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Stress Management and Flexible Thinking

Updated: Oct 30, 2020

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.

-Lao Tzu

One of the most common themes that I notice in my counseling and coaching practice is that of black and white, or rigid, thinking. This pattern of thought is not about intelligence, all of us are prone to this, particularly when we're really stressed or in survival mode. This makes quite a lot of sense to me; nuanced thinking requires a great deal of headspace (time, energy and attention) and when our resources are taxed by stress or desperation, we simply don't have the space for more flexible thinking. This presents a conundrum: flexible thinking allows for much better, more creative problem-solving, but the the resource that we need the most during a crisis to do this is in the shortest supply. The more stressed we are, the more we tend to think in imperatives and absolutes. "I have to..., I must..." This means that practicing stress management is really important during a crisis because it will help us to increase the availability of these resources to solve problems more effectively. My goal as a CBT therapist is to help the clients I work with find more nuanced ways of thinking through challenging unhelpful beliefs and negative self-talk. In this post I will lay out some of the ways that you can practice doing this.


I am trained as a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) therapist, so I often help clients frame issues and problems in terms of dialectics. The definition that I am using for dialectics, for the purpose of this post is: two concepts or ideas that appear at first glance to be contradictory, but upon closer inspection can be reconciled. One of the most common dialectics that arises in therapy sessions is the belief that a person can't be a kind and compassionate person and also have boundaries, when it is in fact possible for these two states to peacefully co-exist. Another very common dialectic, that's really at the core of the therapeutic process is the dialectic between change and acceptance, therapy almost always involves a tension between change and acceptance.

We engage in therapy for two reasons: to change something we're not happy with and/or to come to terms with something that we cannot change. Typically both of these processes take place over the course of therapy. Often when a person comes into therapy they are seeking to come to terms with a trauma or loss that they have experienced, something that has already happened that they can't change. This is a completely reasonable goal, but in the course of processing the trauma or loss clients will often also need to redefine their identity; something that can be changed. I tell clients who have been the victims of abuse or crimes: We aren't defined by the things other people do to us. This can be a powerful thought for someone dealing the the emotional fallout of being victimized. it gives power back to the victim. The acceptance piece of the equation is acknowledging the pain, hurt, and loss. Acknowledging that we are changed to some degree through our experience. The change piece is recognizing that we still get to be in charge of who we are and how we respond to this experience. Viktor Frankl's message to us in Man's Search for Meaning is: While we cannot always control the things that happen to us, we are the only ones with the power to assign meaning to these events. This brings me to another very common dialectic: internal locus of control vs. external locus of control.

Locus of control refers to our perception of who or what controls our experiences, whether this control is within us or outside of us. Most of the clients that I have worked with have an internal locus of control, which means that they often believe they can or should be able to control not only their own actions, but also external experiences that effect them. I occasionally encounter a client with an external locus of control, or the belief that they are completely at the mercy of other people or the whims of fate, but most people seem to gravitate the other direction. Identifying a balanced and realistic locus of control is a core task of therapy, because the reality is that some experiences are within our control and some aren't. The actions, decisions, and perceptions of other adults, never within our control and therefore not our responsibility. Our own actions, decisions, and perceptions, absolutely within our control. The messages that we receive from our families, peers, and the media, not within our control. The weight or meaning/attention we give to these messages, within our control. We cannot control the things that other people say to us, be we can control whether or not we choose to accept these messages as truth. Self-talk and emotional responses are tricky; we have a measure of control over these, but they are also impacted by experiences outside of our control. What we do have control over is when and how we choose to attend to these.

To illustrate this: as I write these blog posts and restructure my practice, I'm noticing that I'm experiencing a great deal of negative self-talk. Shame and insecurities are screaming at me. If I knew how to stop this negative noise I would, but I don't know how to do that. What I do know is that it's really normal to experience more shame and negative self-talk when we're learning something new or trying something unfamiliar, when we're taking chances. Think about any new skill or activity you've learned as an adult, did it feel like everyone was watching, waiting for you to fall or make a mistake? If so just know that they probably weren't, but that self-consciousness is completely normal and unfortunately gets stronger in adulthood. We live in a culture that heavily punishes mistakes, rather than rewarding efforts to try difficult and unfamiliar things. I would love for that to change, that's why I'm writing about it, but for now here we are. My task is to accept that shame and insecurity are going to be louder because I'm doing something that's so far outside of my comfort zone. I'm a very introverted person, so putting my thoughts and experiences into a public forum is not something that I'm at all comfortable with. What I have control over in this situation is how much attention I choose to give my negative self-talk. Choosing not to attend to it doesn't make it go away, but it does turn the volume down.

I believe that this experience is fairly universal. I recently attended a Wine, Women and Tech event hosted by General Assembly in Denver. One of the panel members, a software engineer, described the discomfort she experienced transitioning from an experienced Marketing professional to an inexperienced software engineer. I could very much relate to this. I'm very experienced in my role as a counselor and coach. I've been doing what I do for a lot of years now. Writer, not so much. I subscribe to the saying though that: in order to become good at something, we have to be willing to be bad at it first. A big piece of what I'm hoping to accomplish with this blog is to teach more flexible ways of thinking and perceiving, in service to promoting more kindness, compassion, and risk taking because this is how we grow and connect with others. To me, this is really what life is about. I would love to hear your experiences. What dialectics do you hold? How do you decide when to turn the volume of an experience up or down? How do you assign meaning to experiences that you have had, good or bad?

The concepts and experiences that I write about are always a culmination of interactions with clients, books I've read, trainings attended and practicing what I've learned in my own life. If you would like to learn more about dialectics, finding meaning in experience and self-talk, I encourage you to take a look at these books:

Unfu*k Yourself by Gary John Bishop. This book is a humorous look at the way that our self-talk impacts our beliefs and ability to accomplish our goals.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived internment in a number of Nazi death camps over a period of three years. Frankl's Theory of Existentialism was informed by his experiences in the death camps, and observations he made of other survivors. I believe that this story can have great significance for anyone who identifies as a survivor.

Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder by Marsha Linehan Ph.D.; This book provides an in-depth look into use of dialectics in changing unhelpful ways of thinking and perceiving.

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