Using “Cognitive Reframing” to Better Manage Stress

By: Frank Ghinassi, Ph.D.

Earlier this week, Frank Ghinassi, Ph.D., vice president of quality and performance improvement at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, provided his stress expertise to the Huffington Post, as part of stress awareness month this April.  Here, he explains how to use “cognitive reframing” to reduce our stress levels.
Tom Waits, a masterful and wry song writer and musician – and closet academic researcher on the human condition – once wrote, “I’m disheveled, I’m disdainful, I’m distracted and it’s painful.”  It is my unconfirmed belief that Mr. Waits was fully aware that stress, in all its forms, is as much a part of human existence as breathing, and every bit as essential.  
Whether it’s the shoelace that breaks as we race to leave the hotel room for a job interview, the perpetual balancing act of work deadlines and children’s soccer, or the futile racing to catch the morning train, stress is a reminder that we are alive, engaged and activated.
So why do so many of us approach stress with all of the enthusiasm of a trip to a long delayed double root canal procedure?  I’ll contend it’s all in our head, literally, traced to the expectations, interpretations, and conclusions we continuously create in the microseconds of our daily activities, choices and encounters. 
Stress is a propellant for engagement in the stuff of life, it moves us off the dime and offers us the need to change, adapt and respond. But how we experience it, now that is a different story all together.
  • We are not in control of some of the realities of life; think taxes, rain, asteroids, mortality and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • We are in control of many of the realities of life; think schools to which we apply, concerts we attend, jobs we interview for, friends we engage, sports we play, hobbies we pursue, and the food we eat.
  • We are in control of all of the choices we make in each moment to assess the circumstances around and within us, to evaluate the options available and to select a  cognitive interpretation or an opinion about the meaning of the facts best suited to maximize the return on investment for our efforts. Examples include: 
    •  Reframing a frustrating situation, “traffic to and from work is horrible” vs. “time spent in traffic to and from work is perfect for audio books, or hands free phone calls with friends and family”
    • Thinking strategically not tactically, “I did not get the office I deserved at work ;it’s unfair and disrespectful” vs. “I have the job I negotiated for at work, at nearly the salary I wanted, the office would have been gravy but is small potatoes in the important scheme of things”
    • Accepting that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”, humans are imperfect and prone to hardware and software glitches….forgive them and ourselves and move on
    • Acknowledging that “we don’t control the behavior of others, but do completely control our thoughts, feeling and actions regarding their behaviors”
Another wry and masterful writer, and closet academic researcher on the human condition, once  penned “Why then tis true to me that there is nothing either good nor bad but thinking makes it so”….a gem of an idea really, and for that matter, the play in which the line was contained, Hamlet, wasn’t half bad either.