Metacognition and Managing Stress

Metacognition and Managing Stress

No matter who you are—or how “balanced and calm” you claim to be—at some level you are affected by stress. We all are. A universal human condition that shaped us through the ages, stress has served us well through time. At one time, stress triggered the energy needed to survive the dangers associated with life as nomadic hunters. Now, of course, the sources of stress are different: Today, financial and family worries, deadlines and workloads have the power to set our teeth on edge.

According to Arthur C. Brooks, faculty at Harvard Business School and Oprah Winfrey, a philanthropist and global media figure, in their book, “Build the Life You Want,” strategies to manage stress in the 21st century are more important than ever. The authors point out that it is our inability to constructively manage—with a cool, rational head—the things we cannot change that leads to depression, drug addiction, alcohol abuse and other damaging coping behaviors. They propose revisiting a concept known as “metacognition”, which translates to “thinking about thinking”. By deliberately—and in a detached fashion—analyzing your patterns of behavior, you can change your course of action accordingly.

How to React to Stress “Triggers”

The authors note that emotions are triggered by a variety of circumstances—some which we can change, and others which we cannot. For example, we can choose who our closest friends are, but we can’t do much about bad weather, climate change, the high cost of living, a chronic illness, or the behavior of people you encounter daily. Unsurprisingly, it is the circumstances that you can’t change that are the ones that typically trigger the strongest emotions.

But emotions are fundamentally just signals or knee jerk reactions to a particular situation, designed to get you to do something—anything—that may relieve your anxiety. (As suggested in the beginning of this article, in earlier times the stakes were higher. You could die if you didn’t think quickly enough to escape a predator or similar life-threatening situation.) As stressful as a situation may be, however, we can’t forget that we always have the power and choice to decide how to respond. This realization alone allows us to regain control in a stressful situation.

The authors point to a stark example to illustrate this point. The Roman philosopher from the sixth century, Boethius, wrote quite a bit about this mental source of strength and power from—ironically—inside a prison cell as he waited to be executed for allegedly conspiring against King Theodoric, the ruling authority at the time. Boethius knew he couldn’t change his physical circumstances, but he knew he could change his attitude. By changing his attitude, he reasoned, he could gain the upper hand and rise above his bleak situation. This is why he wrote from his prison cell: “So true is it that nothing is wretched but thinking makes it so.” If you think you are miserable, you will be. But if you think you have risen above your situation, then you have accomplished that as well.

Metacognition: Step by Step

A few tips to get you started…

1. Examine your situation objectively.
Metacognition tells you to look at your emotions in the third person, as if they are affecting someone else, like a character in a book. This strategy allows you to thoughtfully choose your next steps, not based on—and driven by—negative emotions but based on outcomes you want in your life. Let the emotion pass over you. Don’t internalize any negativity. Think to yourself: “I am not going to let this emotion take over who I am.” In so doing, you have regained control.

2. Write down what you are feeling and what you can do about it.
By writing down your thoughts, you are forcing yourself to think about the situation, your options, and your behavior in relation to it. This step helps you analyze and identify a rational path forward.

3. What can you learn from the stressful event or situation?
Even if your current crisis ranks as one of the all-time worst, what have you discovered? With the passage of time, you are bound to gain a healthy perspective and some wisdom as well. Once you have captured the stressful event objectively—including the emotions it triggered—leave a few lines empty for later reflection. Come back to your notes after 1 month and then again after 6 months. No doubt you will have made some important conclusions about the experience, which can help you live life a bit more calmly and process a similar situation more constructively in the future.

4. Get into the habit of thinking positively about the events in your life.
Write down positive memories, even the smallest little moment that made you smile. This step underlines the value of thinking positively. Show a bit of gratitude for life’s moments of joy—a kind word from a stranger or a small, but unexpected act of generosity from a coworker. Studies show that when you begin the day by thinking about reasons to be grateful, your mood and outlook are likely to be elevated as well.