Why managing your stressors, not your stress, is the most effective way to handle chronic stress.
We all know the feeling of chronic stress—tense shoulders, a racing mind that never seems to stop, and that crushing sense of overwhelm, like we’re trending water and barely managing to keep our head above the waves.
While we’re all painfully familiar with the feeling of stress, most of us are less familiar with the concept of a stressor.
Technically, a stressor is a situation or even in our life that causes stress. The late-night email from your boss with a subject like of “URGENT” is a stressor, while the worry, anxiety, racing heart, and tight shoulder muscles is your stress response.
More than a mere semantic distinction, learning to distinguish stressors from stress itself is actually the best way to reduce chronic stress in your life.
Stressor Management Beats Stress Management Every Time
I frequently see new clients in my clinical practice who explain how stressed they are and hope that I can teach them more effective stress-management techniques. They’re stressed out and, understandably, they would like some tools to help them feel less stressed.
I explain to my clients that stress management techniques are really a last-resort. When it comes to managing chronic stress effectively, the best strategy is to get to the root of the problem. And for most people with chronic stress, their core problem is too many unmanned stressors in their lives.
Reduce the number and intensity of the stressors in your life and you remove the need to manage stress in the first place.
Let’s use the example from earlier:
Suppose your boss is in the habit of sending long, complicated, “urgent” emails late at night with an expectation that you’ll deal with them immediately. Understandably, these emails (stressors) produce quite a bit of stress at a time when you’d like to be relaxed.
Rather than trying to reduce your stress levels after getting one of these emails by, say, doing deep breathing exercises or repeating positive mantras, what if you tried to manage the stressor itself? What if you set up a meeting with your boss and calmly, and rationally explained that you’d be more effective in your work overall if you didn’t have the stress of these late night emails and the poor sleep they resulted in?
Such a conversation would be difficult in its own way, but addressing the root cause of your stress is generally the smarter way to do stress management.
But what if I can’t change the stressors in my life?
It’s true that sometimes a particular stressor or set of stressors is unavoidable and unchangeable. In this case, learning to manage your own response to those stressors—stress management—is the best option.
Often the best way to begin managing your stress response more effectively is to learn how to identify and change unhelpful or negative self-talk. It’s stressful enough when difficult things happen. But when are habituate way of thinking about stressors is itself highly negative, we end up feeling even worse than we need to.
You can learn more about changing negative thinking patterns here:
That being said, there are many situations where managing stressors seems impossible or too difficult. But with a little bit a little more awareness and creativity, it may be possible to significantly reduce the number or intensity of the stressors in your life.
Let’s take a look at a handful of practical strategies to help you manage the stressors in your life more effectively.
5 Tips for Managing Your Stressors Better
Remember that the most effective form of stressed management is to cut stress off at the source by managing stressors rather than trying to deal with it “on the fly” by reducing your stress response.
Here are a few suggestions for doing just that based on my experience as a therapist helping clients in my clinical practice with stress management.
1. Distinguish stress from stressors in daily life.
Many people don’t even consider managing their stressors because they simply didn’t have a name for it. But once they have the name, their awareness tends to increase dramatically. And as a result, they begin to notice small opportunities for managing their stressors rather than their stress.
Much like after researching a new car, you start to notice that particular make and model of car everywhere, when you start thinking in terms of both stress and stressors, you begin to see stressors all over the place in your life, both large and small. This increased awareness is the essential first step in managing those stressors and reducing your overall level of stress.
Action Step: Try to get in the habit of using the feeling of stress as a reminder to stop and ask yourself: What’s the stressor in this situation? Begin with relatively ordinary, small-stakes situations like driving to work in traffic or grocery shopping on a busy Sunday evening.
Learn More: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky is probably the single best book on stress, stressors, and how chronic stress impacts every aspect of our body and lives.
2. Track your stressors.
While it’s important to begin distinguishing stressors from stress conceptually and in regular life, it’s also critical to be aware of which stressors specifically are impacting you and your life. To develop a better “stress map” of your life, it’s a good idea to track your stressors, at least for a period of time.
Consider an analogy: A good budget is the foundation of a healthy financial life. But before you can create a specific budget, you need to be aware of where all your money comes from and goes—your income and your expenses. And while income is relatively simple, it can be shocking how many different places we end up spending our money.
