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The Illusion of Stress Management

January 10, 2024

I’ve been asked several times recently to give talks and workshops about stress management.

When I present my views, there is one particular idea that always seems to spark discussion. This has happened enough times that I thought it would be worth sharing here, too.

In short: The notion of “stress management” is a false promise. And “stress management techniques” (like physical exercise, cold showers, and ice baths) can be more of a drug than a remedy.

To explain why, it can be helpful to think of the nervous system as a container. This container can process a certain amount of internal activation. Under some conditions, however, more activation builds up in the nervous system than we have the capacity to digest. This is what we typically call being stressed. If we then go for a run, it gives our body a chance to release much of that activation.

This sounds great in principle. But it does nothing to address why the stress and activation arises in the first place. And the release itself can become an addiction. If when I feel stressed I go for a run, I will feel better short-term, but eventually I will get stressed again, so I will have to go for a run again…the cycle simply repeats without anything becoming sustainably different. Exercise becomes a drug like any other.

I know this from personal experience. The period in my life when I stressed myself the most was also the period I worked out the most. Going to the gym felt necessary to discharge all of the stress and pressure I was putting myself under.

There is a time and a place for doing what’s needed to get through the day. And physical exercise and ice baths will no doubt increase a baseline capacity of tolerating a certain amount of activation.

But no matter how much you work out and no matter how many ice baths you take, it won’t do anything to address the underlying triggers. If you feel that you can’t say no, if you put pressure on yourself to be perfect, if run away from conflict…these are the triggers that ignite deeper layers of unmanageable activation that we call stress. No amount of physical exercise will be able to dissolve these emotional sources.

The only sustainable way of addressing stress is to dive into it. When stress arises, you follow the triggers to their roots. You become aware of how stress lives in you and you identity the situations that are triggering the activated response. Then you try to understand and resolve what those triggers are about. You view triggers as generous invitations for your continued evolution.

By doing the work to integrate and deactivate these triggers, you increase your capacity to stay grounded in more situations. This inner work can consist of contemplation, conversations, therapy, coaching, group work…the list is endless. In workshops I guide teams through several “collective trigger deactivation” practices they can use to process stress in more productive and sustainable ways.

Whatever the format, we can’t do it alone. When we stress ourselves, a large part of the stress comes from the belief that we have to deal with it by ourselves. The mere act of reaching out can be a big step in itself.

If we try to run away from stress, we will keep running forever.

If we instead turn toward what triggers our stress, we give ourselves the chance to truly evolve.


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