Step One for Managing Stress: Redefining Stress

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By Andrew Maher, MNAPCP
Clinical Team Lead at Workplace Options


As a clinical counselor with Workplace Options, I frequently work with people struggling with stress. They are often surprised to hear me say that, in my opinion, stress is not all bad. Stress is the body’s way of responding to a threat, whether real or imagined and stimulates the body’s defense into an automatic process or reaction commonly known as “fight or flight.” If stress is meant to protect us, then it can’t be all bad.

Sometimes stress can be useful in keeping us motivated in achieving our goals. And a small amount of stress can even help build up resilience in our immune systems.
Rather than thinking of stress as bad, consider it a red flag; the body’s way of signaling that something needs attention. The question is, what needs attention? It’s probably something meaningful, as we wouldn’t get stressed about something we didn’t care about.

In order to find out what needs attention, we need to acknowledge what is happening. And too often, we get so caught up and overwhelmed by the experience, that we don’t or can’t acknowledge what is happening. It’s similar to being caught up in a movie and forgetting you are in a cinema.

I encourage people to let stress turn their focus to whatever it is that needs attention. When we allow ourselves to feel the stress, it is not as bad as we think it’s going to be and it passes. Whereas avoidance pushes stress down the road and into the future, embracing stress means we move closer to it in order to manage it. This is clearly easier said than done, but it is possible to engage stress with an attitude of openness and then couple it with understanding and context to make sense of it.

When stress turns chronic and disrupting, a professional counselor can be helpful in both identifying what is triggering the stress and learning how to manage symptoms. Here are some common strategies I share with clients for managing stress:

  • Exercise – All forms of exercise have the ability to reduce our stress hormones. Exercise helps to increase the release within the body of feel-good endorphins, which have the positive effect of improving mood and energy while simultaneously providing a healthy timeout from our concerns.
  • Relaxation Techniques – When faced with a stressful situation, the mind sends various chemicals, like adrenaline and cortisol, throughout the body. As a result, heart rate and breathing speed up. Mindfulness, meditation and yoga are excellent ways of helping one ground oneself, whether that is physically or mentally. When schedules do not allow for these relaxing activities, simple breathing techniques can also help reduce the impact of the stress response in the immediacy of the present moment.  One exercise that I like to share with my clients is a variation on 7/11 breathing in which you inhale while counting up to five, then exhale out while counting to seven. This simplistic technique can be done discreetly anywhere and any time. A few of these breaths will naturally slow down the stress response. In addition, concentrating on our breath and counting has an added benefit of creating a void in our thinking.
  • Reframing Stress – Overall, one of the overarching aspects of managing stress is to remain realistic with regards to our expectations. So while it may be impossible to change the situations we find ourselves in, we can always learn to change our perceptions. This is a key coping mechanism as it is the perceived threat or worst case scenario that creates the response. So by realistic exploration and reframing, the perceived threat may actually dissipate. This type of cognitive reframing is where a therapist can help individuals better understand stress through exploration and understanding.
  • Compassionate Self-Talk – Learning to speak to ourselves in a compassionate, rather than critical, voice can reduce our stress and our response to it. Words like “should”,” must” and “ought to” set us up to be self-critical if we don’t complete the task. These statements typically only make you feel worse about your situation. It is important to listen and become aware of our “should”, “oughts”, and “musts” and try to replace them with more encouraging thoughts. A simplistic example may be “I must go for a walk later,” which sets the expectation of having to do something and leaves no room for change. So if I don’t end up taking that walk, I may feel in some way that I failed. However, if I reframe the sentence and say instead, “I would like to go for a walk later,” this acknowledges our desire, but doesn’t automatically set us up to fail. We may indeed feel disappointed if we don’t get out for our walk in both scenarios. However, the second sentence lacks the critical self-talk of the first statement. These cognitive traps are well worth paying attention to. Learning to talk to yourself with compassion and acceptance will help reduce your stress response.
  • Time Management – Another way of managing stress is by improving our time or task management skills. Strengthening these skills will help us set realistic goals.

I would also like to mention a word of warning that engaging in any self-medication, including drugs and alcohol, only adds fuel to our stress. These devices can actually have a negative impact on our mood and add to our woes.

Ultimately, my goal as a counselor is not to eliminate stress for the individuals I serve, but rather support their efforts to respond and manage the stress in healthy ways. If I can help them be compassionate with themselves, accept their shortcomings, and recognize their strengths, then I consider that to be a success.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family and personal needs to become healthier, happier and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit