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Internal stress stems from our emotions, beliefs, and psychological state. Here’s how to identify, accept, and move through the unique challenges of internal stress.

Reflect, Relax, and Rise: How to Manage Internal Stress

Jul 26, 2023

Internal stress stems from our emotions, beliefs, and psychological state. Here’s how to identify, accept, and move through the unique challenges of internal stress.

Everyone experiences stress. And because everyone experiences stress, most of us at some point have wanted to take steps to reduce stress in our lives.

There are as many stress-relief tips out there as there are things causing us to feel stressed. But sometimes, we’re so focused on ways to avoid or reduce stress that we don’t recognize stress for what it really is: a natural part of life. More than that, it’s important that we acknowledge the different forms of stress, and the role our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions play in contributing to it. Only then can we shift our focus from seeing stress as a roadblock standing in our way to seeing stress as a doorway to move through.

So today, let’s talk about internal stress: what it is, where it comes from, and how you can learn to identify, accept, and move past it in your life.

Internal vs. external stress

Stress comes from many different places, and varies from person to person. But we can break down stressors into two basic categories: external stress and internal stress

External stress is stress that comes from forces outside ourselves. Feeling stressed about your job, your responsibilities, or your relationships all fall under this category. External stress happens to us, and we react to it.

Internal stress is stress that comes from within ourselves. Internal stress is caused by our belief system, emotions, and psychological state. Examples of internal stress include pessimism, negative self-talk, rigid thinking, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, the inability to accept uncertainty, and more.

This kind of stress can be a little harder to conceptualize, so here’s some manifestations of internal stress you may have experienced:

  • Being afraid to speak in front of a crowd because you’re worried you’ll mess up and embarrass yourself.
  • Going above and beyond to host the perfect party or find someone the perfect gift.
  • Giving up a hobby you enjoy because you don’t think you’re good at it.

Avoiding new experiences or relationships because you don’t know what to expect. 

Regardless of whether our stress is internal or external, it can affect our wellbeing in the same way, causing physical, mental, and emotional harm. We previously shared some stress-relieving tips to help you feel prepared to manage stress in your life. But today, we want to focus on strategies to help you understand and address the unique pressures of internal stress.

Why is understanding internal stress important?

As with any challenge you face, it’s important to understand all the contributing factors to learn how to overcome your obstacles. But in the case of stress, this is even more important. A comprehensive view of your stressors can allow you to anticipate stress before it happens, keep stress from building to the point that it feels overwhelming, and allow you to embrace and move through stress instead of fighting against it.

External stress often comes into our lives regardless of our own feelings or actions. Put simply, there are aspects of life that are beyond our individual control. You may not be able to avoid a traffic jam that makes you run late for an appointment or a sudden influx of responsibilities at work. Because of this, external stress often leaves us in the position of reacting to stress. The more we feel we’re only reacting to problems as they come up, the more anxious and worn-down we become.

But internal stress works a little differently. Because internal stress comes from our own fears, expectations, and emotions, we can take a much more active approach to stress management. (You may not control your environment, but you do control yourself!) Most importantly, understanding how to identify and work through internal stress will make you a calmer, more open person, and open up new doors to optimize your life.

Control & boundaries

When you’re learning to identify, mitigate, and embrace internal stress, you can think of it as a two-part process. The first part involves understanding how you control your actions and environment. The second part involves establishing healthy boundaries that set you up for success.

Understand what you can and can’t control.

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey discusses how we can view life as a set of three concentric circles. 

The innermost circle is our Circle of Control. This reflects the parts of our life that we can directly influence through our thoughts, words, and actions. 

The second circle is the Circle of Influence. This reflects the parts of our life that involve other people (from family and friends to colleagues and strangers). We don't have full control over these parts of life because other people's thoughts, words, and actions are their own; however, we may be able to influence them from time to time. 

The final circle is the Circle of Concern. This reflects everything else in our life that we have very little to no control over - everything from the weather to the economy.

Understanding these circles is important to managing internal stress because it allows you to identify when you can do something about your stress (when it’s in your Circle of Control) and when you can’t (when it’s in your Circle of Concern). 

