Over the past twenty years, I’ve taught more than three thousand undergraduate students in semester-long stress management courses. I’ve delivered services to more than ten thousand divorcing parents as a therapist, coach, mediator, and divorce class presenter. Talking to people about their stress and what they are doing to try to manage it is central to what I’ve been up to. There are myriad ways to cope with stress. Unfortunately, I commonly hear from people that stress management doesn’t work for them. That’s sad since most techniques are relatively free, effective, and with no side effects. Here are the top three reasons stress management techniques don’t work.
#1: They didn't actually do any.
This is, by far, the most common reason. When someone tells me stress management techniques aren’t working, I ask them to report the number of minutes per day they have practiced over the past two weeks. The answer is often: zero. The explanation for that is usually one of the following reasons: I didn’t have time, I couldn’t generate motivation or, I’ve tried them and they don’t work.
It’s a common misconception that in order to practice stress management, one needs to devote an hour or so per day to do yoga or go to a meditation class.
That amount of practice might be lovely. It’s not necessary. There is research that shows that a few minutes per day can be very effective in lowering subjective stress reports. Multiple studies have shown that a mere sixty minutes of accumulated practice can not only reduce reported stress but influence the parts of the brain involved in the stress reaction enough so that those changes will show up on a functional MRI scan. Five minutes per day will produce that sixty-minute total in less than two weeks. The second question I ask when someone tells me they didn’t have enough time for practice is: How much time did you manage to spend watching television, getting involved in a lot of messaging or games on your phone, or watching Youtube videos? It’s usually much more than five minutes per day.
People often report that there was time but they couldn’t ever feel motivated enough to actually practice. This is understandable. Feeling anxious and/or depressed zaps energy and creates a lot of challenging emotions that get in the way of feeling motivated. My answer: stop trying to feel motivated and having enough energy. Instead, be disciplined enough to build at least a few minutes of practice into your daily life.
Discipline doesn’t require feeling any particular way about the practice. You might not even like the practice at times. Discipline is making an agreement with yourself that you will commit to a certain amount of practice at a certain frequency.
You do it whether you feel like it or not. The practice is what is going to positively influence your stress, anxiety, and mood. It doen’t work the other way around. Waiting to beging when the result happens is not the way to begin making progress toward your goal of being less stressed, anxious, and depressed.
#2: They are practicing the wrong ones.
When people report what they are doing to deal with stress and say that none of it is working, they are often practicing things that either aren’t well-suited for them or strategies that are risky, physically damaging, or actually producing more stress. The benign form of this is when people choose strategies which aren’t well-suited for their temperament or feasible given their lifestyle and available time and energy. I see this when one of my students decides to add going to the gym four days per week as a stress management technique. They might have made this choice before thinking about the fact that they are taking a full load of courses that semester which are math and science classes with weekly labs and they also have a part-time internship as well as a new partner.
Sometimes, people made unwise choices when trying to deal with stress. Number one among these is drinking more alcohol. If you have one bad day among months of okay and great days, and you safely stay home and drink four to five drinks, then that isn’t much of a problem. If you are going through a long-term, chronic stressful period (say, through a divorce and then trying to coparent after), you will be highly stressed for a period of one to three years.
You can’t address chronic stressors by drinking daily without unacceptable risks and costs.
Chronic alcohol intake actually changes your brain and body so that your capacity to deal with stress and challenging emotions decreases. Unfortunately, drinking is a very common strategy I hear from students and the parents with whom I work. I discourage it.
Sometimes people going through a lot of challenging emotions choose a technique that tends to shift their awareness to their body and emotions which then overwhelms them and zaps their energy. Or, people who are fretting or obsessing are practicing techniques which don’t sufficiently engage their mental focus and their neurotic thinking continues to stress them out.
#3: They aren’t evaluating effectiveness correctly.
One of the ways our brains shift when experiencing stress is to shorten our scope of time. This is the time aspect of so-called tunnel vision. We don’t contemplate our retirement savings when the house is on fire. So, people practicing stress management techniques are often focused on the narrow slice of time that happens right after they finish a session of practice. While it’s true that some practices increase our capacity to calm down when triggered, even those strategies won’t always work which means we’ll sometimes see them as failures. But, I want to emphasize this: an important goal of stress management is changing our brains (and, thus, our thinking) so that we get less stressed when triggered. That goal is only achieved through regular practice. There is no technique that that can be taught and practiced one, or a few times, which will cause that effect.
If you never take a long view of your overall stress load, you won’t see the long-term benefit and will get discouraged.
Our evaluation is also sabotaged if we are externalizing too strongly. That is, if we are focused on our outside circumstances rather than our inner state. So many parents I work with report that they really can cope with stress. It’s just that their former partner is such a f-ing jerk that she/he is the source of all the stress. They don’t see anything worth practicing if it doesn’t seemed designed to control their ex or get retribution for past hurt. It’s like practicing kindness meditation toward a negative person with the expectation it will make the other person less of a jerk.
I encourage you to:
- learn some easy, effective stress management techniques,
- let go of trying to feel motivated and commit to a daily practice,
- practice two to three times, daily, for at least three weeks before assessing success
- work toward increasing your capacity to let go of stress and calm down when triggered,
- also, work toward the goal of lowering your overall stress load, and
- seek expert help to craft a competent stress management program.
I place a strong emphasis on stress management practice when working with separated parents. This is because it is the key for optimal coping, coparenting, and parenting after separation. If you listen to my podcast and read my posts, here, you’ll understand what I have learned about stress and brain function and how that applies to the situation of coparenting. And, I want you to know this: in addition to stress management, there are specific practices that parents need to implement in order to parent well during, and after, separation. I speak to this in my podcast and will do so, here. I also address that when delivering coparent coaching to parents. Check out my future posts for more helpful and practical information to help you cope and coparent.
I have empathy for your stress and challenges in being proactive in the ways you might want to. I try to teach practical techniques that can be feasibly implemented. These are often techniques you can practice while waiting in line at the grocery store or stopped at a red light. You can listen to two podcast episodes with stress management techniques located at the bottom of this post. I also recommend Rick Hanson’s books, Hardwiring happiness: The new brain science of contentment, calm, and confidence and, Just one thing: Developing a Buddha brain one simple practice at a time. You can also get both a rich explanation of stress and stressmanagement as well as many practial strategies for effective coparenting in my online class: Coparenting after Separation.
Peace, and everything that goes with it.
Episode 8: Mindfulness
Jon explains stress management techniques.
Episode 9: Positive Emotion
Jon explains stress management techniques to build more positive emotions into your ongoing experience.
Jon talks about why stress management doesn't work.
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