How Feeling Over Stressed Affects Thoughts, and What You Can Do

Example – Max

Max finds that getting work completed and out of the way helps him more relaxed and in control.

Currently, Max is going through major personal stress and work is busy. His coping strategy for managing this is overworking i.e. staying at work until 7pm when his work day is meant to end at 5.30.

Because he is stressed, anxious, and his mood is a bit low, his thinking has become more rigid than usual. His belief “getting tasks completed helps me feel good” turns into “I can’t feel ok if I leave work unfinished at the end of the day”.

His strategy is to just keep going until things ease off a bit.

When he can’t get everything done even by staying at work until 7pm, he thinks “I could relax if only I could get everything done” so he starts trying to multi task during his work day and skipping his breaks. The cognitive (mental) load of doing this results in him feeling dreadful. His concentration suffers and he feels anxious most of the time. He ends up getting less done and making mistakes. His confidence suffers and people get angry at him. The more stressed he feels, the less he can see the wood for the trees.

Max is applying a belief that normally works well for him (that getting tasks completed helps him relax) to his current situation, but that belief isn’t working for him in his current circumstances.


1. Understand what implicit assumptions you’re making.

Max is making the assumption that overworking will result in him feeling better overall. He has been thinking of this as a “fact” rather than an assumption. This an easy trap to get stuck in. Our brains are wired for fast processing so we take a lot of mental shortcuts that involve unconscious and/or untested assumptions.

2. “Hold your thoughts lightly”

Any thought you hold too rigidly or too extremely is likely to become unhelpful at a point or not apply in all situations.

3. Try something different and see if it works better.

– Max starts using his breaks at work for his personal relaxation time.

– He tries structuring his day so he does as much “unitasking” as possible (single focus of his attention rather than multitasking)

– He starts biking to/from work so that he has a buffer of time between the end of the work day and getting home. This helps him feel more relaxed when he gets home to his family, even if he has left things unfinished at work.