Improving Stress Tolerance by Letting Go

Sep 18, 2019 | Change, Stress

The illusion of control

Much of life is beyond our control. But sometimes we stress ourselves out thinking we have control when we don’t.

We spend time and energy worrying about what may or may not happen, or regretting something that has already happened.

How often have you worried about what another person will do, how an event is going to unfold, what you did or said yesterday, or even what the traffic or weather will do?

And that’s likely the tip of the iceberg.

Of course it’s natural to be stressed about what the future holds, or to have some regret about the past. But if you really think about it, how much of this is something that you can actually do something about?

Why we forget we don’t have control

Why do we fool ourselves into believing we have control when we don’t? Essentially, we want to feel like we can do something about that which is likely to cause us stress.

When we consider the brain, this makes perfect sense. The brain’s number one job is to keep us safe. In order to do that, it is constantly trying to predict the future so that it can steer us toward physical and emotional safety.

But sometimes the brain can go into overdrive on this, spending energy predicting, planning, or worrying about a possible future that we can’t control.

And sometimes the desire for control leads us to ruminating about the past, blaming ourselves for something that went wrong – as if we had only done X, Y or Z, we could’ve or should’ve prevented that thing from happening.

Lost in our own thoughts of regret, self-blame or shame, we forget to recognize that in fact we have no control over what has already happened! And no amount of rumination will change that fact.

Still, when we spend time and energy on worry and rumination, the brain wants us to DO something to relieve this stress.

Stress and worry in the brain

Whether we are stressed about the future or the past, the response in our brain and body is the same. Sensing a possible threat (physical or emotional), the adrenal glands produce stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that get us ready to take action.

The heart races, our breathing gets faster, muscles tense, we may sweat. And the limbic brain, home of the amygdala and the fight-flight response, gets activated.

Clearly, stress makes the body and brain want to DO something, even when there may be nothing to do.

In addition to the stress response, a particular brain network is active when we’re worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. This is called the default mode network (DMN).

And sometimes we can get stuck in the DMN too long. While the DMN is associated with mind-wandering, insight and creativity, it is also associated with worry and rumination.

When we’re not actively directing our thoughts and actions, when we get lost in future worry or past regret, we are in the DMN.

Research shows that an overactive DMN is related to catastrophizing, self-doubt and blame, and even clinical depression. So it’s no wonder that getting stuck in the DMN, worrying about a future that we can’t control or a past we can’t change, is exhausting.

OK, OK, but what the heck can we do about this?! There’s no point in stressing if it’s beyond our control!

Have no fear (or worry). We can rewire the brain, so we CAN do something about it.

And when we do, we stop wasting our energy and we improve our stress tolerance.

7 steps to improving stress tolerance by letting go

Here are 7 steps to improving your stress tolerance for what you cannot control.

1. NOTICE. First, you must notice when you’re stressed, worried about the future or ruminating about the past. In the very moment of noticing, you bring yourself to the present moment and out of the DMN.

As I recently heard Jon Kabat Zinn say, “The future is made of countless present moments.”

2. ASK. Second, ask yourself what about this situation, this worry or regret, is within my control?

3. CHOOSE. If something is within your control, if you can actually affect a situation or outcome by doing something, then consider the possibilities and decide on a course of action. Of course, make sure your goal is do-able. (You’re not going to change the political system by yourself.)

4. ACCEPT. If there’s nothing you can do about the situation, then accept that. Release the struggle. If you’re caught in a powerful current, you’ve got to go with it to survive. If you swim against it, you’ll use up all the energy you need to stay afloat.

5. MINDSET. Even when there’s nothing you can do, you can always change your mindset about a situation. What’s a positive mindset that might be true for you? For instance, rather than catastrophizing a situation, can you perhaps admit that you don’t know what the outcome will be, can you be curious, or can you see it as a challenge?

6. BREATHE. Whenever possible, just breathe and bring your mind to the present moment. Being present will not only help your stress, but also take you out of DMN.

7. REPEAT. Keep noticing when you get stuck in the illusion of control. Again, just by noticing and not following the worry or rumination, you will improve your stress tolerance. But be kind to yourself and patient. We do not rewire the brain overnight, but with practice.

As Dan Siegel says, “Where attention goes, neural firings flow, and neural connections grow.”

And that is how we can improve our stress tolerance for something we can’t control… until one day, there’s nothing to tolerate because we simply recognize there’s no point in getting stressed!

Photo by Rodolfo Cuadros on Unsplash


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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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