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wellbeing 17 min read

4 mind traps causing you stress – and the simple way to escape

By USQ 03 Oct 2019
Glasses, pen and paper, torch and crystal ball icons

With 83% of Australian students suffering from stress (Hare, 2017), it’s clear that it can be hard to face the challenges of student life.

Most people think stress is something that simply happens to us, due to triggers and situations beyond our control. Even the terminology used to explain and visualise stress metaphorically describes stress as something that happens to our physical form. For example, we are stretched too thin, feel a great pressure weighing down on us, or are worn out from carrying a heavy workload. This way of referring to stress reinforces the idea that stress is happening to us.

However, the things we tend to blame for our stress, such as work, study, time or relationships, are not actually the causes of our stress. Rather, it is our own minds and the thoughts or stories that we tell ourselves that cause us to feel this way, and the things we tend to blame are actually triggers.

Dr Mike Evans, founder of the Health Design Lab, speaks of stress as a volume dial in your brain that can be turned up or down, and the management of stress as a skill that can be learned rather than a behaviour or attitude we are born with (Evans, 2012). Recognising that stress is a mindset is the first step toward effective stress management. Reframing the source of the pressure or stressful situation is a powerful tool that can lead to ongoing stress relief. You can think of these mindsets as traps you need to overcome, and to do that, you need some more tools in your belt.

Keep reading to learn how to get the tools you need to escape the four most common stress mindset traps you may fall into:

Illustration of person walking into rope trap

1. Trap: Negative filter

If you have a negative filter mindset, you are likely to focus on and exaggerate the negatives of a situation, ignoring the positive aspects (Stallard, 2018). For example, if you receive great feedback on an assignment, with just one comment outlining a mistake, you are likely to focus all of your attention on the negative comment without considering the other positive comments. This pattern of negative thinking can cause your self-esteem to suffer as your inner thoughts focus entirely on your perception of what you don’t have.

Scientifically, our brain is designed to focus on problems so that we can improve. Be aware that you will naturally do this, but focusing too much on the negatives just makes us suffer and increases stress. Celebrate what you were able to do and briefly consider the learning you can take moving forward.
Image of Carmen

Stop. Reframe. Escape.

As David B. Posen says, ‘the key to reframing is to recognize [sic] that there are many ways to interpret the same situation’ (Posen, 1995). Just like the age-old question, ‘Is the glass half-empty or half-full?’ the answer lies in your perspective.

Icon of glasses

To reframe your negative mindset, you need to consciously make the decision to focus on the positives of a situation as well. This isn’t to say you need to put on rose-coloured glasses and ignore any negative thoughts, but try to set the intention of having a more balanced view. To do this:

  • make a daily habit of noticing the things that are going well in your life, or, if you struggle to do this
  • ask yourself what a supportive friend might notice is going well in your life and write those things down.
If you look at what you have in life, you’ll always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough. — Oprah Winfrey
Illustration of person sitting under box trap

2. Trap: Overthinking

Thinking over a situation can be a good way to reflect, gain insight and learn from mistakes. However, overthinking (also known as rumination) a situation can cause you to doubt yourself and even those around you. You’ll know you are overthinking when you start to try and ‘read minds’, which is to assume what others are thinking or feeling towards you, and take non-personal aspects personally (Raghavan, 2018). This can happen when you’ve had an interaction with someone new, such as when you’ve entered into a group assignment, and maybe said something you wish you hadn’t. After leaving the situation you might assume that what the other person was thinking of you was negative, over-analyse their expressions, tone and body language, and replay the event in your mind to try and make sense of their reactions.
When we find ourselves overthinking a past event, it’s important to remember that we are emotionally reacting to the memory of the event and our own interpretation of what happened. Usually the actual event played out very differently, and we tend to exaggerate the negative.
Image of Charlotte

Stop. Reframe. Escape.

It’s hard to stop overthinking once you’ve begun, but here are three strategies to help you stop, reframe, and escape this mindset:

  1. Turn your overthinking into structured problem solving. If there is a problem that you continue to worry about, write it down and brainstorm as many solutions as you can think of. Once you have exhausted that list, work through the pros and cons for each of your ideas. From there, you can figure out the best solution to try and put it into action.
  2. Practise mindfulness skills to actively notice your thoughts and feelings and let them go (without following them). You can do this by refocusing your attention on one of your five senses when you start to notice these overthinking patterns emerging.
  3. Try writing down all of the thoughts that are a part of your overthinking story on a note pad you keep handy, and then tick them off each time you notice they pop back up into your mind.
Illustration of pen and paper icon
By using these strategies to challenge your natural tendency to overthink, you will be able to reverse your thinking habits from focusing solely on negatives to searching for a positive, which can reduce your stress levels. Remember: let go of trying to know what others think of you – after all, you aren’t a mind reader!
Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?” — Shannon L. Alder, Author
Image of person slipping on a banana peel

3. Trap: Polarising

The polarising mind trap means you tend to see things only in extremes, polar opposites or black and white (Grohol, 2019). This rigid thinking pattern can give you an all-or-nothing attitude towards your circumstances, which can be a danger to your stress levels, as your instinct may be to give up instead of persevering through your difficulties – which can make things more difficult in the long-run (Neenan, 2008).

