Principles of Stress Management
Adapt and Improve
I remember learning two ways to build a fire as a Boy Scout. One instructor showed us how to meticulously stack kindling and larger pieces of wood into a carefully constructed pyramid. This method worked when we had the right size and shape of sticks and firewood. But we were lost when the materials at hand didn’t match what the instructor had taught us. We also failed during a winter camp-out when we tried to build a fire in a wood stove where the pyramid didn’t fit. Another adult took us aside and said: “Just remember three principles: A fire needs fuel, heat, and air. If you give it what in needs in an amount it can handle, you’ll build a good fire every time.” It worked. We saw that small pieces of wood burned hotter but that they needed to be spaced far enough apart to allow air to circulate. We also learned that closely spaced wood generated more heat as it reflected off two or more surfaces. It became easy to build a fire, and we got better and better as we were challenged by new situations. I can now build a fire pretty much anywhere, even on a canoe trip after two days of continuous rain had soaked all of the wood. I have found the same sort of thing to be true with baking.
Following a recipe exactly teaches us how to bake one kind of bread. Understanding the principles of the relationship between liquid and flour, and how yeast, sugar, and gluten affect rising, allows us to adapt recipes to our family’s tastes and preferences. We can use different kinds of flour to alter the texture. If the loaf doesn’t rise enough, the principles of bread baking can help us improve it the next time. Principles provide direction while allowing us to adapt and improve to fit each unique situation. Applying principles allows us to respond to real-life situations with sensitivity and flexibility. They provide a guide and framework for our thoughts and actions without telling us exactly what to do. Principles get us started in a helpful direction and then give us the freedom to continue learning and improving.
Principles of Stress Management
When I first started teaching stress-management workshops in the late 1970’s, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the underlying principles of what worked when stress was managed effectively. I initially came up with seventeen principles that seemed to get things moving in a positive direction when stress levels began to build. Over the next few years, with additional experience and reflection, I was able to refine and combine these principles until I had narrowed them down to three basic concepts: Accept, Balance, and Clarify (the ABC’s of Stress Management). (I am indebted to Dr. Ralph Lewis, Biologist at Michigan State University for helping me see the value of using principles in teaching.)
I eventually realized that these three principles formed the basis for almost everything I did in teaching or counseling. They helped when counseling kids, adults, or couples. They were easily adapted to classes and workshops in stress, parenting, communication, conflict resolution, time management, empowerment, dealing with chronic pain, and adapting to chronic or terminal illnesses. If there was uncertainty over what to do, or if things seemed to be stuck or getting worse, applying the ABC’s would get them moving in a positive direction.
The principles didn’t necessarily provide an immediate solution, but they always helped to uncover steps that started things moving in the direction of resolution. I have asked students and participants in many of my classes and workshops to apply the ABC’s of Stress Management in their daily lives and then send me a description of the results. Hundreds of reports over decades of teaching have consistently shown that the principles helped bring a greater sense of ease and calm to stressful situations, while providing direction that led to resolution of stress and conflict. There were a number of instances where applying the principles made dramatic changes in someone’s life. Students and workshop participants reported that the principles provided a useful tool that gave them a growing confidence that they could effectively manage stress and prevent it from interfering with their lives.
The Principles of Stress Management are not a magic formula that will immediately fix everything that is wrong. They are simply a common-sense set of concepts that help us to deal with our struggles more effectively. The purpose of the principles is to help us reverse the build-up of stress and take positive steps that lead to resolution of our difficulties and a greater sense of ease and satisfaction in our work, health, and relationships.
Applying the ABC’s
I call the principles of stress management the ABC’s because that makes them as easy to remember as the first three letters of the alphabet. However, I don’t apply them in that order. My experience has been that it is always most helpful to begin with the principle of Balance. Starting with the principles of Accepting and Clarifying can help, but regaining physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual balance makes it easier to apply the other two principles. There have been a lot of situations where I have seen an obvious way to apply the principles of Accept or Clarify right away, but I have learned to back up and focus on balance first. Being out of balance complicates everything else by limiting our perceptions and receptivity. Restoring even some degree of balance stops the build-up of pressure and allows us to access more of our resources in confronting a problem. Sometimes being out of balance is the whole problem.
A woman in a parenting workshop brought up a concern about a conflict between her 7-year-old son and his teacher. She went into great detail about the level of misunderstanding between them and the unfairness that she perceived in the situation. She stated that her son had absolutely no problems with last year’s teacher but just couldn’t get along with his current one. I saw very obvious ways to apply the principles of Accept and Clarify in order to try to create better communication and cooperation with the school, but held back and asked about balance first: “Has anything changed in your family from last year to this year?” The mother said, “Well, yes. Last year I was a stay-at-home mom. This year I’m working full time and also going to school full time. I’m actually taking twenty credits so I can get my degree in less than two years.”
Further questioning revealed that her son had a tendency to be quite active, and that the previous year they had gone swimming almost every day after school. Now he went home to a baby sitter and spent his afternoons watching TV. The previous year, the mother had been around all the time and he had lots of opportunity to discharge the build-up of tension from sitting in school all day. Suddenly, he saw little of his mother and had no physical outlets. His mother later reported to me that adjusting her schedule to spend more time with him and making sure he had the opportunity for lots of physical activity had made it easier for him to sit still and concentrate in the classroom. The problems with the teacher disappeared as her son regained more balance in his life, and he became less disruptive in the classroom.
