As a native of New Jersey, it was required that I watch — and enjoy — The Sopranos. If you’ve never seen it, the highly acclaimed TV series chronicled the daily struggles of an Italian-American mobster as he tried to juggle the conflicting responsibilities of his home life and his criminal organization. One of the central relationships the show so deftly portrayed was that between Tony and his therapist, Dr. Melfi.
You see, Tony had stress — a lot of it. He suffered from panic attacks brought on by the anxiety one tends to have when running a dangerous business, conducting multiple extramarital affairs, and avoiding the law, all while keeping up the duties of a husband and father. It’s not hard to imagine how he ended up popping pills and seeking therapy.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show, in my opinion, was the constant theme that perhaps the biggest threat facing Tony wasn’t the feds who were looking to prosecute him or the fellow mobsters who were after his job. It was stress.
And while most of us can’t relate to Tony’s taxing situation as mob boss (at least I hope not), we do experience the effects of stress. Much has been published on the risks that stress can pose on both physical and mental health, including a Yale study which found that in addition to affecting physiological functions in the brain that can contribute to hypertension and diabetes, stress “actually reduces the volume of grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with self-control.”
The good news, however, is that stress can be managed — and not just in the short-term. According to the Yale research, “the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors,” meaning that we can implement techniques to train the brain to handle anxious situations more effectively.
Of course, that brings up a pretty big question: how does one relieve stress? There are the obvious answers, like getting enough sleep, learning to delegate responsibilities, maintaining a positive outlook, and disconnecting from work at the end of the day (or week). And then there’s another one.
In a recent LinkedIn article, TalentSmart President Travis Bradberry offered an interesting suggestion. One of the ways top performers beat stress, he said, is by never asking, ‘What if’. He believes that ‘what if’ statements “throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control.”
It’s an interesting theory, and is similar to the basis of Socratic questioning, a method used during cognitive behavioral therapy to help those with anxiety learn how to more effectively deal with distressing thoughts. In this practice, patients are taught to challenge illogical thoughts and consider other possibilities by asking questions like, “Is this thought realistic?” “What is the evidence for and against this idea?” “Is there another possible conclusion?”
For example, if someone says, “This idea is never going to work,” he would try asking himself, “How do I know that? What evidence do I have that it will fail?” Instead of asking “What if it doesn’t work?” people learn to ask, “What if it does?”
A friend of mine who works as a counselor has seen surprising results with patients who use the Socratic method. As long as they practice it often, it can change the way they think, she has told me.
Although this practice certainly isn’t for everyone, it does show that we can rewire our brain — at least to a certain extent. It’s just one of the weapons that can be used to control stress. And that’s what it’s all about — not eliminating it, but keeping it at bay.
Because you do not want to end up like Tony.
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