02/04/2013 01:00 am ET Updated Apr 05, 2013

I Think, Therefore I Am... Stressed

When Descartes asserted, "I think, therefore I am," he resolved an important philosophical riddle of his time. In its original context, his logic asserted that the very act of thinking proves to us that we exist; it's how we know that we are active participants in our lives, rather than passive subjects of some illusion.

This concept gave me a changed perspective as a young philosophy student, and I think it can be helpful in bringing a fresh perspective to the problem of stress. Were Descartes writing about this contemporary riddle, he might have said, "I think, therefore I am stressed." Our thoughts, I'd argue, do more than just confirm our existence. They also determine how we exist. They are the link between what goes on around and inside of us. It's not just that we think, but what we think, that makes us who we are. Those thoughts are a big part of what makes us stressed and can provide a valuable insight into how to manage our stress response. If you're intent is to learn how to stress less, getting in touch with your thoughts is key.

So my third meQuilibrium tenet is:

Observe Your Thoughts and Question Them Often.

I think you will find this a more practical and enduring solution than relaxing when you are stressed. Here's how.

Throughout your day, thoughts run through your mind as on a ticker tape. Some are fairly straightforward -- I absolutely cannot hit the snooze button again, I need to remember to buy milk, the credit card bill is due tomorrow -- but others are more subjective and perhaps more influential upon our emotional state. Thoughts are blended with emotions, so what might at first appear to be an objective observation is actually the combination of an event and the emotion we apply to it. More often than not, we apply some emotional filter to our experiences and interactions, and these filters are a big part of what makes us stressed. It's not what happens to us that is inherently stressful, but how we respond to it that makes it stressful. If we can start to understand the emotions associated with our thoughts, we can begin to control our responses and avoid or escape the resulting stress.

Let's consider an example to see how this works. Say you interviewed for a new job and are waiting to hear whether you've been hired. Two or three days have passed since you expected to hear any news, and you're starting to wonder what gives. You might have any one of the following thoughts: I knew this was too good to be true; they probably found someone much more qualified; I wish I hadn't told my friends I was up for this because it will be so embarrassing when I have to tell them that I wasn't picked; not calling after three days is impossibly rude and unprofessional; or I'm doomed to be unemployed forever. Or you might just experience one or more emotional reactions to the situation that increase your discomfort as you wait. When combined with shame, embarrassment, anger or frustration, the situation becomes much more difficult to bear, and the tension you feel casts a pall over everything else you're doing, perhaps making you unproductive or irritable in other areas of your life.

In general, our emotions can fall into one of the following categories:

Sadness: a thought about loss ("I failed to cash in on a great opportunity")

Anger: a violation of rights ("I deserved that job")

Guilt: violating someone else's rights ("The longer I stay unemployed, the more I'm letting my family down")

Anxiety: a future threat ("I'll never find a job as good as this one would have been")

Embarrassment: loss of standing with other people ("I can't believe I have to tell people I didn't get this job")

Shame: falling short of your own standards ("I thought I could do better than this")

I'm not suggesting that you can just snap your fingers and stop having thoughts like this, but if you can learn to recognize these types of thoughts and feelings, you have a much better chance of being happier (and less irritable and more productive) in the moment. I'm guessing they will make you more likely to get the job, too.

Learn to trap it, map it and zap it

So the lesson here is to observe your thoughts and question them often. If you make this a practice -- say, by stopping whenever you find that something really rubs you the wrong way and trying to identify the underlying emotion and thinking style -- I think you'll find that it's a lot easier to escape a trying moment and keep things in perspective. If you can trap your emotions and map them back to the underlying thoughts in order to examine whether they are valid or not, then you're more likely to zap the stress that resulted and get on with your day.

This is one of ten posts about living stress free.

Past posts:

Recharge Each Day for Optimal Use
Life Can Be Thrilling, Not Stressful

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

For more on stress, click here.