How to Handle Stress

Visits to a physical therapist seemed to do little to improve her mobility or relieve her pain. She became despondent and, ultimately, isolated—refusing invitations from friends to go to dinner or a movie or take a ride through our beautiful countryside. Sara was a candidate for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

Psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis first described REBT in the mid-1950s. Since then, Ellis's belief— that an individual's psychological difficulties often stem from erroneous assumptions and faulty concepts of themselves and the world—has become mainstream.

REBT is practical and action-oriented. Ellis describes it as "short-term therapy for long-term results." REBT stimulates emotional growth by teaching people to replace currently held attitudes, painful thoughts and feelings, and self-defeating behaviors with new and more effective ones. Thoughts or statements such as, "I'll never have a rewarding experience," may be true for a single day. However, repeating this thought for days, weeks, or months is erroneous thinking. It can lead to a belief pattern that supports the isolation.

Another pioneering psychologist, Aaron Beck, who developed a similar approach in the 1960s, describes his work as cognitive behavior therapy. Both approaches are collaborative. Patient and therapist challenge distorted, unrealistic, and unhelpful assumptions and beliefs to make them more easily subject to change. Encouraged by the therapist's skills, the patient identifies and attempts to change dysfunctional thinking, behavior, and emotional responses. Once these thoughts are identified, underlying beliefs can be modified.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of attending a series of workshops with Ellis. I observed his use of a series of intuitive questions to uncover the expectations and personal rules that were leading to emotional distress in an individual who had unresolved anger over losing her job. Ellis used a technique he called "disputing" to help the individual reformulate her limiting beliefs into more sensible, realistic, and helpful ones.

Ellis didn't dispute the anger itself—it was righteous under the circumstances. What he disputed, through questioning, was the underlying belief that the individual couldn't be happy unless the person who fired her suffered as much as she had. Soon the woman acknowledged that her anger was self-defeating.

I could perceive the relaxation she experienced as the stress-induced thought and feeling was tempered, setting the stage for her to move on with her life instead of dwelling on the incident. As the exercise ended she said, "this experience brings new meaning to the phrase, 'when one door closes, another one opens.'"

More recently, like him or not, Dr. Phil McGraw has used the phrase, "How's that working for you?" as he attempts to nudge his TV guests to overcome self-defeating behaviors. You can do this yourself by attempting to understand (writing helps) your own stress, belief, thought, feeling/emotion, behavior process.

This includes listing the payoffs you get and the prices you pay for engaging in the behavior. After that, it's also important to list the opportunities you miss when you choose the familiar, often unconscious, behavior pattern. Once you understand yourself, you set the stage for paying more attention to your options for healthy choices to respond and manage the inevitable stresses of life. Then you can take that road less traveled and, within minutes, experience soaring self-esteem.

Ellis surprised me when he ended the session I attended with a saying I first heard my mother repeat when I was young, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Easier said than done? Of course it is. Changing your mind is a choice. It's yours, and it is possible.

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Ronda Gates, MS, is a pharmacy grad who traded her white coat for a pair of athletic shoes and never looked back. Her health promotion business, LIFESTYLES, provides motivational speaking, program development, and fitness assessment services to support people making a lifestyle change. She has developed health promotion programs for many organizations nationwide. Visit for a complimentary subscription to Ronda's weekly email newsletter.
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