Getting Smart About Stress

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If you are experiencing stress at work or at home, and if it is not resolving despite your best efforts, then you probably need to get smart about stress. But let me be clear. What you need to learn about is your stress. Because stress as a concept or in the abstract is not what’s affecting you. Rather, it’s your unique and habitual ways of experiencing and responding to life’s events (stressors) that keep you in a “box,” and it’s the boxed-in feeling that is your stress.  

The Answer

Two heads are better than one, especially when one of the two heads is someone professionally trained to help you understand your box and how it works to keep you boxed in. The professional I am talking about it is a psychologically trained professional – a psychologist, psychiatric social worker, or licensed mental health counselor.  

When you injure your knee or shoulder, you are usually sent to a physical therapist, and the therapist’s help is usually time-limited. The diagnosis and cause, i.e., what you might be doing habitually that produces the strain and injury, come first. Then there is a treatment regimen part of which occurs in the physical therapist’s office and even more of it is assigned as guidance for behavior outside the clinic. It may include certain strength and skill building, but may also focus on what not to do.  

Well, the psychologically trained professional can help you in a similar role. It can be time-limited, perhaps no more than 4-6 sessions, particularly if it is caught early and is linked to a specific situation. But even when it’s become a more chronic issue, more global in scope, it will seldom take more than 8-12 sessions to unravel the causes and identify and apply solution strategies. How you draw upon the relationship beyond that will depend on the person and situation.  

The Critical Factors

There are internal and external causes, and inside and outside work to do in order to break out of the box, and establish patterns of living that keep you out of the box. They are psycho-social factors rather than tendons and muscles. Personality, temperament, and interpersonal patterns of behavior (thought, feeling, action) constitute the focus of the “inside work.”   

Increased self-awareness frees us to make choices rather allowing autopilot (habits) to make choices for us. These internal causal factors are not set in concrete. We are malleable creatures; it’s what makes us so adaptive. And usually what’s needed is less radical transformation than moderation and management of tendencies that are not inherently flawed.   

The outside work consists of carefully characterizing the situations, relationships, and issues that evoke anxiety and trigger a stress response (external factors). Even more important, is appreciating how the external and internal factors interact to generate the “cognitive appraisal” (thoughts & beliefs) and feelings (fear & threat) that define our boxed-in state.   

Your stress is not “all in your head.” It is real, as is evidenced by the actions and the consequences of the action that it triggers. However, it’s a reality that you can change. And the longer you take to initiate this change, the more your boxed-in ways of feeling and acting will come to represent you in your relations with others. The walls of the box become more impermeable, the issues more global.  

There Are No Off-the-Shelf Solutions

Yes, we know that exercise is a helpful way to discharge the stresses and strains that can accumulate in the course of a busy day. Diet can influence our energy level as well as how well we sleep. The use of mindfulness meditation can be a very effective tool for interrupting the escalating emotions that trigger reactivity. Skills in cognitive-behavioral coping are well proven as a means of stress management.  

But remember, if it’s your stress that you want to address, then you must understand what makes it yours. That is what a psychotherapist can help you do. Call it personal coaching if you wish. Look at it as an in-depth approach to increasing your emotional intelligence (EQ). But whatever you do, don’t neglect this important avenue of personal capacity building. It really pays off, at home and at work!