Everyday Mindfulness

A Simple Inquiry Practice to Unwind from Stress

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Beneath every stressful emotion sits a thought—a thought that may or may not actually be true. Once you question the validity of the thought, the accompanying stress in the mind and body starts to fall away. That’s the basic insight of inquiry practice.

The power of inquiry arises from the fact that our experience of life is shaped by a thick web of interconnected stories and beliefs. We judge ourselves: I’m not good enough. We attach: Nothing ever turns out right. We resist what is: It’s too cold out. These stories and beliefs play in our minds like background music at a restaurant, so familiar that we are no longer conscious of them. But we hear their message anyway. Without calling these stories and beliefs into question, we tend to just assume their truth. My neighbor is being irrational. My child’s soccer coach is unfair. My boss is controlling. These kinds of everyday stressful beliefs become our holy doctrine. And the more we cling to them, the more we experience stress, anxiety, and unhappiness.

The power of inquiry arises from the fact that our experience of life is shaped by a thick web of interconnected stories and beliefs.

The practice of inquiry invites us to shift our ordinary way of being in the world. It’s based on cognitive reappraisal—a form of cognitive behavioral therapy used to change the meaning of a situation that causes us distress or unease. In essence, cognitive reappraisal is a way of combating stress and building resilience by shifting the lens through which we view the world.

For instance, imagine that I feel angry at my coworker for cutting me off during an important meeting. Without inquiry, I’m consumed by these emotions. I can’t see past the anger and irritation that arise in the moment. 

Inquiry is the process of shifting your frame on this situation. By simply asking yourself a question like, How would a person I see as wise respond in this situation? Or, How is this situation actually serving me? Or, Is it true? You begin to see this situation in an entirely different way, shifting from stress to curiosity, even excitement.

The practice of inquiry boosts resilience because we shift our ordinary way of being in the world. The simple act of questioning the thoughts that shape our reality (especially when they create stress, anger, or frustration) has the power to unwind the web of beliefs holding the set point in place. It opens the door to living a life with more compassion, ease, and openness to new possibilities.

A Tool to Disrupt Stressful Thoughts

The practice of inquiry goes back far beyond the methods of modern psychology. We can trace this practice back to ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Epictetus. It also shows up in a number of ancient spiritual traditions.

Using different words, each of these philosophies makes a similarly surprising and thought-provoking claim: Well-being and inner clarity don’t arise from amassing new beliefs and knowledge. This state of being arises from questioning the mind and letting go of what we think we know.

Our beliefs about life can quickly fall into the traps of all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, fortune telling, and focusing on the negative.

At its core, cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that humans have a biological tendency toward unhelpful and often irrational thinking. Our beliefs about life can quickly fall into the traps of all-or-nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, fortune telling, and focusing on the negative.

Like ancient forms of inquiry, cognitive behavioral therapy uses reason as a corrective tool to question the often irrational beliefs that tend to permeate our thinking. Martin Seligman, one of the founding fathers of the field of positive psychology, writes in his book Learned Optimism that cognitive behavioral therapy offers three primary tools for disputing our stressful thoughts: “First, you learn to recognize the automatic thoughts flitting through your consciousness . . . Second, you learn to dispute the automatic thoughts by marshaling contrary evidence . . . Third, you learn to make different explanations, called reattributions, and use them to dispute your automatic thoughts.

Whether you call it inquiry, cognitive reappraisal, or cognitive behavioral therapy is unimportant. The power of this age-old practice arises from its benefits. When you create a habit of reframing your stressful beliefs and stories, you begin to see that these ordinary mental habits of catastrophizing, fortune telling, and focusing on the negative have no real basis in reality. You see that stress often arises from stories made up in the mind.

A Simple Inquiry Practice to Unwind from Stress

How can you integrate this practice into everyday life—standing in line at the grocery store, waiting for your plane to take off, or waiting for a doctor’s appointment? 

The key is to notice-shift-rewire.

  1. Simply notice when you feel upset or irritated. Use these emotions as your reminder to take a step back and shift out of your ordinary habits.
  2. Once you notice that you’re caught in a stressful emotion, shift by asking a reframing question like, “How does this situation support my learning and growth?” This question might open new possibilities. It might even lead me to feel excited, instead of overwhelmed, by the challenge.
  3. The final step is to rewire. Take just 15 seconds to savor this alternative perspective. Remember that this simple practice is activating new neural pathways in the brain. See if you can stay with the experience to strengthen this new neural habit.

Once you learn this technique, you will enter the stage of unwinding your stressful thoughts. During this stage, you will begin to experience a steady change in your thinking. It’s a lot like letting the air out of a tire. The air doesn’t come out all at once, but if you continue to hold the valve open, the pressure in the tire slowly and steadily drops. Inquiry works in the same way—it’s an inner technology for deflating the beliefs and stories that create stress in our lives.

During this stage of unwinding, some people fall into the trap of expecting to be able to get rid of their stressful beliefs. In our experience, this rarely happens. For those who worry about not having enough money, for example, inquiry is unlikely to eradicate all thoughts about finances. It will, however, change your relationship to these thoughts. They will have less power over you.

As you continue to deepen your practice, you can expect benefits on two levels. First, you will notice a change in the way you experience the world. You will notice that the situations, thoughts, and people who once caused you stress no longer trigger you in the same way.

Additionally, you can expect to see a change in your relationships. By questioning the thoughts that cause worry, irritation, and resentment toward the people in your life, you open a space for more love, trust, connection, and personal peace.

Adapted from Start Here: Master the Lifelong Habit of Wellbeing by Eric Langshur and Nate Klemp, PhD.

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