flaws in people, places, and things. Your negative attitude may set you up to be dissatisfied, and to get angry or depressed easily. A final mental habit is having excessive expectations of yourself and/or others. Thoughts such as “I must” or “you should” frequently will run through your mind and your vocabulary. If these expectations are not realistic, you are likely to be disappointed in yourself and others.

These processes are like any other habits in that they are hard to break unless we are highly motivated to change them. However, even when we want to change these mental habitswe still need a good approach to be successful. These methods will be presented in detail in a future blog.

SPECIFIC BELIEFS

In addition to learning what some of your mental habits are, you want to increase your awareness of whether you are magnifying your stressors by examining your specific beliefs and attitudes. We all are likely to have some strong beliefs that can cause us additional distress The iCope books provide an expanded list of irrational beliefs and the effects these have on your behavior and personality. Below are just a few common beliefs that are likely to magnify our stress. See if you identify with some of these troublesome beliefs:

  • I must have love and approval of everyone who is im­portant to me.
  • I must be thoroughly compe­tent at everything I do.
  • The world should be fair.

These beliefs are described by most psychologists as being essentially irrational. This does not mean that the thoughts are “crazy,” but maintaining them will increase your stress. As such, they are major culprits in causing you more stress than you need to experience at any given time. It should be noted that these just happen to be some of the most common beliefs in our culture that are stress producing. Each irrational belief serves as a magnifier of stress, and it would be to your benefit to modify those beliefs. For some quick examples, more rational thoughts to counter any of the irrational beliefs above are listed below.

  • Instead of: I must have love and approval…

More rational thoughts would beI wish I could be loved and approved by ________, and it really hurts that I am not able to get that, but I can survive this. This is not a life or death situation.

  • Instead ofI must be thoroughly compe­tent at everything I do.

More rational thoughts would be: I try to do the best I can at whatever I do. If I am not perfect, or even fail, that is okay because this is how we learn. I am human and none of us are perfect.

  • Instead of: The world should be fair.

More rational thoughts would be: I wish the world was fair, but I cannot expect that in life. Bad things do happen to good people. No one promised me fairness, but it still can be upsetting when this happens to me. My challenge is to get past the “unfairness” and not let this interfere with other aspects of my life.

As stated above, you can buffer yourself from some stress by modifying any irrational beliefs. Fortunately, this can be done by learning to challenge irrational beliefs and talking to yourself in a way that helps break any mental habits or beliefs that are increasing your stress. “Rational self-talk” methods can be a powerful psychological tool that will be extremely helpful in managing your stress in the future. These cognitive restructuring” steps, which will diffuse much of the unwanted stress you encounter, will be presented in the next blog.

Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.