Skillful Response to Stressors

Whenever we have the feeling of stress, it is our own responsibility to do something about it. We always have the option to avoid, adapt to, or accept a stressor; to communicate assertively; or to take action to improve the situation.


1. Avoiding stressors:

Many environments, persons, and experiences that we find stressful are avoidable, but we keep experiencing them by choice, habit, or lack of awareness.

In the moment of stress we should ask ourselves if there are external stressors that we could physically avoid, or worrisome thoughts that we could stop troubling ourselves with. “Right now, what is the cause of stress and difficulty? What is going on around me? What am I thinking and feeling? What can I let go of?”

Sometimes a radical change may be necessary in order to regain balance and wellness: we may need to quit an overly stressful job, leave an abusive marriage, or even move out of a country. Of course, these are not easy changes to make, but they are nearly always possible.

Intentionally avoiding something that causes us harm is not the same thing as running away from problems or being irresponsible. On the contrary, it is wise to look carefully at our situation and avoid unnecessary stress.


2. Adapting to stressors:

If we cannot avoid a stressor entirely, we may still be able to reduce its intensity. For example, if we find noise stressful, we could wear earplugs. In other words, we compromise. We give up what we would prefer (peace and quiet) in order to maintain what we have (a seat on the subway). This principle is important in interpersonal relationships, where we find that our preferences are not always shared by others. Black and white thinking is the cause of a great deal of distress.

To adapt, we ask ourselves, “How can I improve this situation? What is the most harmonious and agreeable way to manage? Who could help me see a better way?”


3. Accepting stressors:

Accepting the present conditions and the things we cannot change is a healthy response to stress (and life in general). For instance, if there is rain when we hoped for a sunny day, it is best to admit that ‘there is rain today’. In the long run we will have to accept all the inevitable natural cycles, including aging, sickness and death.

In the higher stages of acceptance we do more than merely tolerating; we actually attempt to find the good in an undesirable situation. We ask ourselves, “If there were anything good about this situation, what would it be?” We begin to re-frame stressors as learning opportunities, and see that almost any situation can be mined for meaning and value. We could even smile and laugh at ourselves when feeling stressed. On the rainy day, we could admit that rain provides our drinking water— so we are totally dependent on it for our survival.

Eventually we learn to take 100% responsibility for all our thoughts, feelings, and experiences. We realize that the emotional triggers, sore points, and “buttons” inside of us only become a problem when we choose to let them bother us. Rather than blaming another person for our misery, we could admit that our thoughts and feelings of the present are 100% our own.

If someone crosses a personal boundary of ours, then it is our own responsibility to do something about it. We can move away physically, or communicate assertively. If we feel helpless, we can ask another person for help. And if the stress occurred in the past, then we can take action in the present to express our upset, release the pain, and heal our inner self. This inner work (perhaps with a qualified therapist) helps us change our attitude to one of acceptance.


4. Assertive communication:

Honest communication of our thoughts and feelings is an essential part of stress management. Our communication could take written form- a letter in which we describe all the bothersome details- or it could be a direct verbal expression. Our speaking might be a quick and powerful “NO”, or a long, nuanced description of our true thoughts and feelings. By expressing our desire to improve the situation, and by sharing our specific ideas about the steps we could take, we open the way for change to occur.

Being assertive means that we take an active role in improving our situation. Rather than silently holding a grudge, being resentful, or feeling helpless and victimized, we take control of our emotions and do our best to state our truth. We stand up and proclaim the way it is for us. We assert or put forward our ideals. Being assertive lies somewhere between passivity and aggression; it requires courage and compassion.

To communicate effectively, we can ask, “Is there something that needs to be said? Am I holding something inside myself, something that should be communicated directly to (name)?” “What is the best time and place to talk with (name)? What is the best approach?”


5. Practical Action:

At other times a specific action step is the best way to reduce stress. For example, if we feel rushed and anxious every time we commute to work, then a simple change in our daily routine could help. We could try leaving home an hour earlier than usual, and listen to some relaxing music on the way. This could take the edge off our transition from home to work.

And sometimes, when we are faced with a dilemma or experiencing turbulent emotions, the best thing is to do nothing for the time being. If it is hard to know what to say or do, then we can simply let go of the pressure to decide for the moment. Eventually the way will become clear.