If you’re really serious about wanting to manage your stress and thrive, not merely survive, you’re going to have to start by unlearning all of the outdated assumptions you have about stress, starting with how you define it. Stress is a combination of three things: (1) a potential stressor, (2) what your mind tells you about your ability to cope with it and (3) a stress response that kicks in if you feel unable to cope.
A Potential Stressor: A potential stressor is something that threatens you or has caused you harm or loss. Threat revolves around things that haven’t happened yet. It is anticipatory in nature. For example, imagine that you just got a letter from your auto insurance company telling you that because of a recent accident your rate is going to increase when your policy comes up for renewal next month. You feel threatened by this and unable to cope because you won’t have enough money in your checking account to pay the bill.
Harm or loss involve things that already happened and hurt you in some way. For example, imagine that you received a different letter from your insurance company related to the same accident. This letter states that they have already cancelled your policy and are not reimbursing you for the accident. In this case you have experienced a financial and emotional loss that harmed you. You feel trapped and unable to cope with this news.
What Your Mind Tells You About Potential Stressors: Potential stressors by themselves are neutral. What your mind tells you about your ability to cope with them determines whether or not they become actual stressors and trigger a stress response. Sometimes, what your mind tells you about a potential stressor and your ability to handle it is logical, accurate, and helpful. Other times it is completely illogical, subjective, and unhelpful.
Let’s use the auto insurance rate increase as an example. Imagine that you have a sufficient cushion in your checking account to absorb the increase in the premium described in the example. Your mind can say accurate and helpful things such as, “What a pain. My rates are going to go up after this accident. Maybe it is time for me to start shopping around for a cheaper policy” or ” This really stinks that my rates are going up but I kind of expected it given the accident.” This kind of self-talk is logical and objective and won’t trigger a stress response because it implies that you can cope with the rate increase. :
Your mind also could respond by saying, “This is terrible. I’ll never be able to afford this increase. Why does this stuff always happen to me? I just can’t handle it.” Given the fact that you have the money in your checking and can handle the rate increase this type of self-talk is inaccurate, illogical, and definitely not very helpful. It will certainly trigger a stress response.
The Stress Response: The stress response was studied extensively in the early part of the 20th century. It was found that once your mind tells you, “this is threatening and I can’t cope,” your brain instantly converts the potential stressor into an actual stressor and triggers a stress response. This response prepares your body to fight or flee from the stressor. During the stress response your brain triggers the release of hormones, salts, and sugars to give you energy. It also triggers your blood pressure and heart rate to increase and tenses your muscles to get ready for action. This is known as the fight or flight response because it gets you ready to fight or flee the stressor. Although this response can save your life by combating real threats to your wellbeing, the long-term effects of this response can cause serious physical and mental health problems if it is triggered too often.:
In the late 20th century another type of response called the challenge response was discovered. Most people confuse the challenge response with the stress response because they are very similar. Like the stress response, it mobilizes energy and gets your body ready to take action. Unlike the stress response, however, it is not harmful to your body or mind. The challenge response combines the mobilized energy with helpful thoughts, positive emotions, and feelings of being able to go beyond coping and to thrive.
Chances are that you’ve already used the challenge response to get “psyched up” for an athletic competition, a job interview, or an important test. Unlike the stress response which can stay alive long after the threat is gone, the challenge response usually shuts down once the challenge is met.
A New Way Of Looking at Coping: The Five R’s
Since stress is multi-faceted it makes sense that coping should also be multi-dimensional. It is not enough to learn one or two coping strategies and think you can use these against all stressors and stressful circumstances. The key to effective coping is having multiple lines of defense against stress that combine many different strategies. The Five R’s of Coping—Rethink, Relax, Release, Reduce, and Reorganize—combine to provide a powerful multi-level defense system that you can use to combat any type of stressor under any circumstance.
Rethink works by helping you change the way you think about potential stressors and your ability to cope with them. It also helps you slow down your runaway mind so you can think more clearly in stressful situations.
Relax works by putting your mind into a relaxed state that cancels out the stress response in your body. I call this leading with the mind to relax the body. Relax uses techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, meditation, visualization, and autogenic training to relax your tense, achy muscles and slow down your runaway mind.
Release works by using physical activity and exercise to get rid of stress-related muscle tension and nervous energy in healthy ways. Getting rid of stress-related muscle tension and nervous energy in turn relaxes and slows down your mind. I call this leading with your body to relax your mind.
Reduce works by showing you how to cut back on the overall volume of stress in your life. It also shows you how to turn potential stressors into challenges that help you operate at peak performance and get the most out of each day.
Reorganize works by helping you develop a hardier, more stress-resistant lifestyle. By increasing your level of wellness across all seven dimensions (physical, social, spiritual, emotional, intellectual, occupational, and environmental) you become hardier and have more coping resources that prevent stress.
In future posts I’ll show you how to use this new way of looking at stress and coping to build a Personal Stress Management Plan that incorporates elements of all of the Five R’s.
Dr. Rich Blonna is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Public Health at William Paterson University where he has taught Stress Management for 30 years. He is the author of multiple books and articles on stress management and is the creator of the Five R’s Model.