In the context of study, you might start your semester off with a goal of attending all your lectures each week, but find that one week you miss one. Having a polarising mindset means that in this situation, you’d likely decide you may as well not go to any other lectures, since you missed that one and have already ruined your chance of achieving the goal you set yourself. This mindset creates an elevated level of stress because then, as a result of not attending all your lectures, you begin to fall behind in your work, and experience a lack of self-confidence in your capabilities, to the point where you feel as though you might as well give up completely. By viewing your actions from this ‘all or nothing’ perspective, you can see how quickly down the spiral you can slide, when it doesn’t have to be that way.

If we only focus on the good and bad, we miss all the beauty of the greys in between! Don’t count yourself out – each moment is an opportunity to try again.
Image of Carmen

Stop. Reframe. Escape.

Bring some brighter colours back into your thoughts by choosing to view your situation in a different light. If you notice you are having a polarising thought, ask yourself:

  1. Where is the rule written to support that thought? For example, where is it written that once you miss one lecture you might as well miss the rest?
  2. What do I want to stand for in the face of this setback? What action can I take today that will make future-me proud of the way I handled this challenge?
  3. What is a more realistic way of viewing the situation? For example, I have missed one lecture but I can catch up and get back on track.
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Although giving your all can help you to reach your goals, it is important to remember that small setbacks, or even bigger failures, don’t necessarily signal the end of your ability to achieve goals of any size along your study journey. When things start to become difficult or you make a mistake, the ability to reframe your mindset to view that mistake as only a small bump you can overcome, rather than a permanent road closure that stops you in your tracks, can make all the difference. Train your mind to persevere through these minor detours and instead ask yourself what you can learn from this difficulty. By reframing your mindset, you’ll be able to rebuild your confidence and continue to work towards your goals.

When things go wrong, don't go with them. ― Elvis Presley
Illustration of person stepping into hole

4. Trap: Fortune telling

Believing you know what will happen before it happens and making yourself anxious about what can feel like all-but-certain destined failure sets unrealistic expectations for yourself and often stops you from even starting a task (Evans, 2012). Here’s a classic fortune teller predicament: You may have failed a subject at university once before, so you start to convince yourself that because it happened once, you’ll certainly fail again. This leads you to not enrol, to avoid the inevitable future failure you’ve envisioned. This fortune-telling mindset is a trap set to stop you from taking risks and building resilience, which can stunt your personal, academic and professional growth. Becoming stressed by the thought of failure, your mind starts to concoct all the things that could go wrong to excuse yourself from trying – if you know it won’t work, why bother?
Predicting all the possibilities ahead of us is a natural reaction to risk and acts as our mind’s defence mechanism, designed to give us a false sense of control. It’s important to remember that we can’t control the future, but we can control what action and choices we make in the present.
Image of Charlotte

Stop. Reframe. Escape.

The key to dealing with this mindset is to take control of your thoughts. In response to the ‘what ifs’, ask yourself, ‘so what?’ If your mind gives you a worst-case scenario, come up with a plan to deal with that. Then, take the time to consider the most likely and best-case scenario – how would you cope with that?
Image of crystal ball icon
By reframing your mindset from a ‘can’t-do’ to more of a ‘can-do’ attitude, you can work towards setting goals instead of focusing on the potential ‘what ifs’ and often unlikely negative scenarios of pursuing that goal. When you are faced with visions of what could go wrong, instead, think about what your success could look and feel like. Remind yourself that you will never know for sure what the future will bring, without giving it a shot – you don’t have a crystal ball, after all.
Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future but from wanting to control it. – Kahlil Gibran, Artist, Poet and Writer
Illustration of people giving high-five

Stress is recognised as one of the main factors affecting students’ studies (Pascoe, 2018), so if you find yourself stressed and trying to juggle a study load along with everything else going on in your life, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone! By understanding what mind traps you tend to fall into and learning how to reframe your mindset, it is possible to reduce the impact stress has on you and increase your ability to do well at uni.

Stress is a normal part of our lives and sometimes it can even be helpful if we keep it at the right levels. Learn what you can expect from your stressed self so you can manage your stress effectively; or, if you feel like you might benefit from professional support to cope with your stress, make an appointment with the student Health and wellbeing team for support.

Reference list:

Evans, M. (2012, June 9). 90:10 The single most important thing you can do for your stress [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6402QJp52M&feature=youtu.be.

Grohol, J. M. (2019). 15 Common Cognitive Distortions. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-cognitive-distortions/.

Hare, J. (2017). ‘Epidemic of stressed university students.’ The Australian. Retrieved from https://www.theaustralian.com.au/higher-education/epidemic-of-stressed-university-students/news-story/6faa252ef18984e39bc5cd24f6413a22.

Neenan, M. (2008). ‘From Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to Cognitive Behaviour Coaching (CBC)’. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 26, 315. doi:10.1007/s10942-007-0073-2.

Pascoe, M. (2018). ‘Why we should put yoga in the Australian school curriculum.’ The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-we-should-put-yoga-in-the-australian-school-curriculum-89962.

Posen, D. B. (1995). ‘Stress management for patient and physician.’ The Canadian Journal of Continuing Medical Education. Retrieved from http://georgiadisaster.info/MentalHealth/MH11%20CopingandRecovery/Stress%20Management.pdf.

Raghavan, S. (2018). 6 health problems caused by overthinking. Retrieved from https://www.thehealthsite.com/diseases-conditions/stress-diseases-conditions/health-problems-caused-by-over-thinking-k0118-553937/.

Stallard, P. (2018). Think good, feel good: A cognitive behavioural therapy workbook for children and young people (2nd ed.). Retrieved from https://books.google.com.au/books?lr=&id=0YB_DwAAQBAJ&dq=fortune+telling+thinking+trap&q=.