A woman came to see me complaining about feeling very stressed. There was a lot happening in her life on both work and home fronts. “I need to learn deep breathing or something!” she said.
Maybe. But there’s a lot more to managing stress than just deep breathing.
Picture stress as a river with three waterfalls, representing three levels at which we can intervene. In general, the higher up the stream we address stress, the easier it is to handle. Let’s take a look at some options for each level.
Stress Management Level One: The Objective Circumstances
The first waterfall corresponds to what is actually happening. Managing stress at this level involves changing our situation. If we can eliminate, minimize, avoid, or prevent a problem, that’s often much easier than dealing with the problem.
Sometimes this could involve big changes, like finding a new job. Sometimes it’s about making smaller adjustments, so our circumstances are more manageable. We might want to consider where we can cut corners or which responsibilities we can cut back on or drop to lighten our load. We might also be able to make the situation easier by getting help from others to deal with it.
Another important aspect of managing stress at this level involves addressing our own capacity to deal with the situation. For example, everything seems harder when we’re exhausted, so a good night’s sleep might give us the energy and clear-thinking we need to cope.
Stress Management Level Two: How We Think About the Situation
When we can’t change the circumstances, it’s often useful to adjust how we think about a situation. People are meaning-making creatures. We’re constantly creating stories about the causes and implications of what we experience. These stories can intensify or decrease stress.
For example, when we tell ourselves, “This shouldn’t be happening! It’s ruining my whole life!” we feel worse than if we tell ourselves, “I wish this wasn’t happening, but I can deal with it. It won’t last forever.”
Sometimes unhelpful stories involve other people. Telling ourselves, “He did it deliberately because he’s a jerk!” gets us riled up, whereas, “He made a mistake. He probably didn’t realize it would bother me” makes it easier to deal with the situation.
Sometimes the unhelpful stories we create are about ourselves. Thinking, “I have to do it perfectly!” or “I should be doing more!” ramps up stress. Self-critical thoughts along the lines of “This just proves what a loser I am!” add to our burden. Cultivating self-compassion by treating ourselves the way we would a friend is an important way of coping with stress.
Dealing with stress at this level also involves recognizing when we get stuck in a whirlpool of negative “what if” thoughts. That’s called rumination. We can’t stop the first “what if” thought that pops into our head, but we have a lot of control over our second thought in response. We can learn to answer the first what if with thoughts such as “What if it doesn’t happen?” “Right here, right now, I’m OK,” or “I’ll deal with that when and if it happens.”
We can also train ourselves to look at the evidence. Just because we can vividly imagine some terrible outcome doesn’t mean it’s real or likely. Asking ourselves data-driven questions such as “How often has this happened to me in the past year? How about in the past 5 years? What evidence do I see that it’s not happening?” can clarify actual risk.
Worrying takes a lot of time and energy, so it feels productive, but it’s not. It’s like clutching the arm rests to keep a plane in the air. It doesn’t do a thing to prevent a crash, but it’s guaranteed to make us miserable.
Stress Management Level Three: What We Do in Response to the Problem
The third level of stress management involves the actions that we do or don’t take in order to deal with the problem. This might include deep breathing or meditation to calm our bodies and minds. Sometimes we may need a brief break or distraction. But those aren’t the only options at this level.
We might want to try doing something differently, such as figuring out a better strategy for keeping track of deadlines, starting earlier so we’re not rushed, or coming up with a more efficient way of getting something done.
We might want to talk to someone to explain what we need, resolve a disagreement, or just to share what’s going on and get some sympathy. We don’t get any extra points for doing life the stupid, hard alone way.
We might need to learn to recognize and replace self-defeating habits that get in the way of coping well. For example, overeating or substance abuse can make problems worse. Avoidance also makes anxiety grow. Sometimes just finishing a task can lower our stress level.
For longer-term problems, we might need to figure out a healthy balance between taking action to deal with the situation and temporarily stepping away from it to give ourselves a chance to refuel.
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