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The Subtleties of Stress-Management

Earlier last year, in the span of two months, my wife and I experienced a great deal of transition: I finished my master’s paper and graduated from school, we sold a condo and bought a house, we got married, and I started a business. Needless to say, we experienced a fair amount of stress. (In the picture, you can see my wife and I on the day we got our new house. Yes, we look happy – and we are! Yet, I’m also thinking, “What have we done? Can we really afford this? Am I ready for this responsibility?”)

As I look back at that time, I wonder how we managed it. Even now, as our lives have become more stable, I still experience stress. And, while I have plenty of coping and stress-management skills, sometimes they seem less helpful than I’d like them to be (not to mention that as my stress rises, I lose motivation to do the things that actually help lessen my stress).

If you search the internet for stress management, you’ll find a lot of great tips, and many of them can and do work, at least some of the time. I’ve even written on this subject before in the context of life transitions. Yet, like me, you may find that these tips don’t always work as well as we might hope.

Stress-Management is not one-size fits all

The main problem with stress-management tips is that they are presented as a bullet-proof solution when, in fact, it makes quite good sense that they don’t always work as advertised. No simple advice can account for your specific life circumstances.

For instance, in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky gives the example of being asked by a reporter about what reduces stress in his life. Upon citing his ‘fabulous marriage,’ the reporter responded that she couldn’t use that information in her article as most of the magazine’s readership was high-up executives of Fortune 500 companies, many of who were not married or perhaps did not have the time to create ‘fabulous’ marriages. The example set by Sapolsky for reducing stress just wasn't realistic for these people.

That said, here are a few examples of caveats that ‘stress-management tips’ should include (borrowed from Sapolsky’s book):

Exercise: Exercise does indeed have benefits for improving mood, mostly due to the fact that exercise increases the level of beta-endorphins in your body. Exercise can also increase your feelings of accomplishment and empowerment. However, the fact is, exercise typically only has these positive effects for a few hours. Therefore, you need to exercise regularly for sustained amounts of time. Sapolsky recommends a minimum of 20-30 minutes of aerobic exercise a few times per week in order to reap the benefits of exercise. Furthermore, if you’re going to exercise, you have to choose something you enjoy doing. If you feel like you’re forcing yourself to exercise, the stress benefits disappear and you can actually do more harm than good.

Reframing: Reframing is a cognitive skill that you can develop to help change your perspective on a stressor. For example, if you regularly argue with your partner, you may choose to focus on the positive aspects of the arguing (“We are passionate!”) rather than the harmful effects. Such reframing has shown to lower levels of stress hormones in the body. However, if done improperly, the short-term benefits can be outweighed by the amount of stress hormones that will result if you are then unprepared for a negative outcome. If you lower your stress by focusing on the passion in your relationship, you may be unprepared when your partner decides enough is enough and ends the relationship.

Social Support: You’ve probably experienced the pitfalls associated with the advice that social support will help lower your stress. Certainly, having social connection can have that impact. However, it’s not always the case. When it comes to social connection, you have to be willing to acknowledge that some people may be helpful in some circumstances and not in others. Sapolsky writes, “[A] close, intimate relationship with the wrong person can be anything but stress-reducing.”

Flexibility: the alternative to a magic bullet

As the above examples show, stress-management is not so simple as saying, “Do this thing, and you’ll feel better” – the truth is something more nuanced. Coping can take a variety of forms, and some will work better in certain circumstances while others may actually cause more stress. Again, Sapolsky provides a great example in his book where he explores how someone may reduce stress around a big exam coming up. One way to deal with the stress is to study. Another way might be to reframe, saying, “‘There’s more to life than this class….’” It’s not enough to say that one of these is better than the other; rather, they are both useful, but perhaps at different times (studying before and reframing after will likely yield lower stress overall).

Therefore, finding the best way to cope with stress will depend on you, your circumstances, and both short-term and long-term planning. Sometimes, it can be helpful to have some support with this, both in learning new tools as well as seeing patterns of where your current methods of coping are no longer truly supporting you. If you’d like support finding strategies that work effectively for you, please look into my new stress-relief appointments, which are designed to help you not only learn new tools but also to help your body and brain learn to automatically trend towards calmer states.

To learn more about stress and its impacts, check out Sapolsky’s book.

Reframe image courtesy of Dawn Ashley.

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