Stress is an everyday part of all our lives with a profound impact on our health and wellbeing. Stress can be understood as our combined physical, cognitive and emotional responses to an event that is perceived as threatening or challenging. Our physical responses include either heightened sensations such as sweaty palms and a racing heart, or a feeling of immobilization. Our Stressed thoughts are negative and overgeneralized such as “I’ll never succeed” and are accompanied by emotions such as fear and anxiety. We all have strategies that we put in place in order to manage our stress. But what happens when stress becomes an overbearing part of our lives? When it affects your ability to love, work and play? When your relationships, health, and sleep become disrupted? Stress can disrupt every aspect of our lives and so developing ways of coping with stress is essential to sound mental and physical health.
I recently emphasized the importance of developing an awareness of yourself – your bodily response, thoughts, and feelings – as the underpinning basis for coping with stress. By noticing the situations that make you feel stressed, identifying your thoughts, emotions and bodily responses, and the strategies you put in place to manage stress, you can start to develop an awareness of stress and its effects on your life. This awareness is the first and probably most significant step in effectively managing and reducing stress.
Now that you have this awareness, where to from here? One avenue of coping with stress involves actually addressing the situational aspect of the stressful experience by simply avoiding it. Through building your awareness by noticing the situations that make you feel stressed, you can start to make active choices as to whether you have the capacity to avoid these situations entirely. This approach to coping with stress may sound quite counterintuitive. So often we are told to “face our fears” and actively address and engage with challenging situations, but what if we were to give ourselves permission to opt out of situations that simply are not helpful? What if we took a protective and self-preserving approach that said “I can eliminate unnecessary stress?” While many of us assume we have to “grin and bear it,” the reality is that we actually have, as a way of managing stress, the option of avoiding the stress precipitating the situation entirely!
Let’s look at some specific strategies for coping with stress by avoiding stress inducing situations:
Say “no.” Notice the extent to which you feel comfortable taking on tasks and responsibilities. Through simply getting to know your limits and place appropriate boundaries, you can avoid many stressful situations. By sticking to your limits in both your personal and professional life, and not taking on additional responsibilities and stretching yourself too thin, you can ensure that you avoid the stressful situation of being overextended. This also allows you to commit to the things that enrich your life and avoid what overextends and stresses you. So, for instance, you may decide not to take on an additional responsibility at work and choose instead to pursue a hobby.
Stamp out people stress. Notice your relationships and develop an awareness of those relationships that are a consistent source of stress in your life. If the stress-inducing relationship is not important enough to work on, then make a decision to limit it or end it completely. For instance, if you have a difficult colleague at work, you may choose to limit face to face contact and try and communicate mostly via e-mail.
Take charge of your environment. Notice the aspects of your environment that stress you and avoid them where possible. If driving to work in peak traffic stresses you out, take another route or leave a little earlier. If constantly reading news sites makes you feel anxious, stop reading them. Taking charge of your environment might mean creating technology-free zones in your life by, for example, not taking your laptop to bed or switching off your phone at dinner time.
While not all stress can be avoided, you may be surprised by the liberating possibilities that this approach to coping with stress generates. Through developing an awareness of your capacity to avoid stressful situations, by understanding your role as gatekeeper to stressful situations, you may be surprised by the number of stressors in your life that you can eliminate. Give yourself permission to visit your mother-in-law only when absolutely necessary and stop reading the news feed that pops up on your phone and notice the difference!
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly-experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She is registered with the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a Clinical Psychologist and is bound by their code of ethics and conduct. She worked as an academic at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg) for twelve years and has run a private practice since 1997. Dr. Stacey has wide ranging skills and expertise in the areas of trauma, complex trauma, anxiety, stress and adjustment issues. She loves going on holiday, discovering and exploring new places. Find Stacey on LinkedIn.