Know your stressors

Effective stress management starts with identifying your sources of stress and developing strategies to manage them. One way to do this is to make a list of the situations, concerns or challenges that trigger your stress response. Take a moment to write down the top 10 issues you're facing right now. You'll notice that some of your stressors are events that happen to you while others seem to originate from within.

External exasperations

External stressors are events and situations that happen to you. Some examples of external stressors include:

  • Major life changes. These changes can be positive — a new marriage, a planned pregnancy, a promotion or a new house. Or they can be negative — the death of a loved one or a divorce.
  • Environment. The input from the world around us can be a source of stress. Consider how you react to noises, such as a barking dog, or to too much or too little light in a room.
  • Unpredictable events. Out of the blue, uninvited houseguests arrive. Or you discover your rent has gone up or that your pay has been cut.
  • Workplace. Common stressors at work include an impossible workload, endless emails, urgent deadlines and a demanding boss.
  • Social. Meeting new people can be stressful. Just think about going on a blind date and you probably start to sweat. Relationships with family often spawn stress as well. Just think back to your last spat with your partner or child.

Strategies to manage external stressors include lifestyle factors such as eating a healthy diet, being physically active and getting enough sleep — which help boost your resiliency. Other helpful steps include asking for help from others, using humor, learning to be assertive, and practicing problem-solving and time management.

Internal irritations

Not all stress stems from things that happen to you. Much of our stress response is self-induced. Those feelings and thoughts that pop into your head and cause you unrest are known as internal stressors. Examples of internal stressors include:

  • Fears. Common ones include fear of failure, fear of public speaking and fear of flying.
  • Uncertainty and lack of control. Few people enjoy not knowing or not being able to control what might happen. Think about how you might react when waiting for the results of a medical test.
  • Beliefs. These might be attitudes, opinions or expectations. You may not even think about how your beliefs shape your experience, but these preset thoughts often set us up for stress. Consider the expectations you put on yourself to create a perfect holiday celebration or advance up the career ladder.

The good news is that we have the ability to control our thoughts. The bad news is that our fears, attitudes and expectations have been our companions for a long time and it often takes some effort to change them. Strategies to manage internal stressors include reframing your thoughts, challenging negative thoughts, using relaxation techniques, and talking with a trusted friend or counselor.

Take the first step

Recognizing a problem is the first step toward solving it. By beginning to identify and understand the sources of your stress, you've taken the first step in learning to better manage it. Manage it, not eliminate it. Stress is a fact of life. And that's OK. You can learn ways to handle it.

Jul. 23, 2013 See more In-depth