Stress is a normal, functional part of life; it serves many purposes. The proverbial “tiger in the room” sort of stress tells us when things need to change. It may also inform us when we need to take a break. But if stress is not managed properly over time, it can cause lasting damage to our bodies and minds.
When most of us consider stress, we think of it as a negative force in our lives—one to be avoided at all costs and managed quickly when it appears. As you might imagine, avoidance is not often the best tool for becoming more adept at managing stress when it does inevitably occur. This is where the subtle differences between stress management and stress reduction begin to show.
The Difference Between Stress Management and Reduction
Stress management is the set of skills we use to cope with and move through the process of experiencing stress. Stress reduction, on the other hand, is what we do with the rest of our time. I like to think of stress reduction as how we mold our environment and adapt to make ourselves less vulnerable to life’s everyday stressors.
From this perspective, it is easier to see that we must cultivate a daily practice that minimizes the impact of stress to become better at handling it. Instead of waiting for stress to occur and tackling each stressor as it pops up, try using your downtime, or low-stress time, to reflect on what causes you stress. Looking for ways to protect yourself from future stress may prove more productive.
Both in my personal life and in the experiences my clients relay to me, I have found stress reduction often involves the same set of coping skills that are used to manage our stress response. The main difference is that to reduce stress, we must practice these skills when we are not actually stressed out.
Using Reflection to Manage Stress
The next time you find yourself working through a stressful moment, take time afterwards to consider what helped you. Was it deep, purposeful breathing, taking a walk, writing, talking to a friend, or petting your dog? Was it practicing radical acceptance to allow the stressful moment to pass, or was it setting a timeline to accomplish the task that was causing stress in the first place?
The next time you find yourself working through a stressful moment, take time afterwards to consider what helped you.
Once we build up a network of skills we know to be impactful, we can start to practice them in times of little or no stress. This creates a new pattern for reacting to stress. You are still reaping the benefits of the stress management exercises—lowered blood pressure, clearer state of mind, heightened connection to self and others—while not having to combat your stress hormones. Instead of starting at the top of a mountain and fighting your way back to its base, you are building up your stress tolerance by starting at base and consistently practicing your skills.
Climbing the Mountain: Moving Toward Stress Reduction
We cannot lower our overall sensitivity to stress by only practicing skills to reduce it in times of stress. So how can we go from stress management to stress reduction? It may be worthwhile to examine your environment and daily habits. How are you making time to practice your coping skills when there is nothing to cope with? Are you working with what you already know about yourself, or are you constantly trying new coping skills without reflecting on how they serve you? By shifting the way we think about coping skills from something only used in times of distress to something we can use when at our best, we cultivate an environment where stress reduction is part of daily living.
If you are struggling to know how you can start cultivating an environment that makes you less susceptible to stress, consider reaching out to a therapist in your area. With expert guidance, you can work towards building a more effective stress management routine and make your overall environment less stressful.
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