Many people come to therapy wanting to deal with stress better. There are many articles out there about stress management — but not a lot which have a picture of two guys with bowling balls. Therefore, I felt it was necessary to share my perspective on the topic.
There are two categories of stress:
- Externally generated stress — things that happen outside of you or to you that are stressful. Examples: your car breaks down, you have a fight with your spouse, your child fails a test, you get sick, you get fired, you have to move. Even positive occurrences that involve change can be stressful: you get a promotion, you graduate from school, you get married, you have a baby, you find housing.
- Internally generated stress — problems that arise from within you. Examples: someone doesn’t return your phone call and you assume you are disliked, you pressure yourself to be perfect, you have a trauma history (external stress) which has caused you to respond to reminders of the trauma by getting upset.
There are two ways to manage any kind of stress.
- Decrease the stress. Give up a task that is causing you to feel overwhelmed. Get another job. Delegate jobs to others. Heal from being sick. Work on changing your thinking so you don’t create stress by making wrong assumptions. Let go of perfectionism. Learn to deal with trauma responses.
- Increase the support. Ask for help. Talk to a therapist about what is bothering you. Hire someone to help you. Go to your religious community and pray. Talk to your friends about your stress. Join a group or organization working to change the thing that is stressing you out.
Imagine stress as a bowling ball*. If you have one bowling ball, you can probably carry it on your own, at least for a while. You might even be able to carry two or three bowling balls at a time. But if there are too many bowling balls to carry, you get to a point when you can’t carry them all. This is the point when you feel “stressed out.” When you have too much to carry, you have two choices: you can put down some of the bowling balls so you can carry the rest of them or you can get help carrying some of the bowling balls. Either way will work fine.
The important thing to understand is that in order to manage stress, you have to either put down some of the bowling balls or get help carrying them. Those are the choices. If you can do both, fine. But you must do one of them or your stress level will not decrease. If you are in a situation where you cannot decrease the stress, increase the support. If you are in a situation where you cannot get more support, you must decrease the stress somehow by putting some of those bowling balls down. If you can’t make a choice about how to manage stress, it will be made for you, and it feels worse that way. You will start to drop some of the bowling balls (eg. you’ll get fired) or you will be forced to get support (eg. a project that had been yours will be reassigned to a coworker).
We all have to deal with stress. If you can make choices about how to manage your stress, you will find that it’s easier to carry the stress in your life.
- * No, not a candlepin bowling ball, you New Englanders [↩]