Just how tracking expenses helps us get clear about what we need to do to improve our financial life, tracking our stressors is an important first step to improving our mental health and emotional life.
Action Step: Create a notes file on your phone called “stressors.” For one week, anytime you feel an increase in your stress levels, note what the stressor was and how much it stress it lead to. You might rate it 1-10 or low-medium-high.
3. Practice saying no.
Arguably the biggest source of unnecessary stressors and subsequent stress is ourselves. More specifically, because we have a difficult time saying no and enforcing boundaries on what we don’t want, we end up taking on far more than we want or can reasonably handle.
What makes saying no hard is emotion, either in ourselves or what we imagine other people are feeling. Because we can’t tolerate this negative feeling, we “give in” and say yes, taking on yet another stressor we don’t really want.
The key to getting better at saying no is to slowly build up a tolerance to the emotional discomfort that goes along with it.
Action Step: Find a recurring situation or event where saying no would be mildly uncomfortable but not too difficult. Practice saying no in that situation repeatedly until it the discomfort goes away or decreases significantly. Then move up to a slightly more uncomfortable situation. Rinse and repeat until you’re able to say no confidently in big situations.
Learn More: The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy Paterson is the best book I know on the topic of assertiveness, boundaries, and how to respect yourself enough to say no when it matters. You can also read this guide I wrote: Assertiveness: A Beginner’s Guide to Standing Up for Yourself
4. Schedule more “white space.”
In visuals arts and design, the term white space refers to the intentional use of black space to enhance the visual effect or usability of a work of art or design.
Consider which of the following is both more visually appealing and easier to read:
The second one is superior both aesthetically and functionally because it has plenty of white space and room to breathe.
Just like in visual design, our lives benefit greatly from white space. This is especially true when it comes to chronic stress and managing stressors. When your life is a constant stream of one stressor after the next, you have no time to recharge and rest, and as a result, feel chronically depleted and exhausted.
On the other hand, if you intentionally build in white space into your days and weeks, you’ll find it far easier to manage the many stressors in your life.
Action Step: Once a day, schedule 30 minutes of white space into your calendar and keep it sacred. Refrain from doing anything effortful or stressful in this white space time. For more ideas on what to do with your white space time, see the following tip below.
Learn More: Check out the wonderful podcast from Jocelyn K. Glei called Hurry Slowly.
5. Make time for deliberate relaxation
For most of us, relaxation isn’t exactly at the top of the priority list. Ideally, we manage to squeeze it in if we’re lucky enough to get all our real work done. But when push comes to shove and things are tight, time for relaxation tends to fall by the wayside.
But we put our wellbeing and performance on the line when we don’t consider relaxation every bit as important a component of life and work as getting to the gym, staying late to finish a project, or earning a new degree.
Ultimately, reducing stressors and stress from our lives is only one side of the problem. We can also learn to manage our stressors and stress more effectively by intentionally adding in time for genuine rest and relaxation.
Here’s an example:
I worked with an immensely busy and stressed out CEO in therapy once who came up with one of my favorite and most effective ideas for deliberate relaxation. He told his assistant to schedule a 15 minute block of time somewhere into the middle of every day. During this 15 minutes, my client would pop in some headphones and listen to his favorite musical artist, walk around the block of his office and spend 10 minutes sitting on bench watching old videos of his family and kids on his phone.
Action Step: Spend 20 minutes with a blank sheet of paper and brainstorm as many ideas as you can for activities—big and small—that would be genuinely relaxing. Then, commit to regularly scheduling these activities into your calendar just like you would an important doctors appointment or business meeting.
Summary and Key Points
Most people try to reduce stress itself when they’re overwhelmed. But often the more effective strategy is to try and reduce and manage the stressors in your life—the things that cause your stress in the first place.
Here are 5 practical ideas for getting started with the stressor management approach to stress reduction:
- Get in the habit of distinguishing stress from stressors in everyday life.
- Track your stressors.
- Practice saying no.
- Schedule more white space into your life
- Make time for deliberate relaxation
Sometimes stress is unavoidable, in which case, learning to manage our stress directly is essential. But we shouldn’t let this blind us to the many ways we can—with a little creativity and planning—cut down the stressors and source of stress itself.