The Impact of Perception on Stress, and How We Can Break The Cycle

Have you ever looked at an image with a friend or colleague and each seen something different? How we perceive the world around us can vary from person to person, and our perception can in turn impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. In this article we’re going to be exploring perception, how it impacts our thought processes and how we can break negative thought cycles.

You’ll likely be familiar with the image that can either be seen as two faces or a vase. Often when we look at the same image, we can see different things – the same goes for how we perceive experiences too.

In the words of William Shakespeare, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” In other words, the way we perceive situations (and how we think about them) can influence our experience of them in terms of our feelings and behaviours. For example, in the workplace there might be two people who have been asked to do the same tasks and workload, but this can feel different to each individual depending on a whole range of factors – one of these being perception.

How does perception influence our stress levels?

How we perceive our situations and the world around us can have a direct impact on our personal wellbeing – let’s take stress as an example. The perception of being in control (rather than the reality of being in or out of control) is an important buffer of negative stress. When people feel that they are not in control, they start feeling stressed, even if they actually are in control and simply don’t know it. So having the confidence and self-efficacy to feel like you are in control of a situation can actually impact how stressed your body and mind feel.

Thoughts, feelings and behaviours

Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all connected – often what we think impacts our feelings, which then impacts the behaviours we choose to take. This can become a cycle, where our behaviours influence our thoughts, which influence our feelings, and so on. Depending on perception – our thoughts – this cycle could be a positive one or a negative one.

Let’s circle back to our workplace example; if two people are asked to do the same task, one person may think that they’re capable of completing it (thought) which makes them feel in control (feeling), and as a result complete the task with ease (behaviour). The second person – with all the same skills and abilities to complete the task – might perceive that they already have a lot on their plate (thought) and they’re not confident that they’ll be able to do the task in time. This perhaps creates feelings of doubt and uncertainty, which means that may they put off the task (behaviour), which in turn creates more pressure on them to complete the task on time – which starts the cycle again linking their unhelpful thoughts to unhelpful feelings and unhelpful behaviours.

If you’re in the position of person 2 in this example, breaking this cycle can feel really difficult. Here are some ways you could interrupt the negative thought process, and start to implement a more positive approach to support your wellbeing:

1. Recognise your thoughts:

Awareness can be the more difficult step but the most powerful one – simply stopping and acknowledging any negative thoughts you might be having is the first step to addressing them.

2. Challenge your thoughts:

While there are important concerns in life that may need more of your attention, a negative thought loop tends to distort the implications of our actions and decisions. Try to remember that much of what we worry about won’t happen. And while there is a lot about the current situation we can’t control, we can control how much we focus on the negative. Stop, think and question if your thoughts are actually ‘true’ and try to reframe how you see them. Is this stressor something that’s actually important, or am I putting more pressure on myself than I need to?

3. Focus on the present:

When a worrying thought comes up, actively switch your focus to what’s around you. Focus on breathing, and what you can see and hear. If you have more time or the problem is constant, then mindfulness or mediation might help.

4. Bring the inside out:

Writing down negative thoughts and throwing them away has been shown to reduce the influence of negative thoughts. Painting or drawing can also work for this exercise too.

5. Talk about it:

It’s never been a more important time to talk about your feelings – you don’t have to discuss solutions, but just talking about our thoughts and feelings can help put things in a new light. You may also wish to seek professional help from a GP or medical professional if you find that your negative thought loops are happening more regularly.

Let us know how you get on with interrupting negative thought cycles!

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Learn how to identify the signs and symptoms that you’re under too much stress with our informative read, How Much Stress Is Too Much?

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