Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
image by Sarah (lic)There's an old saying, "the best defense is often a good offense." This saying is as true of stress management as it is of sports or war. It takes effort and time to become skillful at defusing stress. The process itself can even be stressful! It much smarter, then, to spend some time developing good stress prevention skills that minimize the need for strenuous self-soothing efforts in the first place. Consequently, we now turn our discussion towards steps people can take to reduce and minimize their chances of becoming distressed.
Stress prevention is basically about cultivating a balanced perspective towards one's life and place within the world. Generally speaking, the following steps will allow people to reduce stress:
becoming aware of what true needs are and are not
understanding how to meet true needs (rejecting mere wishes masquerading as true needs)
becoming able to resist being exploited or manipulated by other people
Efforts to clarify values, ambitions and social boundaries; to become aware of physical limitations and meet basic needs; to recognize and fend off interpersonal exploitation and invasion; and to cultivate a positive, optimistic and emotionally resilient attitude towards life are all important aspects of developing this perspective.
It should be stressed here that like all effective stress management techniques, stress prevention is not a one-time effort but rather an ongoing discipline. Stress prevention techniques must be regularly revisited in a sort of ongoing life-maintenance project if their benefits are to be continuously enjoyed. Life is not a static thing, but rather an evolving and dynamic process. The balance and perspective that works well for one chapter of a person's life may prove ill-fitting for a later chapter, requiring revision and updating to take place.
Values Clarification and Prioritization
Developing a clear and prioritized understanding of one's values lies at the core of effective stress prevention. When you understand what is truly important to you, and have developed a clear sense for how to balance competing demands on your time in a manner that accords with your values, you possess the basis for making decisions and commitments with a minimum of stress.
People's values are defined by the weight or importance they place on various aspects of their complex social and emotional lives. People may value a great many different aspects of life, including particular social roles (such as being a parent, being employed, etc.); religious, national, interpersonal and employment affiliations; various objects of property (such as cars, televisions and houses); and personality characteristics (such as honesty or intelligence or compassion). Cultural institutions play a large role in shaping values, but every individual brings uniqueness to the formation of their own personal value statement. Whatever form they ultimately take, each person's values serve as the point of comparison against which they judge (and appraise) whether their lives are fulfilling and worthwhile.
In a perfect world, everyone would be able to live in accordance with their values. In this particular imperfect world, however, it is often very difficult for people to do this. For example, many women value being involved and responsible mothers, but experience great economic and social pressure to work outside the home which competes with that parental desire. Similarly, many adults would like to be employed in a "creative" job (such as a chef, artist or athlete), or in a job taking care of other people (such as a teacher, therapist or doctor), but instead remain working in less personally satisfying positions that appeal primarily because they pay well or offer benefits such as health insurance that their families could not otherwise afford. It can be very stressful to live life when your actions don't match your values, as there is never enough time to do the things you truly want to do!
Values clarifications exercises can be very helpful for people who feel trapped in life decisions that conflict with their values. It is seldom the case that people are truly trapped in their lives, and more often the case that they are confronted with a variety of conflicting values they are unsuccessfully trying to juggle. Getting increasingly clear about the relative importance of individual competing values helps people to gain the courage necessary to take risks that promise to improve their lives, or to become more accepting of the compromises they have already chosen.