When I was about fourteen or so, my mom and I had a conversation that has stuck with me for life. It went something like this:
Mom: (makes some sort of request along the “clean up your room” or “practice your piano” variety).
Me: (indignant adolescent tone punctuated with loud adolescent sigh) What do you want from me? You should be glad I don’t smoke or drink like some of the other kids! I could be pregnant or doing drugs – or maybe doing both at the same time!
Mom: (dryly) I’m glad you have such high expectations of yourself.
That is precisely how I feel about the concept of stress management – it sets the bar too low. Don’t get me wrong – as a psychologist I definitely think activities like deep breathing, getting regular exercise, and taking vacations are critical to a healthy life. However, I believe that if we aimed for something loftier than simply “managing” our stress, we would get even better outcomes.
Think of it – what other sorts of things do you manage? You manage an illness. You manage money. You manage people. Thinking of managing something creates a certain mindset, doesn’t it? But what happens if you think about these concepts in another way? You CURE an illness. You INVEST your money. You LEAD and INSPIRE people. Doesn’t that create a greater sense of optimism? What if, instead of aiming to “manage your stress,” you aimed to thrive? What if your daily objective was to flourish and be truly happy? What if your goal was to live a passionate, fulfilled life? Do you think you might approach your lifestyle choices differently?
I think far too many of us are happy with just getting by.
That’s all we expect of ourselves, and so that’s all we do. We get up early, rush through our morning routine, head off to work (at a job we may or may not actually like), get home, eat, interact with family, watch television, “manage stress” (if we’re particularly enlightened) by going for a walk, or reading a book, or taking a bubble bath, then go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. And you know what? We feel pretty good about it because we know that we’re managing our stress like good, responsible, psychologically-balanced citizens.
But, if my goal is to thrive and live my best life, even my stress management behaviors would look different.
Instead of dutifully going to the gym to run on the treadmill for 30 minutes followed by the prescribed 30 minutes of lifting weights, I might try to expand my horizons by taking up a new activity I always wanted to attempt like ballroom dancing. Or, instead of shoveling down my healthy meal in the 15 minutes of time I’ve allotted myself for lunch, I might make an effort to use that same time to eat it mindfully, actually savoring each morsel that I put in my mouth.
Yes, the title of this article is purposely provocative. In reality, I don’t think stress management is a horrible idea – it is certainly better than nothing at all!