If you are like most people, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about the things causing stress in your life –money problems, career problems, family problems, relationship problems and more. If you are like most people you also spend a lot of time thinking about the “If-Only’s;” the things you imagine would solve all those problems. “If only you had more money (or won the Lottery!), if only you could get that great job or promotion, if only your husband (or wife, kids, mother-in-law, parent, boss, co-worker) would be more cooperative, then everything would be so much better.

If only. But the fact is that stressors – those things that cause us stress- are often things we can’t control and are a normal part of most lives. And even if all your “If-Only’s” came true, there would be other stressors causing stress in your life; some perhaps caused by the very thing you so fervently wished for.

So if we can’t make stressors disappear, what can we do to get control of the stress?

The first thing that experts Melinda Smith and Robert Segal suggest is to identify the sources of your stress. Their point is that many times the things that we think are the causes of our stress –the boss who is always pressuring us to finish something- are not the real cause; that, in fact, it may be that something else –our procrastination, for example- that is actually leading to the stressful situation. Smith and Segal recommend taking responsibility for the things we do that creates the situation causing the stress.

If you are constantly explaining away stress as “temporary,” telling yourself (and other people) that it is just part of your home or work life (“That’s just the way it is; I can’t do anything about it.”), or are usually blaming other people and outside events (“That darned car never starts when I need to be someplace”), it is likely that you have not really identified the stressors in your life, have not come to see the part you may be playing in your own stress, are not managing it well, and are therefore leaving it out of your control.

Once we understand the sources of stress and our role in it, Smith and Segal also point out that there are both good and bad ways of dealing with stress. They remind us that not everything a person might do to “relieve” stress is either good for him or her, or actually contributes anything to resolving a stressful situation.

For example, drinking too much, using recreational drugs to relax, overeating (or under eating), zoning out for hours in front of the TV, computer or phone, withdrawing from friends, family, and activities, and sleeping too much, can add to stress. Taking out your stress on others by lashing out, getting into arguments, giving into angry outbursts, or resorting to physical violence; those things sometimes incorrectly referred to as “releases,” are neither psychologically or physically good for you, can damage relationships, and certainly do nothing to make a stressful situation better or to resolve it. In fact, all of these things can make it worse.

Instead, experts suggest taking control and trying some positive steps like these:

Avoid unnecessary stress

There is enough stress that is caused by things you can’t control; so begin eliminating things that you do that only add more. For example:

  • Learn how to say “no,” and trim down your to-do list
    Know your limits and stick to them. Whether in your personal or professional life, refuse to accept added responsibilities when you’re close to reaching them. Taking on more than you can handle is a surefire recipe for stress.
  • Avoid people who stress you out
    If someone consistently causes stress in your life and you can’t turn the relationship around, limit the amount of time you spend with that person or end the relationship entirely.
  • Avoid hot-button topics
    If you get upset over religion or politics, cross them off your conversation list. If you repeatedly argue about the same subject with the same people, stop bringing it up or excuse yourself when it’s the topic of discussion.

Alter the situation

If you can’t avoid a stressful situation, try to alter it. Figure out what you can do to change things so the problem doesn’t present itself in the future. Often, this involves changing the way you communicate and operate in your daily life:

  • Be willing to compromise
    When you ask someone to change their behavior, be willing to do the same. If you both are willing to bend at least a little, you’ll have a good chance of finding a happy middle ground.
  • Manage your time better
    Poor time management can cause a lot of stress. When you’re stretched too thin and running behind, it’s hard to stay calm and focused. But if you plan ahead and make sure you don’t overextend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress you’re under.

Adapt to the stressors

If you can’t change the stressor, change yourself. You can adapt to stressful situations and regain your sense of control by changing your expectations and attitude.

  • Look at the big picture
    Take perspective of the stressful situation. Ask yourself how important it will be in the long run. Will it matter in a month? A year? Is it really worth getting upset over? If the answer is no, focus your time, thoughts and energy elsewhere.
  • Adjust your standards
    Perfectionism is a major source of avoidable stress. Stop setting yourself up for failure by demanding perfection. Set reasonable standards for yourself and others, and learn to be okay with “good enough.”

Accept the things you can’t change

Some sources of stress are unavoidable. You can’t prevent or change stressors such as the death of a loved one, a serious illness, or a national recession. In such cases, the best way to cope with stress is to accept things as they are. Acceptance may be difficult, but in the long run, it’s easier than railing against a situation you can’t change:

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable
    Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
  • Look for the upside
    As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.

While these tips, along with maintaining a healthful lifestyle, can help you not only deal with, but manage the stressors in your life, often it takes the help of a professional to learn and apply new ways of thinking. If you think you can benefit from help learning to better manage stress, contact your Capital EAP.