Withstanding stress is like weathering a bad storm. Not only do you have to contend with the stressful issues of work and home, but also the people around you who may react to these events in stressful ways. It can start to feel like these forces are working together to pull at your sanity.

Managing stress is at the forefront of most people’s minds in recent years.

Our culture has become more aware of the mind-body connection. We are more invested in understanding how stress impacts our physical health outcomes than ever before.

Because of our increased knowledge, we have a responsibility to ourselves to recognize stress before it becomes overwhelming and manage it in healthy ways.

Just as we decide how to respond to a weather storm depending on the severity, we can learn to gauge and respond to the stressful storms of life. The stressful life events we face at work and in our personal lives are all degrees of severity. From mildly annoying stressor to life-changing calamity, stress manifests in countless ways.

Gauging severity:

Imagine stressful life situations in categories, like we often hear of weather patterns.

Level 1 stressors are low grade.

Everyone has their own version of what a low-grade stressor looks like. Generally, think of a Level 1 stressor as a stressful event that causes temporary, low level discomfort.

Managing a Level 1 stressor requires little effort. Using basic distraction is helpful and should be sufficient in alleviating the temporary stress.

Level 2 stressors rise above mild discomfort and have more involved consequences for your life.

A Level 2 stress might be something that actively needs to be managed. It will not resolve itself and if ignored may blow up into something worse. Managing Level 2 stress requires not only distraction, but action.

Take the necessary steps to make it right (within your power), talk to others who are involved to work toward reducing the impact.

When you’ve done what is within your power to resolve it, then use healthy coping strategies and distraction to manage your feelings. Exercise will help burn off residual stress that your body is holding.

Level 3 stressors are more demanding on your mind and body.

These stressors require attention and problem-solving skills during and after the event to manage the impact. Level 3 stress will probably hang on even after the situation ends. Sometimes with this intensity, our minds go into troubleshooting mode later, trying to figure out how to prevent situations like this from happening again.

Our minds might automatically do this without our permission, so this will require intentional thought-stopping skills. Practice observing your thoughts. When you notice your mind wandering back to dwell on a negative situation needlessly, intentionally stop the thought and redirect to something benign or positive. Thought-stopping shouldn’t be the first go-to coping strategy.

Use it when you’ve allowed yourself to experience your emotions and have already given the situation a fair amount of thought.

The technique of thought-stopping is a useful way to redirect your brain to stop dwelling on negative events and let them go.

Level 3 stress will likely require thought-stopping after the fact. Use additional coping strategies that alleviate stress through physical activity, creative outlets and feeding your spiritual needs.

Spending time with friends, attending a church service or reading inspirational material can help nurture your spiritual self. Listening to TED Talks can also refresh and refocus the mind and spirit.

Level 4 stressors are the ones that will keep you up at night.

These unfortunate parts of life shake you to the core. Often this level of stress will make you feel physically ill, may impact your eating habits, and of course, affects your sleep patterns.

You will probably end up dwelling on a Level 4 stressor because it is significant enough to impact a variety of aspects of your life. The stress may morph into anxiety and even a panic attack. Consider a Level 4 stress as an acute situation that requires immediate management and self-care.

Often highly intense forms of stress involve something out of our control entirely.

In circumstances like this we need to respond by taking whatever action is possible to improve the situation and then focusing our efforts on reeling in our physiological responses.

If others are involved, talk about the situation and garner support from one another. Brainstorm ways to do what is possible to help alleviate the situation, and then come up with a plan for self-care together.

Level 4 stress won’t be resolved overnight, nor will your feelings about it. Consider a long-range plan for managing this level of stress. Write it out:

      • What can you do to positively impact the situation?
      • What will help your body reduce the physical impact of this stress? (Massage? Warm bath? Stretching?)
      • What will help you mentally let go of the stress? (Talking to loved ones, seeing a therapist, allowing your feelings to emerge?)
      • What does your spirit need to recover from this stress? (Time with friends? Laughter? Talking with a pastor? Using your creativity?)
      • What is your take-away? Did this situation show you that you can incorporate into your life? What meaning does this create, through the difficulty?

Problems arise when we respond to a Level 1 stressor in the same way we respond to a Level 4. Not all stressors are created equal, and we shouldn’t respond to them as if they are.

When we respond to all stress levels equally, it leaves us ill-equipped to handle it when Level 4s are thrown our way.

One of the worst things we can do when facing any level of stress is to move into avoidance mode. Sometimes it can feel tempting to simply abandon ship when stressful things are happening, but avoidance doesn’t work in the long run.

Avoiding the difficulties in life only prolongs the discomfort.

We can’t wish away the things that bother us and avoiding is a step below a wish. Have faith that you will survive your stressors and trust in yourself to recover from them.

Even stressful situations have value for our lives. We need to be open to the messages they deliver and allow for our growth to happen, even as we deal with pain. 


  • Dr. Teyhou Smyth

    Performance Coach, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Keynote Speaker, Licensed Therapist (#115137)

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