Although you can’t always change the situation, you can change how you think about it.
Let’s consider some different types of stressors and how best to approach managing them. For each type, think about the degree to which you might be better off working to change the situation itself, versus changing the way you think about the situation.
Work- and School- Related Stressors
Do you spend more time at work (or school) than at home? Many people do. And for most of us, these are very important parts of our lives. So, it’s not surprising that they can be major sources of stress. It turns out that you might be able to change (or at least try to change) some work or school stressors. If, for example, you have flexible supervisors or teachers, it might be possible to get extra help, a break on a work project, or deadline extensions for turning work in. But if your supervisor or teacher is less flexible, you might not catch such breaks even if you ask. If you’re having problems with budgeting your time, you can learn time management skills. If studying for exams stresses you out, you could attend a study skills session or find a tutor. Are you stressed about disagreements, office politics, peer pressure, or other interpersonal issues with supervisors, coworkers, peers, or teachers?
Learning effective communication strategies can sometimes help you get the other person to see things your way – but not always. So, it’s never a helpful strategy to expect that unpleasant coworker, peer, or professor to change his or her behavior just to suit you. If you aren’t successful with changing the stressful situation directly, you’ll need to reduce your stress by changing how you think about the situation.
Dealing with people – family members, coworkers, authority figures, friends—is an important part of almost every day. So, it’s no wonder that not getting along well with others can lead to a great deal of stress. Dealing with interpersonal stressors involves discovering your own set of coping mechanisms. As I already mentioned, on the one hand you might be able to change or avoid some of these stressors. For instance, you can break up with a verbally abusive boyfriend or simply avoid that clingy “friend” who won’t leave you alone when you’re trying to study. You can explain to your confrontational father-in-law that you prefer not to discuss religion and politics with him anymore and get couple therapy if you’re having frequent disagreements with your spouse or partner. However, because you can’t expect other people to change for you, you’ll also need to be able to reduce your stress by changing your expectations of others and thinking in ways that keep your negative emotions in check.
Financial strain also happens to be among the most common sources of stress. There might be little you can do about stock market losses or a failed business venture. And being in debt or unable to afford things that you want can be extremely stressful, though there’s not always much you can do about it right away. There might be things you can do to gradually change your financial situation, such as changing your spending habits and working with a financial adviser; but this may take time, and learning to think about your financial situation in a healthy way will be important. If you and your spouse or partner argue about how to spend your money, which often leads to stress, this too can often be dealt with through problem solving, effective communication, and perhaps assistance from a therapist or financial adviser.
Traffic, a broken home appliance, a sick child, bad weather—there is little we can do to change or avoid many of these problems. They often happen when we least expect it, catching us off guard. But sometimes we blow them out of proportion. So, you’ll need to learn how not to make mountains out of these molehills. Still, there are hassles that you can sometimes avoid or change. Don’t like to sit in traffic? Choose a different route or time to travel. Do your kids get the flu every winter? Perhaps the flu shot or other preventive health measures would help. Problem-solving strategies along with helpful thinking skills are often a good one–two punch for managing stress that comes from daily hassles.
Major Life Events
Stressors in this category include events that change your life in significant ways. They’re often unpleasant or unfortunate events such as the death of a loved one, a serious accident or injury, illness, loss of a job, divorce, living with the constant threat of crime, and the like. As much as we’d like to prevent such situations, they might be unavoidable. Certain positive life-changing events also fall within this category: having a baby, getting married, and taking a new job. Once they occur, it’s very difficult (or impossible) to change their course. So, whether it’s a crisis or a cause for celebration, it’s how we think about an event that determines how much stress we experience.
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