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Managing Stress with Mental Jiu-Jitsu

April 21, 2020

We are all doing what we can to manage in this crisis. In some moments that’s a lot and we feel hopeful, and others it’s slogging through the swampy haze of our day. There is much we don’t control, but there is always one thing that is completely, and utterly our own to manage. Fortunately, it is the very thing that fuels every single one of our emotions. It’s the way we think. There’s a technique that can help tremendously, and it requires a lot of repetition, but not a lot of work. I call it “Mental Jiu-Jitsu.”  That’s really just a fun term for a well-known technique that comes from the field of Cognitive Psychology. This field was inspired by the work of Piaget in the 1960’s, and came to full fruition in the 1970’s. The idea behind it is simple: Every thought leads to an emotion. Every emotion leads to a behavior. All behaviors lead to results. So, if you want to change the way you feel and the results you get, start by changing your thoughts.

For example, if you’re like me, you are constantly thinking right now, “What if I can’t recover from this financially?” That thought produces an emotion – anxiety. That makes me act in all kinds of ways I wish (and my family wishes) I didn’t. I get irritable and short-tempered. I guess the results are not necessary to describe.

That’s where mental Jiu-Jitsu is incredibly helpful. The key to mental Jiu-Jitsu is to “capture” the thought that is leading to a feeling and revise it in a way that feels ever-so-slightly better. Why is this like real Jiu-Jitsu? Martial arts are strategic. The idea behind them is to “defend and counter” a strike against you from your opponent. Only in this case, the opponent is your mind.

Here’s a simple three-step practice for Mental Jiu-Jitsu:

Step 1: Capture the thought. It might surprise you to realize that most people don’t even know what they think about. It happens unconsciously. We have approximately 20,000 thoughts per day, and many of them are repetitive. If you are feeling stressed or negative or lethargic, as yourself “What is a consistent thought that is running through my head?” Then write it down.

Step 2: Counter the thought: Write down a “better-feeling” thought that is believable to you. For example, if the thought is “I’m going to run out of money.” You might counter it with “I have always made it work financially and I always will.” The key is that the counter thought must feel realistic (not pie in the sky). It’s not going to make you feel 100% better, but it will work to a great degree.

Step 3: Repeat the new thought: You’ve certainly repeated the negative thought a gazillion times in your head. Now it’s time for your unconscious mind to hear the new thought. Write it down on 4 sticky notes and put them each in a place in your home you see regularly. (I put mine on my computer and my coffee maker.) Then make sure you repeat that thought in your head or out loud 21 times each day. Studies show that the repetition creates new neuropaths in your brain. Not surprisingly the counter thought produces a new, better emotion.

So, it’s simple: Capture the thought. Counter the thought. Repeat the new thought. There’s no excuse not to try it. Many of us have more time on our hands than we ever have before. It can’t hurt and could help.

For more information on this technique check out this funny and engaging Ted Talk by Harvard trained Positive Psychologist Shawn Anchor. https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work?language=en

For additional resources, visit this website on positive psychology: https://positivepsychology.com/cbt-cognitive-behavioral-therapy-techniques-worksheets/ 
In the words of William Shakespeare, “nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We have very little power over the events of the world. Therefore, now more than ever, we need to practice the art of mental Jiu-Jitsu.

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