Written by Charley Ross
Using three simple steps to reframe stressful thoughts could help you manage them better – whatever the time of year.
The end of another year brings with it a mixture of feelings, and for some of us it brings stress and anxiety.
This can come in the aftermath of pressure and grief brought about or exacerbated by the festive season – or the overwhelming expectation to know, predict and prepare for the upcoming new year. Regardless, end-of-year stress is a nasty thing, and can feel overwhelming.
And that’s without taking into account the fact that many of us were feeling put-upon even before we started reflecting on a new year. A November 2022 study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 29% of adults were feeling stressed, 34% were experiencing anxiety and 10% felt hopeless because of financial worries.
Luckily, there’s a new tool for us all to try out as we endeavour to take as little stress into 2023 as possible.
In Psychology Today, psychologist Dr Stephen C Hayes has endorsed the ‘ONA tool’ as a tried-and-tested method of “getting out of your mind” – which, honestly, is what we all want from time to time when stress and anxiety feels like it’s too much.
Split into three steps (O, N and A), here’s how the ONA tool could help you to manage stress at any time of year.
O = observe
Firstly, Dr Hayes recommends focusing on “observing without judgment”. By this he means not looking at things critically, but without a filter – seeing things as they are.
This involves looking both inward and outward, and thinking carefully about what is showing up in your body and mind.
If you’re feeling stressed about a certain situation, the ONA tool requires you to begin by observing the situation completely, and letting your physical and mental reactions become clear.
For end-of-year stress: Look back at the past year and take a look at what happened, what caused you stress, and what feelings and physical reactions come up when you think about this.
N = note
Once you have observed these stressful things, it’s important to note them down.
Dr Hayes recommends embarking on this element of the ONA tool “like a scientist on a new planet, gathering data”. The aim is to maintain distance from the situation while engaging with what is happening.
This could be a family member criticising you (“my mum doesn’t like my haircut”) or a friend making a joke at your expense.
It might help to write down exactly what’s going on when you think about these incidences. What is the stressor? How do you notice yourself feeling?
For end-of-year stress: Whatever reactions you feel in your body and mind about the events of the year – whether that’s a break-up, a throwaway comment from a friend or a work worry – sit with that data. Note it in your mind.
A = allow
This is where it gets interesting. You must work to allow what you’ve just observed and noted, a crucial stage of the process that may be difficult.
Your mind is likely to go into what Dr Hayes calls a “judgemental posture”, questioning your feelings of stress – why they’re happening and when the feeling is going to end. What’s important is to permit your stressful thoughts, instead of pushing back on them.
You must gently observe and note your “judgemental” thoughts as part of the process. This helps you to make sense of your judgemental thoughts and connect to the present at it is, instead of how your most judgemental mind might think it is.
For end-of-year stress: Sit with your mind’s attempts to be “judgemental” of the less happy moments, events or memories of the year. Let them be as they are, in your present moment. Only then can your mind formulate a plan to proceed, moving forward from 2022.
Dr Hayes stresses the importance of allowing space for your thoughts without “needless judgemental defence”, which should lead to a more mindful state.
“More often than not,” he says, “you will gain a more general sense of safety and room to be yourself with a posture of mindful awareness and maybe even appreciation of what is difficult for you.”
Looking at our thoughts differently – breaking them down, acknowledging them, and allowing them to exist as they are – could well help us deal with stress in a more mindful way, as a new year approaches.
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