Manage Your Stressors, Not Your Stress

Imagine showing up in the emergency room having just broken your arm. After looking at the x-rays, your doctor says, “Yes, it’s definitely broken.” She then says: “Here’s a prescription for Vicodin. Take a few tablets anytime your arm starts hurting.” Then you’re sent on your way.

Obviously, this is an insane way to “treat” a broken bone because painkillers won’t fix a bone fracture no matter how much better they make you feel in the moment.

Here’s another scenario….

Suppose your spouse approaches you one day saying: “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this earlier, but I have a problem with money… I’ve actually accumulated $80,000 in credit card debt over the past year. I don’t know what to do…” To which you reply: “Oh, that’s okay, honey… Just open up another credit card and use that to pay off the old one.”

Just like “treating” a broken bone with painkillers, trying to “pay off” credit card debt by going into more credit card debt doesn’t begin to address the real problem—and actually makes it worse—despite some short-lived relief.

Now, as ridiculous as these two examples seem, here’s the really uncomfortable truth: This is exactly how most people deal with their stress.

The Problem with Stress Management

In a nutshell:

Stress management encourages people to treat the superficial symptoms of stress while ignoring the underlying cause.

A couple examples to illustrate:

  1. After months of chronic stress at work, you hit your breaking point and force yourself to do a little “self-care,” so you go away to a spa in the mountains for a few days to recharge. When you return to work on Monday you do feel calmer and more relaxed. But within a few days, you’re back to being stressed because you still can’t say no to anything, you still work 12 hour days, and your bad sleep habits.
  2. Or… Maybe you feel good when you’re at work, but whenever you’re at home you’re almost always anxious and “walking on eggshells” because your partner constantly criticizes and demeans you. You’ve read a bunch of books on stoic philosophy, you’ve tried getting your partner to do couples therapy with you, and you’ve prayed like hell that he’ll have a “change of heart,” but nothing’s getting better, and if anything, your stress at home seems to be getting worse and affecting you in other aspects of your life.

In both of these scenarios, you’re trying to address the effect without correcting the underlying cause. In medical terms, you’re treating the symptoms without addressing the pathology. In psychological terms, you’re managing your stress but avoiding managing your stressors.

Stress vs Stressors vs Chronic Stress

Stress is a physiological response to real or imagined danger. Basically, it’s your fight or flight system kicking in and includes physical changes like muscle tension, heightened startle response, increased heart and breathing rate, etc. Along with those physiological changes, stress often includes cognitive and emotional changes like worry and rumination or anxiety.

A stressor is the thing causing the stress response. Pain is a part of your stress response to having your arm broken, which is the stressor. Insomnia is part of your stress response to overworking, which is the stressor. Chronic anxiety is part of your stress response to living with a partner who’s an asshole, which is the stressor.

Chronic stress occurs where your body is almost constantly in a state of stress because you are constantly exposed to stressors. And no matter how much you try to alleviate the stress, those stressors will continue to provoke a stress response until they are addressed.

Many people are chronically stressed precisely because they use stress management to avoid managing their stressors.

Of course, this isn’t surprising…

Addressing your stressors is simply a lot harder than coping with or managing your stress. Chatting with your extremely sympathetic therapist for an hour a week about how stressful your job is feels a lot easier than initiating a difficult conversation with your manager about your workload. Or perhaps takings steps to prepare yourself to leave your job and find another if it’s unlikely the culture of your current job will ever change.

But there’s also something more systematic going on here…

Much of the mental health, coaching, and self-help industries are build around the idea of giving people coping skills to help them feel better in the moment. Unfortunately, this ultimately fragilizes those people by encouraging them to believe that they need ever more powerful and insightful coping mechanism to manage the seemingly unending barrage of stress that never seems to let up. All the while, the underlying problems remain unaddressed—and very often, grow bigger.

Now, at this point, I want to make a careful distinction…

Stress management techniques are not in an of themselves problematic. What’s harmful is the stress management mindset that leads to using stress management techniques as a way to—consciously or not—avoid managing your stressors.