Everything is easier when we are in balance. Everything is harder when we are out of balance. Balance allows us to slow down enough so that we can see more clearly, listen more intently, and discern more accurately the needs of the situation. Events that can create tidal waves in our lives when we are severely out of balance can have no more effect than ripples on a pond when we make balance a priority. Most of this book thus far has been about balance. Chapters Seven through Ten describe how we get out of balance while Chapters Eleven through Fifteen explain how to get back into balance.
Applying the principle of Balance primarily involves recovering from and preventing the build-up of tension. It also applies to our activities and relationships. We need balance between different kinds and levels of activity, between busy and quiet times, times spent alone or with others, times that are planned or spontaneous. Stressful times need to be balanced with times that are refreshing and relaxing. We need balance within relationships in terms of control and decision-making and balance within teams and partnerships in terms of work load and leadership.
Balance keeps us even-tempered and level-headed; it helps keep our feet on the ground, our minds clear and our emotions appropriate. It is helpful to pay attention to balance whenever we are confronted with a problem, because we see and think more clearly when we are in balance. We also learn better when in balance. Educational research has shown that we learn the most in the first twenty to thirty minutes of studying. It makes sense to take a break every half-hour if we want to maximize our efficiency. My students regularly report that they get better grades when incorporating balance into their schedule.
Paying attention to other people’s balance levels can make a big difference in our relationships. The best time to bring up a concern is when the other person is most receptive and has time to respond appropriately. Bringing up a problem after a long, stressful day or when someone is under pressure or in a hurry is unlikely to lead to resolution. It is more likely to increase the stress levels and further complicate the problem.
The first thing to think about when we begin to recognize the build-up of stress and tension is how to restore balance within ourselves and in the situation. Making balance a priority in our lives leads to a greater sense of ease and calm in day-to-day activities and to more pleasure and satisfaction in our work, health, and relationships.
Acceptance brings us freedom. It helps us avoid the trap of getting caught up in resentment, blame, or expectations of what “should be.” Acceptance means recognizing what is and moving on from there. This frees us to respond to stress and conflict in a healthy way. Not accepting creates distractions that build tension and interfere with problem solving. Refusing to accept the reality of a situation increases our stress and pain while doing nothing to resolve problems and conflicts. Holding on to and recycling old resentments, disappointments, and “shoulds” keeps us stuck in the past and takes away the opportunity for fresh, new ways of seeing things. Accepting things as they are allows us to see opportunities for improving them.
The principle of Acceptance doesn’t mean that everything is OK or wonderful. Sometimes things are as bad as they seem. Acceptance is simply a recognition of what is real without getting stuck in thinking about what should or shouldn’t have happened. Acceptance keeps us in the present and allows us to look to the future: it enables us to play the cards we were dealt without complaining about wanting a better hand. Accepting pain seems to diminish that pain. There is a tendency to tense up when we are in pain and tension magnifies and intensifies pain. Allowing ourselves to feel what is there makes pain much more manageable. Chapters Nine and Fourteen describe how accepting emotions allows them to pass. Not accepting our emotions makes us hold onto them, which creates tension and leads to depression and anxiety.
When our stress involves relationships with others, acceptance means recognizing the essential dignity and worth of each person and being able to separate that essence from the behavior that was involved in our stress. Acceptance involves putting ourselves in another’s shoes and understanding their feelings and perspective. When people do not feel accepted they become defensive, which puts up a wall that becomes a major obstacle to resolving conflicts. It is very difficult to have a positive, long-term influence on another person if they do not feel accepted by us. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we approve of everything that someone else does; it involves separating a person from their actions or their situation. Accepting another person opens the door to communication and resolution. Not doing so closes that door.
Acceptance builds tolerance, patience, and empathy. It leads to a clearer understanding of any problem and gives us the flexibility to respond according to the needs of the situation.
Stress narrows our focus and limits our perceptions and understanding. Clarifying involves seeing “what is true” from varying perspectives. When we clarify our words, feelings, and impressions, we communicate so that others can understand and respond appropriately. When we clarify values and priorities, we make decisions that lead to success. When we clarify problems and concerns, we gain insight that leads to solutions. Clarifying involves looking at situations from various perspectives and asking questions that help us see the whole picture and relevant details more clearly. Stress and tension lead to confusion, misunderstanding, and mishandling of people and situations. Pressure and hurry can turn important details, as well as the larger picture, into a blur that can’t very well enter into our awareness or decision-making. Clarifying involves stopping what we are doing and taking a good look at what is happening. It usually involves asking questions, breaking things down into workable components, or looking at the big picture.
When stress and tension are building, every problem and concern appears to demand our immediate attention. Restoring balance and then separating concerns into immediate, short-term, and long-term issues allows us to efficiently focus on one thing at a time and develop and adapt strategies that lead to effective solutions that last. Clarifying our values and priorities provides direction for our efforts. Clarifying options, obstacles, and opportunities helps us discern what is possible. Clarifying expectations, assumptions, and beliefs allows us see what is realistic and what may be unproductive. Clarifying strengths makes it possible for us to use all of the resources available. Clarifying weaknesses and limitations helps us identify what we need and how others may be helpful. Clarifying helps us know how things work, where we stand, what we face, where we’re headed, and what is likely or at least possible.
Clarifying a situation often makes it easier to accept it. Likewise, accepting a situation makes it easier to clarify. Both are easier to the extent that we are in balance. The ABC’s of Stress Management work together, with each reinforcing the other. It is helpful to start with balance and then to work on accepting, clarifying, or balancing some more as the needs of the situation indicate. Learning to apply these principles to life’s situations is a skill that develops and improves with practice.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.