05/08/2014 12:31 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Understanding Stress: Beyond Reduction, Management and Coping

Sometimes it appears as if "stress" is the cause for all that ails us. We are told everything from sleep and laugh more to get massages, exercise, and deep breathe. So how come we're all still so stressed?

Everyone's talking about stress these days. Each day I hear people say "I'm so stressed," and it is one of the most written about areas in psychology today. Listening and reading, we could easily conclude that stress is the cause for all that ails us. Feeling physically ill? Stress. Not sleeping? Stress. Having relationship problems? Stress. Forgetting things? Stress. Feeling depressed? Stress. Eating, drinking, drugging too much? Stress.

The literature is more than ample with research, implication, and assertion strengthening this assumption. Accordingly, stress can make us ill, weaken our immune systems, make it hard to manage our emotions, damage our relationships, cause us to drink, smoke and use substances, cause us to age more quickly, impair our memory, keep us awake at night, bring on anxiety, depression, and anger, and interfere with our sex life. [1] It wouldn't be too much to say that stress kills.

Not to worry -- the cure is nearby waiting to descend on anyone open to "getting help" from their friends, blogs, writers, counselors, and more. I am reminded of that old adage, "If all we have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Well, if the notion of "stress" dominates our diagnosis and understanding of everything that ails us, we shouldn't be surprised to find indicators of stress everywhere we look. All we need now is the "cure" for stress and we'd all feel a lot happier.

The so-called "cures" are indeed prevalent. We are told to unwind with friends, sleep more, change our diets, laugh, think positively, get massages, meditate, take more quiet time, exercise, pray, practice yoga, listen to relaxation tapes, and deep breathe. [2]

The advice from the literature is essentially the same, telling us how to calm down, relax, and take it easy. This counsel is packaged in the notions and language of "stress reduction," "stress management," and "coping with stress" -- all phrases that assume that the stress itself has little or no usefulness or is not in need of deeper understanding and transformation. Stress is to be gotten rid of like an illness. [3]

This bias, however, has serious drawbacks to it, causing us to misunderstand the background psychological process and dynamics of stress.

First, some stress needs to be amplified rather than relieved, and the power behind the stressor needs to be integrated. For example, while teaching a psychology class to massage school students, I asked them what they would do with the tension in my shoulders. One after another they came over to me and rubbed my shoulders in order to relax them. In response to some students, I eased my shoulders, allowing them to drop; for other students I moved my shoulders around as if I were almost stretching them mostly pushing them up against their hands. For people who would simply automatically relax, their interventions were just right. But there is another kind of person whose tension indicates that they have more energy in their shoulders and selves and they may need to use that energy in order to later relax. The same is true for people in more psychological areas of their lives. Some need to relax, take it easy, or be gentler with themselves. But others need to push back and really use the power and force that is in them. For the second kind of person, stress "reduction" in the form of advice to take it easy and relax will be unsuccessful. If you try to relieve this stress, the stress will simply re-arise because the person needs to learn to use the energy in their system instead of letting it go.

Secondly, some stress is caused by a background neglect of something -- a calling, a project, or a passion. For example, consider a client who had a big dream for his life, but after entering a serious and committed relationship began to let go of his dream so that he could be more present and available to his partner. This man described himself as incredibly stressed out; it would be easy for most people to quickly jump in and try to help him manage and reduce his stress. However, pregnant in the energy of what he called "stress" was a power and desire to go back to his dream and work to fulfill it. This general principle is true for many of us. Most people are not free to be as powerful, direct, and intense as they really are. When this is the case, this energy becomes somatized and psychologized -- meaning it feels in our bodies like tension and often gets labeled as "stress." This man didn't need to relax more, he needed to use the tension inside of him to resist a patriarchal role in relationship and take on the heavy lifting of his deeper dreams. Relieving his stress will not be sustainable because what he considers "stress" is actually the result of something in his life that is not getting attention.

Finally, stress reduction and stress management may not be the best ways to address the specific things that people are actually stressed about (the content of their stress). For example, people report being the most stressed by lack of sleep and concern for their weight. Is stress reduction and management the best medicine for these ills? As for concerns about sleep, we know that at least 40 million Americans each year suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders each year, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems. About 60 million Americans a year have insomnia frequently or for extended periods of time, which leads to even more serious sleep deficits. Insomnia tends to increase with age and affects about 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men. It is often the major disabling symptom of an underlying medical disorder. Will advising people to relax, cope, or reduce their stress help them sleep? Most experts in this area recommend consistent sleep schedules, watching what we eat and drink, creating nighttime rituals, exercising during the day, and not taking naps. Stress can be important, but it's rarely on top of the list.

How about worrying about weight? Will telling people to relax offer any solace? First, it is important to note that people only sustain weight loss about 5-10 percent of the time despite it being a $60 billion industry. In addition, research indicates that people, especially women, are regularly cruel to their bodies. In my own research, I have learned that loving one's body is not about relaxing or taking it easy; instead, it is a difficult confrontation with cultural values, pressures, and norms as well as real changes in one's life-relationships, work, and more. In this case, relaxing will not help; instead we need to either change the culture's pressures and criticisms about body image or help people make propound changes in their life. Telling people to relax is relatively superficial given the dilemma people face and will likely be ineffective.

I have no doubt that some people who are stressed need help to cope, reduce, and manage their stress. I myself have benefited from this advice at times. However, this orientation risks being too shallow, dumbing down our understanding. We need more critical and psychological reflection so that the deep and powerful things people suffer from aren't made superficial by quick fix answers like, "Don't worry, be happy" or "Relax, take it easy, let go, and don't get so stressed out."


[1] Stress symptoms and effects on health: Mayo Clinic and Healthline News

[2] Stress management techniques: The American Institute of Stress and WebMD

[3] See for example, one of the best-studied stress-relievers is the relaxation response, first described by Harvard's Herbert Benson, M.D. on The American Institute of Stress website