If you’re serious about reducing the amount of stress in your life, you’ve got to be brutally honest with yourself about what’s actually causing your stress in the first place (your stressors) and what it will really take to address them in a meaningful way.

Managing Your Stressors Means Being Assertive

If you do reflect carefully and honestly about the true causes of your stress, what you’ll almost always find is that there are two or three major problems in your life that you’re avoiding, and consequently, need to address assertively.

For example:

  • If you’re chronically stressed out at work, you might need to get a lot more assertive about setting boundaries and saying no to other people’s requests of you, despite the fact that that you’re a people-pleaser and terrified of conflict. Or even more challenging, you might need to get better at saying no to yourself and all the exciting new ideas you have, so that you can stay focused and make progress on the few things that matter most.
  • If you’re chronically stressed at home because of an overly critical and demeaning partner, you might need to get a lot more assertive about what you won’t tolerate from them and what will happen if they don’t change.
  • If you’re chronically stressed around your family, it might mean saying no to spending so much time around them—and conversely, saying yes to spending more time around people who energize you and fill you up.
  • If you’re chronically stressed because of poor sleep, it might mean being assertive with yourself and saying yes to a serious exercise regime and good sleep habits, as well as putting some boundaries on your alcohol consumption and revenge bedtime procrastination tendencies.
  • If you’re chronically stressed about money, it might mean being assertive with your partner and initiating some difficult conversations about money and spending.

The common thread through all of these examples is that getting assertive about your stressors means facing up to the need to make real changes in your life.

Deep breathing exercises, positive self-talk, mindfulness apps, spa days, stoic mantras, comforting chats with a good friend or therapist… these are all fine unless you’re using them to procrastinate on doing the real work of assertively managing the stressors in your life.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens when people uncritically embrace the stress management mindset, which provides a bit of short-term comfort and relief at the expense of continued and intensifying long-term stress.

Want to feel better for 20 minutes? Sure do some deep breathing or take a hot bath.

But if you want to feel less stressed long-term, you have to address the root cause of the stress—you have to manage your stressors. And almost always this means having the courage to be more assertive about asking for what you really want and saying no to what you don’t want.

Learn More

If you found this essay helpful, here are a few more resources from me that you might like:


Add Yours

I’ve always skipped your articles around setting boundaries and being assertive because I am good and doing that and, although I do a lot a lot a lot on my facing embracing and floating through the feelings of anxiety etc (fear of fear, yuck) It’s just dawned on me that I have not been setting healthy boundaries or being assertive with myself.

I become frightened by the noise in my head and listen to this what if what if what if until I don’t know what to do and believe all the terrible things.
I am going to practice being assertive with myself and trusting that i know what’s best for me and I don’t need to doubt myself or my body so much.

I would love an article around this with any insightful tips if you have to offer them? (Although now I’m second guessing if this is reassurance seeking and a safety behaviour 😅🙃)

Love your stuff as always Nick!

Thanks for this insight Lauren. I was wondering how to address my stressors and I didn’t realize it’s just saying no to my own thoughts’ demands.

The psychiatrist again. The reminds me of one the bugaboos about outpatient PHP and IOP programs. Whenever teens come back, and I inquire, ‘so what did learn, what insight did you gain?’ they replay, ‘I learned some coping mechanisms,’ like life is merely to be ‘coped’ with.

I’ve been following your articles for a few years and sharing them with friends.

I think what attracts me is how you challenge routine or things that on the surface seem helpful common practice. Then you parse the nuance of these practices in a way that makes sense to (a non medical) person.

This is another one that does just that.


First of all,
Nick thank you for such a great perspective on stress. It’s something that contributed to my later father’s health decline and death.
Stress is something we all live with it’s how we understand and deal with it is key and this article highlights not the easy so called foxes but actually dealing with the causes which we so often fail to address.

Leave a Reply