In our last blog we talked about the need to accept your emotions as a first step in being able to use them to your advantage. That brings us to what we think is an important distinction between “stress management” and “stress enhancement.” (The latter is a term coined by Church and Brooks in a 2007 Kindle Book called Stress Enhancement.)

No doubt you’re familiar with the term stress management. You also probably think of managing stress as a good thing, a technique that helps you relax and not let stress interfere with your life. We feel, however, that “managing” stress suggests avoidance of stress, keeping it under wraps and out of sight. Think about it. Suppose you have kids who are very energetic and act out a lot. Someone tells you to manage them better. Do you imagine finding places for them to act out, channeling their energy into appropriate  behavior, or do you imagine coming up with actions to keep them quiet and out of your way? We bet it’s the latter. Most people think managing kids means to stifle their energy, even medicate them if need be, to avoid or at least minimize their disruptive influence.

We believe stress management suggests trying to avoid the stress in your life, and is a poor way to cope. Do you want to manage your stress or be empowered by it? Imagine a worker who has the opportunity to take on an additional project at work. “Doing this project will give me the inside track to a promotion,” he says. “Of course, if I blow it I’ll really look bad. Plus, I don’t need this extra stress in my life. Screw it. Let someone else take on the project.” The way we see it, this guy’s approach is, “Don’t take on too much,” and he is managing his current stress level by not taking on extra work; less stress for him in the short run. Unfortunately he gives up a chance of promotion and improving his lifestyle and stress levels in the long run. He will always be plagued with that nagging question in the back of his head: “What if I had taken on that project?”

When it comes to coping, we believe that instead of seeking ways to manage (reduce or avoid entirely) your stress, you should seek to be empowered by the stress of challenges facing you.  We call the empowerment strategy “stress enhancement,” and we contrast it with the idea of stress management. Stress enhancement means accepting challenges that you can realistically undertake with actions under your control. The stress enhancer will take on that work project, understanding that short-term stress will be increased, but personal satisfaction, productivity, and reduced stress levels will be lowered in the long run. Stress enhancement is learning to turn short-term stress into long-term positive outcomes. Stress cannot and should not be avoided so make the best of it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To become a stress enhancer, the first thing you should do is challenge negative and irrational thoughts you carry around with you. All of us think some of the things listed below, and that’s OK if it happens infrequently. Some people, however, have these thoughts all the time, and that’s when they’re in trouble psychologically.

—-Making mountains out of molehills. We had a stressed-out client who made a mistake at work and thought he was going to be fired. Not only was he not fired, his “mistake” uncovered a flaw in a work Manual.

—-Taking everything personally. We’ve had clients who see the slightest criticism from others as a vital challenge to their self-esteem. These folks have to learn that they can’t control what others say. One client felt that whenever her husband decided to do something with the guys, it meant he felt she was a lousy wife.

—-It’s not a black-white world so don’t force others into one. “You either trust me or you don’t.” “Fred is always correct and Sally is always wrong.” This style of thinking overlooks a basic truth: There are two sides to every story, and the truth usually lies somewhere in the middle!

—-Keep a realistic perspective. When you over-generalize, you reach crazy conclusions from a single unrelated incident. “I gave a lousy presentation. I’m obviously a complete failure in everything I do.” “I got a lousy grade in my Economics course. I may as well quit school.” “I was turned down for a date, so I’m obviously a worthless individual no one wants or cares about.”

Secondly, to be a stress enhancer you must decide to take on a challenge only after a realistic appraisal of the skills needed to be successful and whether your abilities fit the bill. No one is able to do everything. A good reality check is to discuss your options with others. In our Blog of August 5, 2016 we discussed the importance of keeping your coping strategies realistic. If you decide to confront a challenge that is literally impossible for you to complete, your inevitable failure will awaken irrational thinking and you will be right back in your world of avoidance.

In our next blog we will discuss dealing with anxiety and stress in the context of stress enhancement, not in the context of stress management. We will also provide some general conceptual steps you need to take to orient yourself appropriately to making anxiety and stress work for you, not against you.





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