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Cognitive Strategies to De-stress


Here is a simple question: do you choose to take control, or are you a passive victim of stress?

“Stress arises when demands exceed an individual’s perceived ability/capacity to cope with those demands.”

This is a definition of stress by Palmer and Cooper that I think is helpful. The word ‘perception’ is key, here.


To reduce stress, we must choose our response to challenges. Of course, if we can change something that is uncomfortable, that is helpful. But where we are unable to change the situation, we need to change our reaction to it. Our Individual mindsets means that people react differently to the same event based on how they view it. That gives us control – to view situations in a more helpful way. The circumstances do not cause our reactions (that would make us passive). Instead, we can use cognition, our thoughts and beliefs, to determine our reactions to those events. How self-aware are you? Do you choose to take control or become a victim of stress?


“The last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Victor Frankl


We know that the brain has a negativity bias. It is hard-wired to look for risk, and as it is safer to assume harm, the brain tends to over-estimate threat and under-estimate opportunities. But this can paralyse action; we need to be aware of our mindset and over-ride unhelpful responses.

We have to accept that life can be uncomfortable (and yes, that will feel like an under-statement at times), but that is ok, and to be expected. Good wellbeing is not about everything being rosy and feeling great all of the time. It is about awareness and strategies to manage what is going on. And when we can’t take control of events, to respond in a helpful way. Mark Adams of Aspen Psychology Services captures this well in his adapted definition by Neenan:


“Resilience comprises a set of flexible, adaptive behavioural, cognitive and emotional responses to change, challenge or adversity.”


Being a realistic optimist increases resilience. In contrast, being stuck in a cycle of negativity diminishes our wellbeing and can increase stress. What is interesting is the natural pull to bad news and re-playing negative situations. When we consider events in the world today, we realise there is much to feel stressed about, if we let it.


Reducing stress is about increasing our self-awareness and doing things differently

Here are 8 cognitive approaches for you to consider, on your own or within your team. Each suggestion is followed by a question for you to explore and discuss. Thinking about these within your team or individually can help develop trust, increase control and reduce stress.


Approach Consideration/ discussion Outcomes – what will you take from this exploration?
How much time are you spending focused on problems or negative events?


What are you wanting to get from information channels that leave you feeling flat, whether that’s via the news, social media or other sources? Is it helpful? Does it drive positive behaviour or just leave you with a low mood?


Create positive expectation to help your brain look for evidence of good, and take action, to overcome the negative bias.


Ask yourself or others what you did well. Or, what you will do differently next time to improve the outcome. Or what you can do to help the situation.


Label your feelings to create momentum to identify solutions. Avoid settling with the most obvious name that comes to mind; try to dig beneath that. Are you feeling stressed because you are overwhelmed, or because you are anxious? When you can identify the root cause, it gives you a point to plan action to create a different response. You have a choice – do you hold onto unhelpful emotions or use them to take action?


Keep asking ‘why’ to peel away the ‘excuses’ until you get to the reason that something is a problem, or feels stressful. Then identify what you can change.
What is your thinking style? Explore whether your thoughts are helpful or standing in your way. Ask others to help you reframe your language so that opens up different interpretations. Maybe ‘always’ is ‘sometimes’. Maybe the evidence suggests something different? Maybe there are other possibilities? This will help your emotional arousal reduce.


Do you use pervasive language such as ‘always’ or ‘never’? Do you catastrophise? Do you consider the evidence behind your beliefs or do you jump to conclusions? Are your beliefs logical?
Use your observing self: If you were looking in on yourself, what would you say needs to happen to change the stress? Adopt a scientific approach; what are you noticing about your body language, tone of voice, sleep, relationships and so on? Does the data you collect look ok or do you want to change that?


What would others around you say? Ask them. Does the feedback sound ok or something you want to change? Does it mirror what you think or is there a disconnect?
Focus on your internal locus of control. If you’re not sure what to do, remember the words of Anna in Frozen 2: “All one can do is the next right thing.” A plan does not have to be perfect. The ‘What ifs’ can stop us taking the first step. What is important is to do something positive that will make things better. Anna proves to be a wise young woman. She also says of others, “You are not responsible for their choices.” Sounds simple yet we often get caught up by what is not in our control and outside of our responsibility. We need to disengage from that; boundaries are helpful to let go of unhelpful emotional responses.


What is causing you stress at the moment? What are the things that you can do differently to make that better? What do you need to let go of? Rate the factors in order from no-complete control. And then start making the changes, exploring different possibilities with trusted others.
Give yourself permission to stop and be grateful for what you have that is going well. We are programmed to be self-critical in a world that is about driving productivity and cramming more into the day and being everything to everyone.


What are your values and how well do your behaviours align and support those?
Be authentic. Many people feel the need to live up to expectations that they create around their job title or role. But trying to fulfil a phantom identity is exhausting and creates stress. We are happier when we are us.


What do you believe you are expected to be in your role? What do others expect? How will you know that you are ‘good enough’?


If you are serious about reducing stress, you need to be serious about creating the space to explore these concepts, consider what they mean for you, have conversations with those around you, and commit to taking control of your reactions.

The smallest of pebbles creates ripples, and so do the smallest of first steps.


“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”

 – Arthur Ashe


Be clear about who you are, what control you do have and how you can influence your wellbeing. Be conscious of not being a victim. Instead, be intentional and shape your feelings, thoughts and behaviours to create the sense of you that you feel happy with.

  • Feeling stuck?
  • Want someone to facilitate a conversation or workshop about stress?
  • Have a different perspective you’d like to share?

Drop me a line and let’s create some ripples together.