Everything You’ve been taught about Stress Management is Wrong!

Volumes have been generated on the subject of Stress Management. So much so that speaking of it these days borders on the cliché and brings an immediate glaze to the eyes of any audience. Indeed, I would even argue that bringing up the topic of Stress Management these days actually increases stress, making matters worse instead of better. So why would I risk bringing up the subject?

I take this subject on because I believe that everything we’ve been taught about stress management is wrong. Well, maybe not everything…but would you have gotten this far in reading if I hadn’t caught your attention with that claim in the title? My bad.

My point is that traditional approaches to stress management are wrong for two reasons.

  1. The strategies presented are incomplete and address only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stress.
  2. The strategies presented are the easiest to implement but they also have the least impact on overall stress.

There is a missing component in traditional approaches to stress management and this omission deprives us of the greatest leverage toward reducing stress and maintaining objectivity, self control and effectiveness in the midst of a stressful situation.

What is this missing component? As it turns out there are two components to one’s experience of anxiety in any given day. One is the anxiety related to the immediate conditions or events of our daily experiences in real time. We experience conflict or a problem and our heart rate goes up and we start to involuntarily sweat. This is episodic anxiety – anxiety related to an episode.

Episodic anxiety is traditionally addressed by learning meditation, learning deep breathing, and learning more resourceful self-talk. Training by repeated exposure to episodic stress and practicing a resourceful response is also an effective way of reducing the impact of stress. This is what military and law enforcement training is all about. Pilots, also, are exposed to simulations designed to introduce anxiety and are given practice in responding resourcefully. Whatever the method, the strategy involves lowering the peaks of stressful events and keeping the level low enough to allow for a resourceful response. Thus the main strategy is stress reduction.

As effective as these methods are, episodic stress is only part of the total contribution to our total experience of stress. There is a deeper and more subtle component that is consistently ignored in traditional stress management. This more subtle component is not related to the anxiety that is caused by an event. Instead of coming and going, it is constant and ever present. This is chronic anxiety.

Chronic anxiety is existential. It is related to our state of being rather than our current situation. Chronic anxiety may be described as the level of “un-ease” we bring to being alive. This is produced by our cumulative experiences in our families of origin and I would argue is mostly in place by age the time we reach age 7. There is also a generational component to chronic anxiety that is passed on from previous generations while we are yet in the womb – the neuro-chemical soup in which our brains are formed. In this way the biblical “sins of the fathers (and mothers) are visited on the children unto the third and fourth generation.” A person raised in a family that saw the world as dangerous would have a higher level of chronic anxiety than a person raised in a family where the world was seen as a safe place. Our level of chronic anxiety can be understood and our level of the lack of “ok-ness” in our own skin. An unfortunate result of our capitalistic and materialistic culture is that we are constantly bombarded with subtle messages that we are not “ok” as we are and we need to buy whatever the messenger is selling to become “ok.” Like the proverbial carrot on the end of the stick, advertisers keep this just beyond our reach and well into the next purchase. Thus, chronic anxiety is amplified in our contemporary culture.

Considering both components of stress, episodic (situational) anxiety and chronic (existential) anxiety gives a more complete picture of our daily experience. Their effects are cumulative. We may start our waking day with zero episodic anxiety but that is not the case with our chronic anxiety. We start and end each day with this constant “anxiety load” that silently contributes to the total stress we feel each day. This can be illustrated as follows:

Figure 1.

In this chart the level of chronic anxiety is a 4 on a 10 point scale. Episodic anxiety starts out as a 1 with a cumulative stress of 5 on this scale. There is a breaking point – a threshold for everyone beyond which we are able to be resourceful. For the sake of argument, let’s say this person’s threshold is at 7. In terms of percentage, the person is spending over 50% of his day above the threshold.

Traditional stress management would apply strategies that would lower episodic anxiety illustrated as follows:

Figure 2.

As you can see the total time spent above the threshold has been reduced. You can estimate it at 25 – 30% of the day is spent above the resourcefulness threshold. This strategy works. And that’s part of the problem. The traditional approach is satisfied with results. The consultant quantifies her effectiveness, collects her money and goes home. And it all stops there.

However, there is a huge reservoir of anxiety that remains unrecognized and unaddressed. The leverage gained by addressing  it can be illustrated in the following chart:

Figure 3.

Let’s start with the same day, the same events and the same level of stress reduction as illustrated in Figure 1. However, this time, leaving episodic anxiety alone, let’s reduce the chronic anxiety from a 4 to a 1. Notice what happens. With all other things being equal, this person’s time above the resourcefulness threshold of 7 is 0%! This illustrates the incredible advantage that can be gained when we include chronic anxiety in the stress equation and address it.

If addressing chronic anxiety is so powerful, why haven’t we heard about it? I propose that the deletion of this important component is the result of a combination of our social-science model (that tends to value only that which can be measured and quantified) and our quick-fix mentality (that tends to value immediate results with little investment).

Episodic strategies aren’t more effective than strategies to address chronic anxiety. Episodic strategies simply fit our cultural beliefs and expectations better. I’d illustrate this by highlighting the differences between strategies as follows:

Figure 4.

