Stress Management is a Lie
"Stress management" has been a hot topic, and it feels like even more so recently. But to me, it is a lie. It does not make any sense.
First - what does it mean to "manage" something or someone. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/manage has multiple meanings, but the relevant ones are:
- To direct or to be in charge of.
- To handle or control
- To handle with skill, wield (a tool, weapon etc)
Second - what does "stress" mean? Stress is anything that causes an organism's to activate allostasis and adapt to that stress. (CF The second osteopathic tenet: "The body is capable of self-regulation, self-healing, and health maintenance.") Now stress usually has a negative connotation but it does not need to be; there is "eustress (good stress) and "distress (bad stress)" and the body reacts to both. For the sake of my argument, it does matter whether or not you think stress is good, neutral, or bad.
Third - What is something you have managed (or tried to manage)? Your finances? Other people in a team? Your shopping list? The files on your computer? What do these have in common?
1. There is the possibility of being able to fully direct, be in charge, handle or control these things.
2. You are able to carry out the task consciously.
Fourth - Our entire body and being is involved in adapting to stress - everything from our muscles, nervous system, circulation, immune system, endocrine system.
1. No matter how hard you try, you are not able to to fully direct or control these parts of your physiology. For example, you can only partially consciously hold your breath - your body eventually overrides this ability. Another example, you take a hot bath and did not drink enough fluids and you try to stand up - your body will have a tougher time getting blood to your brain, but don't worry, all your body needs to do is make you become horizontal quickly.
2. You are not able to consciously override your body's mechanisms. For example, your body responds to a sprained ankle by causing inflammation. You cannot consciously make your body not cause swelling, pain, etc.
In other words, we cannot "manage" our stress. It is a complex bundled response of body anatomy/physiology, emotions, thoughts, and more.
But there are two things we CAN do
1. Manage our stressors
- We can avoid, ignore, reduce, or eliminate that which causes a stress reaction.
- This is great for when it is possible (live somewhere warm if cold weather generates an undesirable stress reaction, wear sunglasses when in a place with bright lights)
- but it is not always possible or doing so also causes undesirable effects (your only method of transportation to somewhere becomes suddenly unavailable, someone else bought that last limited edition muffin from the super fancy muffin store)
- We can learn and practice managing OURSELVES, our emotions, thoughts, physiology, and actions. This takes a lot of practice
- First, give attention to your automatic reactions.
-- Become aware of and observe your reactions to a stress: your body/physiology, emotions, and thoughts.
-- Body: There are plenty of studies that show people can alter their blood pressure, muscle tone, pain perception, heart rate to a certain extent (CF biofeedback).
-- Emotions: Automatic emotional reactions to stress can hijack our motivations and actions and reduce the change to respond
-- Thoughts: Automatic thoughts (cognitive biases, rationalization) can do the same thing as automatic emotions
-- Behavior/habits: Surely we can all come up with an example of something we regretted doing in a moment in reaction to a stressor.
- Second, use intention to exercise "response-ability" and RESPOND to the stressor, instead of reacting. (CF Jim Rohn, Stephen Covey)
This takes a lot of practice.
We have built up layers and stacks of reactions and self-defense mechanisms... but people have the ability to hold onto stress reactions and defenses when they are not longer needed (CF Why Zebras Don't get Ulcers by Rober Sapolsky -
So stop trying to manage stress.
Start managing stressors and managing yourself becoming aware of your (physiology, emotion, mind, behavior) reactions and responding instead.
Did I say that this takes a lot of practice?
Now some (or many of you) may say that it is all semantics. Maybe. Probably. Yes. But semantics are important.