What causes you stress? What stresses you out? Take 1 minute to free-write around 10 things that come to mind when you thin about stress in your life right now. Do it as quickly as you can so you cut out the middle man (your brain) and go straight to the heart of the matter.
Now take a look at the list. How many items on the list are 1. External, 2. Internal or 3. Both?
Lets take a look at a list of some common stressors that have come up in my workshops:
Fear of failing (Internal)
The demands of my family (External)
Daily commute to work (both)
Feeling negative towards myself (internal)
Feeling overwhelmed (internal)
Loss of sleep (Internal)
Meetings at work (external)
Feeling Angry (internal)
So there are a couple of reasons to do this exercise. First it’s just a quick way to own what you are currently struggling with — taking your stress pulse as it were. The first step in improving anything in your life is of course to identify the issues at hand. Secondly by looking at the list and working out what is happening inside of us and what is happening outside to us we can see the issues a lot more clearly. I often use this technique in a slightly different way with high school students facing anxiety and panic attacks. In this case I get them to draw 2 circles one large and then a small one inside the first. In the smaller circle they write down all the things they are anxious about that are in their control and in the larger circle are all the things that are outside of their control.
I found this exercise has an immediate effect of putting into perspective all those things that you can actually have an influence on, that you can tackle yourself, whilst leaving all those other things to one side, knowing that you cannot have any immediate affect on them anyway. The first thing to work on of course is the internal or the things inside our locus of control. Anxiety about other peoples relationships, the state of world politics, the price of Bitcoin or your parents deciding to move house are all things you have little or know influence upon, yet much of our stress is based around these kind of things. This is energy better utilised to work on the internal or both items on your to-stress list. Always repeat the Air Hostess Mantra, “Place the oxygen mask over your own mouth before assisting others” — without working on yourself, you will not be able to play relationship counsellor to a friend or run for politics and make the world a brighter place (why do you think politics is in the state it is — not enough of them do the internal work, they just focus on external issues and play God whenever they get the chance.
The items on your list that are both are interesting too. Like the ‘commute to work’. You do not likely have the power to change the traffic lights , the amount of traffic, roadworks or the poor driving skills of your fellow commuter — but of course your own reaction to all of these things is completely within your control. Your choice whether to bang on the steering wheel and role your eyes in furious wonder at how ‘know one except me understands what a slip road is designed for’, or to sit back and relax and listen to some chilled out tunes, catch a Ted Talk or learn Indonesian and smile at your future memories of your holiday to Bali.
The main purpose of this exercise is to understand that much of our debilitating stress is happening inside of ourselves rather than happening to us. What is inside is much more in your control — so this is the natural place to begin your journey towards a life less governed by negative stress.
If you feel brave comment below with what was on your list — even better let us know if you started with something you were convinced was external but after a little reflection now see it as internal or both.
As usual enjoy the journey and until next time have your best week.