Episodic Anxiety Strategies Chronic Anxiety Strategies
  • Intervention oriented
  • Technique based
  • Obvious and linear
  • Easily learned and implemented
  • Require a trainer
  • Immediate gains
  • Temporary results
  • Prevention oriented
  • Practice based
  • Subtle and systemic
  • Difficult to learn/many failures
  • Require a mentor
  • Incremental gains over time
  • Permanent results

The lack of awareness of the power of addressing chronic anxiety is further illustrated by our inadequate vocabulary to describe it. The ability to lower episodic anxiety is virtually synonymous with stress management. Raising one’s capacity for episodic anxiety is called resilience. What is our term for lowering chronic anxiety? I would suggest we introduce the term “maturity” into discussions of stress management and incorporating ways to increase it into an overall strategy for true stress management.

Now that you know about this dimension of stress management and the leverage that can be gained by including it, what can you do about it? What can you do to increase maturity? Most people will not like what I have to say. The kind of maturity needed to affect one’s level of chronic anxiety is not easily acquired. It’s going to take some courage. It’s going to take some time. Awareness of this dimension of our lives points us to origins. Where does chronic anxiety come from?

In a word, it comes from trauma. Before you stop reading saying, Hey,  I’ve had a pretty normal life.” Understand that everyone’s “normal life” has included trauma. As wonderful and loving as our parents may have been, each of us has been loved imperfectly. Even the most charmed life has had its betrayals in the face of our hopes and expectations. This isn’t an argument for you to go out and find a therapist to get you to cry in her office about how hard you’ve had it so you can blame your parents for the rest of your life. This is an argument for awareness that normal childhood and normal living is traumatic and we carry that trauma with us wherever we go. Trauma is the unseen lens through which we view our world. We carry it with us to the degree we respond to new and immediate events as if they were old ones.

Once we become aware that we are wearing “trauma glasses” what can we do about it? It is probably not realistic to expect that we can take them off completely. But we can gain awareness that we are looking through them and make compensation for that. If you are wearing sunglasses and looking at a piece of typing paper, you can learn to see it as white, even if it looks green. We can learn to see through the illusion. We can get glimpses around it. How do we begin this path and how do we know when we’re on it?

It’s different for every individual. There is no 3 step plan. One person’s medicine is another person’s poison. (Try to sell that approach to a board of directors sometime!) I can only relay what has been helpful to me and let you decide for yourself what fits for you. Here are a few generalities that might help you.

  • Anything that helps you accept yourself and celebrate yourself as you are without trying to change you.
  • Anything that challenges you to reach your unique and full potential, beyond what you thought possible. (Ya, I know, there’s a paradox here. That’s the point. )
  • Anything that helps you clarify your reason for being on the planet – sorting out the things you are willing to live for and the things you are willing to die for.
  • Anything that opens up your heart and your mind to love, forgiveness and acceptance of others.
  • Anything that helps you live with ambiguity and overcome fear.
  • Anything that cultivates gratitude and hopefulness in your daily life.
  • Anything that puts you in a situation where you have to risk losing yourself.

Addressing chronic anxiety is messy and unmarketable. You can’t put it in a bottle and it doesn’t fit neatly into some 10 step plan. Anxiety is contagious. Maturity is contagious too. You have to catch it from someone who’s got it. You can’t work on it alone. You are the easiest person you know to fool. You have blind spots. You can’t see your eye with your own eyes. You can’t see the back of your own head. You need others, friends, teachers, mentors – not someone who will tell you what your truth is (this is a non-“prophet” endeavor). You need others around you with courage, enough courage for them to say their truth. In doing so, they will help you to see yours. And this is the beauty of maturity. As it turns out in the end, maturity is contagious. You don’t learn it. You are infected with it. Once infected, you will be contagious too!

Peace and courage,

Steve Geske


3 thoughts on “Everything You’ve been taught about Stress Management is Wrong!”

  1. Hi Steve! Great article…I agree totally. The chronic stress is probably highest among legalistic christians who seem to be in a constant state of fear…fear of displeasing their god…fear of eternal damnation…fear that they are not in the center of “God’s will”. We’ve both seen lots of that kind of stuff. Great article with excellent insights.

  2. From another of our subscriber. (posted with permission)

    I liked this paper very much. I’d like to add something about my experience in meditation. It seems to me that it is the quickest way to work with both forms of anxiety.When practiced as a simple focus meditation, experiencing in breaths and out breaths, it can bring the physical and mental benefits of slowing down which help with the situational anxiety. However, I found that quickly the meditation deepened to include questions like “who is breathing?”, “am I really in control of my breath?”, “since I don’t seem to be in control of my breath, then it seems like I’m not really in control of much else”—these deepening insights lead to a lessening of anxiety because of the acceptance they bring. When the meditation is broadened to include mindfulness into fleeting emotions, thoughts and sensations, the recognition of impermanence that it brings also reduces chronic anxiety by creating more space around every situation that occurs.

    I guess you can tell that I am into meditation, anyway, just wanted to add my two cents to a very fine article.

  3. I greatly appreciate the clarity of presentation and the scope of this article. It is, from my viewpoint, spot on and very well written. I agree with all your points, and your graphs tell the story visually.

    I am hoping you will follow this with a clear detailed discussion of aet least a few of the most promising/proven techniques for dealing with chronic stress. I would really like to hear your estimation of their timelines, pitfalls, and resources available.

    Thanks again for the great article!

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