The Question That Ends Stress

Stress and fear are biologically linked. Biologically, some form of fearThis image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is canstockphoto19365276.jpg must be present for the brain to fire off a stress reaction. Science has found that most of the stress reactions we modern human beings suffer from have little to do with a real and present danger, like a bear in a campground.  Stress is largely the result of perceptions or rather misperceptions of a threat that is not there. Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky states:

“We humans generate all sorts of stressful events purely in our heads. We can experience wildly strong emotions, provoking our bodies into an accompanying uproar, all of it linked to mere thought.”

Thus, we can dissolve a stress reaction by penetrating the thoughts behind our stress reactions. We can do it by asking a simple question: What am I afraid of? I once conducted this exercise one-on-one with a prominent corporate lawyer who attended a training I presented. I’ll call him Andrew to protect his anonymity. Andrew was in litigation with another attorney representing a large corporation. He perceived his opponent as unethical, using words like crook and shyster to describe him. The opposing lawyer infuriated him, and Andrew was taking it home. He thought about it incessantly, lost sleep over it, and bored his wife with the base details at dinner. His wife was growing weary of hearing about it. As his stress level increased, Andrew began to lose his edge and make bad decisions. He came to the training desperate for techniques that could restore his power and allow him to pummel his adversary.

What Are You Afraid Of, Andrew?
I asked Andrew, “In this situation, what are you afraid of ?” Losing, was his answer. What are you afraid of if you lose the case? I asked. Looking like a fool, he said with affect. What’s the fear of looking like a fool? That I will lose my reputation. What’s the fear in losing your reputation? Losing my clients. What’s the fear in losing clients? Being asked to leave the firm. And what’s the fear under this? That I will end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street.

We then delved into each of his fearful thoughts, asking if he knew 100% for certain that each thought was true and would become reality. It is not worth the debilitating effects of stress hormones on the body, mind and brain unless we are 100% sure we are in that much danger. Not one of his fearful thoughts passed the 100% test. They were all lies fear was telling him that his anxiety believed. Believing made these fearful thoughts appear as facts instead of emotionally charged thoughts producing an overreaction. Often, as I read back the fear statements to participants, they laugh. Some of the answers are hilarious. Of course, what is not funny is the brutal way this storyline operates unconsciously, behind the scenes. The flashes of fearful images and negative self-talk erode every ounce of confidence and optimism.

You can perform this exercise yourself. Here’s how: Take out piece of paper and draw a line down the middle, dividing it into two columns.

  • Close your eyes and bring to mind a stressful situation that occurred recently.
  • Tune into this stressful situation. Experience it again. Make it real. As much as possible, make it as if it were happening all over again.
  • Now ask yourself: in this stressful situation, what am I afraid of?
    When you have your answer, write it down in the left column, keeping it to one sentence or a phrase.
  • Next, reference back to the previously stated fear, asking yourself: what am I afraid of if this happens? For example: say that your first fear is I am afraid that people are judging me unfairly. In that case, the next question would be phrased: if people judge me unfairly, what am I afraid of?
  • Write it down in one sentence or a phrase.
  • Repeat the process until you have identified five or more fears or until you feel complete.

The next step is to inquire if there is any real basis to these fears. Return to the first fear on your list. Ask yourself: Am I 100 percent certain that this thought is true? Not in part, but 100 percent? If not, refute it with a more realistic statement. One by one, inquire into each fear statement, until you have inquired into all of them.
Let’s take the example of Andrew again. Here is how his worksheet looked after inquiring into each fearful thought (clarification in italics).

  • The fear of losing the case. Clarified: I have not lost the case yet. There is still a chance to win.
  • The fear of looking like a fool. Clarified: I am not a fool. I’m a competent lawyer who has served his clients well in the past.
  • The fear of losing my reputation. Clarified: I’ve made my bones. I am regarded as a respected litigator in this county.
  • The fear of being asked to leave the firm. Clarified: They are planning to make me a partner.
  • The fear that I will end up pushing a shopping cart down Main Street. Clarified: I have always made enough money.

I asked him which scenario was closer to the truth: the fearful one or the one that refuted his fears? He said the latter. And which one, I asked, feels positive and less stressful. The answer was obvious. I asked Andrew, which of these two scenarios did you choose to believe when stressed? This answer was obvious as well. What was not so obvious when Andrew was stressed was the fact that it was he, not the other lawyer, causing his stress.
Once you have refuted the fears on your list, ask yourself: who would I be without these fearful thoughts? Write down your answer on a separate piece of paper. Post what you write where you will see it periodically over the next week. This is what Andrew did, and he quickly got his mojo back.