Feeling stressed-out without doing anything about it seems as common as deciding to start a new diet on Monday. Even though we know what chronic stress does to our health, adding stress management actions in our life can feel like yet another item on our never-ending to-do list.

Yes, I’m stressed-out, and a relaxing bath or a mindfulness course would probably help, but who has time for that?

If a week is already all about fighting against the clock, how to add a yoga class in it? At that point, managing stress might not be enough.

Fixing the reason instead of symptoms

As Clinical Psychologist Nick Wignall wrote in his comprehensive article, instead of managing stress, we should manage our stressors. His piece is one of the inspirations for my article, so I highly recommend to check it out:

I wanted to take an in-depth look at recognizing the stressors, using the power of the Internet, interviewing my friends, and by doing some self-reflection, as usual. Here’s what I found out.

Cortisol Stress Management Burnout

Putting stressors into boxes

A stressor triggers the stress response, and it can be anything from a messy home to a traffic jam or a screaming kid/boss/partner (you name it). I’m sure everyone can quickly name a few of them.

Stressors are categorized in various ways in the stress management literature. One broad categorization is to divide them into physical and psychological stressors, separating physical strains, such as illnesses, from mental stressors.

An article in PsychCentral divides stressors into four main categories; general stressors (fear and uncertainty), life stressors (adversities), work stressors (no explanation needed), and internal stressors (self-created stress by negative self-talk or other negative perceptions of reality).

Behind the mask of stress lies fear

When we dig deeper, we can point out a couple of elements that are often hidden under our stress — despite of the “category” of it. Those are, e.g., fear or uncertainty of the future, lack of control of the situation, or conflict between one’s capabilities and demands.

Those elements make perfect sense to me. If my stressor is the excessive amount of work, my stress comes from a conflict between the demands and my capabilities. If poor health of my loved one stresses me out, it’s fear and uncertainty speaking. Sudden stressful situations and their unpredictability tend to create a lack of control, which naturally stresses us out.

Take a moment to dive deeper

Let’s say we know the category where our stress derives from. Whether it’s work, life issues or internal stressors, there’s always more to it than just a category. I wanted to elaborate one step further. I asked myself and my friends detailed questions, such as:

Is it too many tasks that cause the stress at work? Or is the reason an unhealthy working environment, or a demanding boss? Or could it be your time management skills that would require some improvements? Are you able to let go of work when you’re off?

Answering honestly can help understand the real stressors at work, which is the first step in reducing work stress.

When it comes to personal life, things can be at least as stressful as stressors at work. At home it can be harder to point out the stressors below the surface:

Is your home stressful because of the state of your close relationships? Are your family’s routines supporting stress-less atmosphere at home? Are you consuming too much social media and spending too much time online, which makes you feel scattered?

Conclusion

By doing this little analyzing task, you’ll suddenly see things more clearly, and spot the real stressors instead of just suffering from a big, scary lump of stress in your mind. And that’s the first step to dim or delete your main stressors.

Below there’s an example of our observations when we discussed the topic with my friends. The first is the general mantra that many of us repeat, and the second comment is one of the conclusions after splitting the work stress into smaller, more manageable pieces:

“I’m so stressed-out because of my job!”

“I feel stressed at work because of my colleague who interrupts my work every 5 minutes.”

See the difference? As a clear issue, the latter one of these problems gets most probably solved faster.

Once you recognize the real stressor, you can act accordingly. That’s when you’re making changes that matter the most. And that’s when you’re reducing your need for future stress management tools.

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