There is an explanation. Stressors (challenging events) aren’t experienced the same way by everyone. Stress is caused by a convergence of two factors: The nature and degree of the stressor and the temperament and skills of the individual.
A tornado would certainly qualify as a “stressor”. But a person with an easy-going personality, good coping skills and a loving and supportive group of friends and family will manage it pretty well. A person who is easily stressed, who has never developed methods for coping or who is a loner is going to have a much, much harder time.
Similarly, the break-up of a relationship can cause a person who is insecure or isolated to collapse while a similar break-up, though sad, doesn’t keep a more secure and social person from moving on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationships were any more or less meaningful or that the break-ups were any more or less heart-breaking. The quality of the two people’s internal strengths and external supports are what made the difference.
On the other hand, it’s just true that a pile up of stressors can make even the most well-adjusted and social person feel like hiding under the covers. Sometimes life hands out too many difficult things at once to deal with. Sometimes, in either a burst of optimism or an inability to say no, an individual takes on more than he or she can handle.
The answer to having a less stressful life, then, is to either decrease the number or intensity of stressors or to increase your own ability to cope. Ideally, you’ll work on both. You’ll never be stress-free. In fact, life would be pretty dull without some stress in it. A reasonable amount of stress is what motivates us to make changes in our lives and to figure out how to address or adapt to challenges. But you can take charge of how stress impacts your life.
4 tips for cutting down on stressors
- Get specific: You may have been so stressed out that you haven’t stopped to figure out just what is bothering you so much. One of my clients regularly complained about how stressful her job was. When challenged to think more specifically about it, she realized that it was the noise level at work was making her feel tense. She got permission from her supervisor to wear ear-buds. Ahhh. Peace. Not every situation can be so easily solved, of course. But the first step is to tease out just what is stressing you so much.
- Eliminate the stressor. Some stressors can be eliminated — if you would just decide to do it. I’ve had more than a few clients who left writing important reports until the very last minute. Of course they were stressed out. They’d given themselves only hours to do what could have been stretched over days. The simple way to eliminate their stress would be to start projects further from the deadline. Another client was constantly stressed by a car that needed one expensive repair after another. Although fond of the car, she realized that the way to regain financial breathing room was to trade it in for a less fancy but reliable model.
- Reduce the stressor: Not every stressor can be banished but sometimes they can be reduced. Perhaps you’ve been asked to contribute to your kid’s team potluck during an especially busy week. You could spend hours making something gourmet. But chances are the kids would be just as happy (maybe happier) if you picked up a pizza.
- Limit the Stressors. Sometimes it’s the number of stressors, not the level of intensity of any one of them, that puts a person on edge. Taken separately, none of the issues is a big deal. But the cumulative effect may be overwhelming. If you feel your stress level rising, ask yourself if you have taken on too many responsibilities. You only have so much energy and time to spend each day. Work on reducing the quantity of stressors and you will find that the quality of your life will improve.
4 Tips for Boosting Your Stress-Busting Skills:
- Increase your problem-solving skills: Take the time to learn how to approach problems calmly and systematically. There is plenty of advice on the Internet. Use it. Observe and learn from people you know who do it well. Increase your problem solving confidence by playing games that present you with scenarios to solve. (Search “Problem-solving scenarios, Adult”.)
- Learn some relaxation techniques. People may tell you to “relax”. But that’s easier said than done — unless you know how. Take a look at some books or websites on mindfulness. Learn how to breathe in a way that is calming. Develop a calming fantasy that you can escape to for a few minutes. Consider taking a yoga class or a class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
- Keep things in perspective: There’s a big difference between an inconvenience and a disaster. Remind yourself not to react to them as if they are the same. Running out of milk is inconvenient. Running out of money to buy food is a disaster. When stressed, it’s often useful to ask yourself: “Is this really a disaster?” Usually it’s not. Save your stress for the big stuff.
- Develop your network of caring people: Research has repeatedly shown that people who have a support system fare better during difficult times. You don’t need hundreds of friends but you do need at least a few. Cultivate and maintain your friendships. If you don’t know how, take a look at the articles here at PsychCentral that provide some coaching.
Yes, you can reduce your stress. Understand that feeling stressed is only a signal that you need to make some changes. Either decrease the number and/or intensity of the stressors in your life or upgrade your stress-reducing skills — or both. By taking action, you can live a calmer, more peaceful life.