We all know what it’s like to be stressed-out: Our boss springs a new deadline for a major project on us, the roofers still haven’t fixed that leak in the bedroom, little Jonny’s sick with the flu, little Jannie has a soccer tournament all weekend, those CEUs we were supposed to finish last month are due tomorrow, and oh yeah, it’s tax season.
It’s as though all the possible challenges in our life colluded at a secret meeting to simultaneously ambush us, creating a perfect storm of chaos, overwhelm, and exhaustion.
At times like this, it’s marathon just to get to the end of the day, only to wake up to a to-do list that somehow expanded overnight. Treading water is another metaphor that comes to mind.
While we’ve all slogged through stretches of life like this and survived to tell the tale, some of us live in a constant state of stress. In fact, we may be so accustomed to a stressed-out lifestyle that—like the proverbial fish in the water—we don’t even know it’s there anymore.
Until we have a hernia, that is. Or our OCD flares up to unmanageable levels. Or our spouse threatens divorce.
At which point we either hit up the self-help section of Amazon or call our local therapist’s office looking for stress management techniques and coping strategies.
We think to ourselves: “If I could just learn to manage my stress better, I know I could save my marriage.” Or, “If only I could get another half hour of sleep, I’d be able to cope.”
As a therapist, I hear this a lot. Folks who are chronically stressed-out are looking for ways they can decrease how stressed they feel. Makes sense.
But here’s the thing: It’s not all in your head. When it comes to being consistently stressed-out, the problem isn’t stress management, it’s stressor management. When your life is full of stress-producing things, it doesn’t matter how much mental judo and mindfulness you do, you’re eventually going to feel stressed-out. And the only long-term solution is to more effectively manage the stressors in your life.
Distinguishing Stressors from Stress
The crucial distinction is that stress and the feeling of being stressed-out are distinct from stressors.
- Stress is a physical reaction to something dangerous or challenging: Muscles tense, pupils dilate, respiration and heart rate increase, etc.
- Stressed-out is a term we’ve invented to describe the combination of physical feelings and emotions that go along with a constantly elevated stress response: exhausted, frustrated, frantic, worried, anxious, on-edge, etc.
- A stressor is a thing that produces a stress response: A bear chasing you or being fired from your job.
The secret to effective stress reduction is to stop trying to reduce your stress once it’s arrived, and instead, work to reduce the quantity and quality of the stressors in your life so that you end up with less stress in the first place.
Suppose every time your father calls, he ends up berating you and making snide remarks about your “pathetic” job. A stress management approach would be to do deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation after each phone call. While this might provide some short-term relief, your stress response is going to kick right back into high gear each and every time you hear your phone ring and see your dad’s name on the screen.
The stressor management approach would be to vocalize how upsetting your father’s remarks are to him, set a clear boundary and consequence for what will happen if the behavior continues, and follow through on those consequences should they persist. For example, you might let him know that if he continues to be cruel on the phone, you’ll start screening his calls.
In other words, stress management techniques and coping skills treat the symptoms (stress) not the underlying disease (stressors). And there’s only so many “stress-reduction” Band-Aids we can apply before things get so painful (we get so stressed-out) that we need to go in and do some surgery.
Here Come the Buts…
I can hear the objections now:
But what if I can’t change my stressors?! My dad is 87 and may die soon. It’d be too cruel not to answer the phone when he calls.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes we do face utterly unavoidable and unmanageable stressors in our lives: People get mugged; houses burn down; wars break out. When stressors are truly unavoidable and unmanageable, stress management is our best option.
But for many of us, most of the stressors in our life are not really that class of thing. Most of the stressors we face on a daily basis—like a cruel family member—are at least somewhat avoidable or changeable. The problem is, making these changes requires some difficult tradeoffs, often in the form of negative emotions. And in order to avoid these painful emotions, we fall back to stress management as a way to avoid the difficult work of managing our lives and environment.
