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Self-Care | Managing Stress

How to Manage Your Thoughts During Multiple Layers of Stress

The year 2020 has been quite a challenging one as we’ve found ourselves hit with one major stressor after another! It’s required higher levels of self-care, support for both ourselves and others, and compassion. Coronavirus was difficult enough to navigate all on its own; being quarantined, affecting our finances, our relationships, our means of making a living, very literally affecting every area of our lives including just walking out of our homes. But then we layer the fight for social change and riots and protests on top of the pandemic, and we’re exposed to violence and divisiveness everywhere we look - on the news, on all of our social media feeds. With all this negativity and tension surrounding us, how do we combat experiencing negative thoughts? How do we not allow these harmful thoughts to take over?

Art on Sweatshirt by: @jessrachelsharp

When we get stressed out, it’s normal for our thoughts to change. It’s been found that the average person has about 12,000 - 60,000 thoughts per day! These thoughts can be easily influenced by our surroundings, what media we’re taking in, who we spend our time with, and many other factors. The first thing to remember is that this is a very hard time, and you’re not alone in finding yourself with shifting thoughts. Negative or harmful thinking can be alarming and uncomfortable, but with such prominent uncertainty in our world today, it makes sense for us to be finding ourselves dealing with stress symptoms. Layering these national and global stressors on top of each other just deepens the potential for us to experience negative responses and reactions, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

Stress symptoms can be different for everyone and as you learn more about yourself through self-care, you’ll be able to find how you individually react to stress and what your needs are to counteract it, but negative or racing thoughts is a common stress effect and one we want to help you find ways to manage as we prepare to face continued tension.

In order to not let harmful thoughts take over when we’re surrounded by negativity, we must first be aware of our harmful thoughts. Once we become aware of these thoughts, we can later begin addressing them and using coping skills and tools to manage them, which we’ll talk about below. One of the best ways you can work on becoming aware of your thoughts is by consistently checking in with yourself! This can eventually become more habitual, but to start you can even set alarms on your phone to remind yourself to take a quick moment to check in with your thoughts and feelings and see what they look like. If you find yourself experiencing negative or harmful thoughts, the next step is to work on distancing yourself from them. One method for doing this is to imagine your mind is the sky and your thoughts are the clouds. In this sense, we observe our thoughts as they pass through our minds, but we don’t have to engage with them or become entangled with them. We can simply notice they are there. 

This exercise is one of the best ways to prevent harmful, negative thoughts from taking over because it gives you some space between yourself and your thoughts, which allows you to approach them mindfully and with intentional coping strategies, allowing them to pass like clouds in the sky rather than experiencing a spiral.

So to recap, let’s remind ourselves of the three things that will help us manage our thoughts under the layers of stress we’re collectively experiencing:

1. Awareness - become aware of your thoughts and the type of thoughts you’re having by regularly checking in with yourself. 
2. Distance - use a method of helping you become distant from your thoughts. You can try the sky and imagining your thoughts are clouds passing by, a road and imagining your thoughts are cars passing by, etc. These visuals can be very helpful!
3. Observe - once you can find some distance from your thoughts, begin to observe them. Remind yourself they are just thoughts, they are normal, and they are okay. Assure yourself they cannot hurt you and do not have to lead to further distress. 

Some language to use might be similar to:

A. I notice I’m having thoughts that make me fearful, I’m allowed to experience fear while knowing I am safe in my home. 
B. I notice I’m having thoughts about the violent things I’ve seen on my social feeds, it’s normal to replay these things in my mind. I’m going to distract myself with a chapter in my book.
C. I notice I’m having thoughts that make me angry, it’s okay to be angry about what is going on in the world. Who can I talk to about how I’m feeling?

Once you are able to observe your thoughts, the next step is to decide on a healthy way to manage those thoughts. This can be using a coping skill like calling a friend to talk, using a hobby as a distraction, writing in your journal, or any of your other coping skills that feel right for you. It can also look like a self-soothing method using your senses, such as taking a hot bath or a cold shower, sitting outside in nature or taking a walk in the fresh air, or curling up with a fuzzy blanket and a cup of hot tea or favorite movie. This is the part where we truly do the work to keep ourselves healthy during stressful situations - the part where we choose a way of handling our thoughts that is on the self-care spectrum rather than choosing self-destructive methods of coping.

We know managing negative thoughts can be a difficult and challenging task. Remind yourself that you’re not in this alone and that we’re all working on navigating these times together. Managing harmful thoughts is also something we don’t learn overnight, so be gentle and kind with yourself through this process and allow yourself room to grow and learn about your thoughts and how to care for yourself while experiencing different types of them. It’s always okay and normal to have negative thoughts, we just want to be proactive to prevent them from taking over our minds and lives and becoming unmanageable, this is what can lead to things like depression and anxiety and other common mental health issues. We’re supporting you as you learn how to handle your thoughts through these continued challenges we face, and we’re always working on finding ways to help you thrive!