Several years ago, a well-respected doctor came to my office distressed about his subway ride to work. He found himself enraged by the NYC Subway system ─ the delays, the rude passengers, the unpredictability of service. While public transportation unleashes a specific fury in many people, he was concerned because the spike in stress was disproportionate to the situation he was in.
For the most part, he was able to stay in his emotional comfort zone while managing his life stressors. However, when his daily subway trip went awry, it shot through his nervous system and engaged him in a vicious stress cycle that followed him to the operating room where he worked as a surgeon or to his family at home.
Additionally, it impacted his self-esteem and even functioned as a trigger to his 20-year sobriety. He’d been warned that his anger could also jeopardize his job. He wanted tools to help manage this stress.
First, we engaged his imagination to use it to his advantage. For years, his imagination was used against him in an insidious form of distorted thinking called catastrophizing, where we see the worst-case scenario in everything. After a bad train ride, he was sure that he’d be fired, his marriage would end, and his kids would stop talking to him. I said, “You seem to be using your imagination for all the worst things. What if we use your imagination to help you?”
I asked what his strongest emotion was when he was on the subway. “Anger,” he said. “I feel like the Incredible Hulk, ready to smash. I’d rather be Bruce Banner, Hulk’s alter-ego.” I asked him to imagine the qualities that exemplified Bruce instead of the Hulk. “Patience, kindness, fairness, calm,” he said. He was already using his imagination to envision himself less stressed and angry.
Then I introduced The Stress Loop. It describes how stress takes us out of our comfort zone and exacerbates Negative Self-Talk, Negative Emotions and Negative Body Sensations. Once activated, these can turn us into someone we barely recognize.
The Stress Loop
Stage One: The Inciting Situation
Context is everything. In this case, it was the subway ride that took him out of his comfort zone.
Stage Two: Negative Self-Talk
As soon as the train was delayed, the doctor would begin to berate himself for not getting on an earlier train or for living far away or for studying medicine in the first place. Often, negative self-talk comes in the form of “should” statements and negative self-appraisals that are objectively untrue but subjectively feel 100 percent accurate.
Stage Three: Negative Emotions
He’d become angry, first at the subway, then at himself, then at whatever might cross his path. His Hulk was on the rise. By the time he arrived at work or home he was ready for a fight.
Stage Four: Negative Body Sensations
He felt a tightness in his chest, his heart rate increased, and his body started to produce more sweat. His physiological response frightened him.
As stand-alone experiences, each of these stages can be very distressing. When connected together, it’s nearly impossible to be your best self. For my client, that’s when the Hulk came out. The good news was that he had a clear vision: to become Bruce Banner instead of the Hulk.
Rejecting Triggers to Stress and Sobriety
We used The Stress Loop to help him track his experience. He became more attuned to what his body and brain were experiencing. He broke it down stage by stage, and soon he could hear the beginnings of his Negative Self-Talk before it became too loud. Also, he knew if he felt angry and enraged that his emotions had shifted. If he felt a tightness in his chest, he realized this meant he’d lost sight of his comfort zone. Identifying and tracking these changes in mind and body became important to understanding his process.
To further interrupt The Stress Loop, he became an observer instead of an active participant. He created an imaginary forcefield that prevented negative energy from penetrating his system. Instead of being consumed by the stress of the subway or at work, he imagined the stress whizzing past him, protected by his forcefield that kept stress at bay.
These changes didn’t occur overnight. As those in recovery know, changing a habit requires patience and commitment. Many of these habits have been part of us as long as we’ve been alive. After a few months of therapy (and a lot of patience and practical application), the good doctor reported feeling less triggered by the inconveniences of the subway. If he felt stressed or enraged, he imagined his forcefield and continued the goal of a calm and centered Bruce Banner instead of a raging Hulk.
In time, he learned how to be an agent of lasting change. His relationships improved, he felt better about himself and his job was no longer in jeopardy. Neither was his sobriety.
If you’re inspired by the doctor’s story, see what you can do to make it your own. We’ve all got potential triggers. Learning to manage them can make life less stressful, chaotic and exhausting.
Remember, a key element to managing stress is being able to identify when you are in The Stress Loop and coming up with ways to interrupt it. Listening to your Negative Self-Talk, your Negative Emotions and your Negative Body Sensations is key. Using your imagination is also a powerful tool.
Remind yourself that you have gotten through stress before, that feelings aren’t permanent and that they don’t define you. You, too, can be an agent of your own change.
Most importantly, you can go from The Hulk to Bruce Banner if you begin to see it as a cycle that can be interrupted and managed instead of feeling helpless, hopeless or held hostage. We may never rid ourselves of stress. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if we could? However, we can give ourselves tools to manage our stress so we feel in control of it, instead of being controlled by it.