I’m going to talk about stress in this article which you may find odd considering that I am a communications specialist. But it’s a common misconception that communication is exclusively with others. Talking to yourself is also very, very important especially if it’s a little voice that tells you to hurt kittens.
But that’s not my field.
The internal dialogue is fundamental to who you are, because who you are is all about how you react to stimuli. Actions begin with thoughts “This guy is pissing me off and I’m going to punch him!” then punching him, all the way to “This guy is pissing me off and I’m going to punch him!” then going off to whine on social media. How we rationalise the world determines how we behave and how we behave determines what we do and what we do determines how people treat us. The way you deal with your own perspectives is at the heart of how you deal with situations and others. Plus at its core is another internal dialogue methodology, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which I know has helped a lot of people adjust their rationalisation and behaviour to the outer world and thus live better lives.
Now, some of you may be yelling at the screen saying NO David, it’s inner monologue, NOT internal dialogue! Google Inner Monologue and you get pages of results, google Internal Dialogue and you get tumbleweed! But I think dialogue describes it better. I think of communication in transactions and you need two to have a transaction, right? Your instincts are telling you that there is danger and you need to fight or run, your higher brain is telling you that there is a way to benefit or help someone else. We are continuously negotiating with ourselves, figuring out what is going on around us. And, to some extent our transactions with social media are internal dialogues because we tend to cherry pick (often the algorithms do it for us) the responses that fit our narrative, but that’s another article. So, when I say dialogue, you know I’m talking about inner voice or inner monologue with that added dimension of weighing up two sides.
Now, stress occurs when external pressures cause internal anxiety. I’m going to get a bit semantic now but go with me. So cause means as a direct result of something, the reason for something. So if you add fire to petrol it will ignite, if you throw a glass at the floor, it will break, if you bring water to freezing point, it will become ice, right? But if you put Marmite (google it if you have to) under my nose, I will go nuts for it, but you may not. Put someone in front of a 300-strong audience and many would feel physically sick, I would not, I would feel fizzy. External pressures do NOT cause emotional responses, they trigger them and we have the choice to be triggered or not. This is part of what we call emotional intelligence. And freeing yourself from the belief that something caused you stress or someone caused you offence is liberating and allows you to decide what you are going to do with that someone or something.
So, how do you do that?
Good question and one that months of therapy will only scratch the surface of but I’ll get you on the right track. The idea that stress is a new modern touch screen disease is wrong, stress is a primordial mechanism for survival, and as there are much fewer existential threats nowadays it’s more of a wisdom tooth function of the body, not really necessary and a pain when it comes out! But it exists and maybe for one reason, to overcome it.
Stress is so old that we have evolved a new part of the brain since getting it! It is here that we can find the solution to stress management. Dr Matthew Lieberman et al 2007, studied the effectiveness of a stress management technique which is devilishly simple. The idea is that strong emotional triggers fire up the amygdala which is a primitive part of the brain. This happens to ready you for a fight or flight response, adrenaline. How adrenaline achieves this is by rerouting valuable bodily resources to the parts of the body that need them most, arms legs and the parts of the brain that do fast instinctive or intuitive thinking. This is the system 1 thinking popularised by Daniel Kahneman, I say popularised because the concept is really old, Descartes discussed it and he’s been dead for ages! So, you know those times when you just can’t seem to think straight? This is probably because you are in the middle of mind-bendingly frustrating argument with your partner and just want to frying pan them to death and throw their lifeless corpse into a skip! This is almost always to do with an over-activated amygdala although it is sometimes because the only reasonable course of action is to frying pan them to death and throw their lifeless corpse into a skip. This is often called an Amygdala Attack, the prior not the frying pan scenario. So, what you need is to come out of the amygdala and get into system 2 thinking. One of the parts of the brain that does this well is the part that processes language, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Lieberman concluded that RVLPFC and amygdala activity during affect labelling were inversely correlated, a relationship that was mediate by activity in medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC).
Didn’t I say that it was devilishly simple?
Basically, Affect Labelling is naming your emotional response. Simply using words will ease the panic button response and help you to see reason (allowing you to more proficiently use the frying pan and find an available skip).
Let me give you an example
You have a crucial meeting with someone who gives you the creeps, you are getting anxious and that anxiety is starting to reverberate in your head reaching critical mass. You feel anxious, your pulse is racing telling yourself that you are going to make a complete arse of yourself in the meeting… and you probably will. Each ping pong of that thought is taking you deeper into amygdala attack, the thought becomes a feeling, becomes a ball of negative energy that has locked up the smart system 2 thinking you in a dark room, you feel around the walls and all you find are the tally marks scored into the wall from all the other times this has happened. And, the mad screaming voice outside is in charge!
The key to the door
Now label that feeling, be as specific as possible stressed is not good, it’s too simple, too generic, use a word like anxious, confused, frustrated, frightened, discombobulated, trepidatious. The mad screaming voice will knock on the door and ask the system 2 thinker what these words mean. It will not be able to process this vocabulary. Then you hit it with a question, why do I feel this way? The mad voice will unlock the door and let you free.
You will, in as much specific detail as possible answer this question. Actually, doing it out loud to someone is best but you can just talk to yourself.
I told you it was devilishly simple
Now, this will not make the circumstances go away, you will need to deal with the creep but you will do it more reasonably, more rationally and hopefully more successfully.
Using this method when you find yourself in acute overwhelming situations will become more and more effective as you become more and more proficient.
It takes practice. It can also be used for various chronic negative, debilitating emotions like guilt, confusion and helplessness. You will need to repeat the method when things get unbearable.
Try it and let me know how it went.
It can be used on others as well, to make them react to you more rationally but I’ll cover that in another article.