For example, it’s likely that you would initially feel very guilty when you let your phone go to voicemail each time your berating dad called. Thoughts about how cruel a son/daughter you are would race through your mind leaving a trail of negative emotion in their wake. And while these feelings can be very real and uncomfortable, they’re often:
- Unrealistic or inaccurate. Does being unwilling to tolerate verbal abuse mean you’re a bad son/daughter?
- Not nearly as intense as we imagine them to be. You may feel an initial surge of guilt or remorse when you don’t pick up the phone, but will it really be intolerable?
- Not as long-lasting as we worry they will be. Will you continue to feel as bad about setting a boundary on your dad’s abuse after the 20th time as you did the first time?
Unfortunately, we never get to learn the real answers to these questions if every time we’re confronted with a major stressor we avoid managing it and instead try to manage our response to it. And if we never learn the actual answers to these questions, we naturally tend to fill in our own answer from our imagination, which almost always takes the form of the worst-case scenario.
We convince ourselves the problem is within us when in reality it’s very often out there in our environment. But if we could learn to have a stronger tolerance to emotional discomfort, I think we’d all be surprised at how much change to our stressors and environment we can actually achieve.
Which is why, if we find ourselves consistently stressed-out and overwhelmed, it’s important to take a good hard look at our stress and ask: Are more stress-reduction techniques really the answer, or is it possible that I need to make some serious and difficult changes in my life?
A Few Tips for Learning to Manage Your Stressors Rather Than Your Stress
If the whole stress management approach hasn’t been working for you, here are a few tips for getting started on the stressor management path.
As usual, the first step is awareness. If you take nothing else away from this article it should be to try and build a habit of distinguishing between stress (a feeling or physical response) and stressors (actual things that cause those feelings and responses). After all, we can’t very well start managing our stressors more effectively without becoming aware of them and noticing how and where they show up in our lives.
2. Practice Saying “No.”
If we want to feel less stressed, we need to limit the number of stressors we let into our lives. But if we’re too afraid or uncomfortable to say no to people, we’re not going to be able to effectively limit our exposure to stressors. Most of us have a hard time saying no because we’re afraid of how we’ll feel (guilty, ashamed) or how others will feel about us if we say no (angry, disappointed, upset). So start small and look for very small opportunities to practice saying no and learning what really happens (teaser: it’s not as bad as you’re imagining). Once we start accumulating real evidence that the outcomes of saying no to small things aren’t terrible, we’ll be more confident saying no in the future to larger things.
3. Embrace the FOMO
Many of us maintain overly-busy and jam-packed lifestyles which don’t allow for sufficient relaxation and rest. One big reason why is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). We say yes to everything because we imagine all the great things we’ll (hypothetically) be missing out on and then regret if we decline an opportunity. The key is to come to terms with the inevitability that we can’t do and experience everything. And that if we try, massive levels of stress are going to be the likely side effect.
4. Practice Saying “I would like…”
As important as saying no is to limiting the amount and quality of stressors in our life, equally important is the ability to confidently and directly ask for what we want. Too many stressors at the office? Ask for permission to work from home once a week. Exhausted taking care of the kids all day? Ask for a part-time housekeeper or that your partner take the kids a couple times a week in the evening so you can go to the gym or meet a friend for coffee. Of course, many of us have a hard time asking for what we want because (surprise!) we’re afraid of how we’ll feel or we’ll make someone else feel as a result. So, as usual, start small and see how it goes. Some short-term emotional discomfort is the price we have to be willing to pay if we want less stress in the long-term.
The big idea is that many of us spend too much time and energy trying to manage our stress when the more effective strategy would be to manage our stressors — the things that produce stress in the first place. The reason we have so much trouble doing this is because it involves a lot of (temporary) emotional discomfort: Saying no to people is scary; setting boundaries on bad behavior is uncomfortable. But if we’re unwilling to experience some short-term emotional discomfort, we’re likely to remain stuck with a life that’s full of stressors and consequently, full of stress.