As Covey points out, the key is to focus your time and energy on the aspects of your life where you can make changes. Constantly trying to change things outside your Circle of Influence will only wear you down and make you feel more stressed. On the other hand, when we focus our energy on changing our life within our Circle of Control, we feel more relaxed and encouraged by our progress.

Establish boundaries to steer your life in the right direction.

Once you understand the difference between Control and Concern, you can shift your focus to boundaries. Setting healthy boundaries for ourselves is a crucial way we can mitigate internal stress. 

For instance, one of the biggest boundaries we have to learn to set is when to say “no.” When we avoid situations where we try to give from an empty cup, we reduce stress. And when we say “no” more often, saying “yes” becomes more meaningful and helpful (to yourself and to others). This is just one example of a significant boundary you can set in your life. However, the boundaries you choose to set will be unique to you, reflecting your personal needs, emotions, and lifestyle.

With the importance of control and boundaries in mind, let’s look at how you can identify and move through internal stress.

5 steps to embrace your internal stress and move forward.

Understanding internal stress requires much more mindfulness and reflection than understanding external stress. So, here is a 5-step process you can walk yourself through to guide you on your path forward.

1. Acknowledge your stress.

Trying to deny you’re feeling stressed is a waste of time and energy. It’s not a moral failing to feel stressed, anxious, or overwhelmed. It’s just a part of life. So, your first step to moving through internal stress is to acknowledge it. Embrace it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and improve your situation. Then, you can work with your stress instead of against it.

2. Identify your stressors.

After you openly acknowledge your stress, pin down your specific stressors. What’s causing you to feel stressed? 

It may be easier to first identify the external source of your stress before moving on to the internal source. For example, an external source of stress might be that you have a big presentation coming up. The added workload can be stressful - but it’s probably not the only reason you’re feeling stressed. 

Look at how that external stressor causes you to feel and react. In the case of a big presentation, you may be feeling internal stress because you’re worried about messing up while delivering the presentation. Or maybe you’re putting pressure on yourself to make every aspect of it perfect. 

When you can identify the factors contributing to your stress, you can reflect on how to release your inner roadblocks and move forwards.

3. Examine your emotions.

From identifying your sources of stress, move on to examining your emotions. How does the stress make you feel? (Besides, you know, stressed.) Are you nervous? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Anxious?

Whatever you’re experiencing, observe your feelings without judgment. No matter what those feelings are, they’re valid because they’re yours. Don’t be afraid to feel them, even if it seems unpleasant. Repressing your emotions holds you back; experiencing them lets you move forward.

4. Look deeper.

Next, look deeper into yourself to find the true root of your emotions. These are your core beliefs that drive and motivate you. They will connect directly back to your internal stressors.

For instance, let’s dive deeper into our presentation scenario from earlier. If you’re stressed about making your presentation perfect and feeling anxious about giving it, the deeper belief you may be holding on to is that you’re not good enough. Because you believe you’re not good enough, you think you need to work extra hard to secure the approval of others - leading to stressful perfectionism and an anxiety about how others will perceive you.

Reflecting on your deepest-held beliefs is essential to managing internal stress. It allows you to identify negative self-talk, blame, and judgment you’re unfairly enacting on yourself. Once you can recognize these deeper beliefs, you can begin to move past them.

5. Accept and move forwards.

Finally, your journey through internal stress should end with acceptance. Know that your feelings can and will change, and that you’re not defined by your initial reaction to a situation. Acknowledge any negative beliefs you’re holding on to, but know that you can always bring more positivity into your life. Love and accept yourself as you are, and know that your stress is natural and doesn’t define you. 

Reflect, relax, and rise

When you’re reflecting on your beliefs and emotions, it’s important to remember that not all beliefs are stressful, and not all stress is negative. Everyone experiences internal stress differently; what is stressful for one person may be exciting and challenging for another. 

Stress can leave us tense, anxious, and frustrated - but it can also motivate us to make the right choices to optimize our lives. When we learn to reflect on our deeper emotions and beliefs, we can embrace stress from a place of understanding and acceptance. And when we embrace stress instead of fighting against it, we give ourselves the opportunity to truly rise.

Looking for more stress-relief strategies?

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