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Decoding Your Stress

Giving a name to what you’re feeling, instead of using this broad label, can start you on the road to feeling better
Written by 
Canyon Ranch Staff
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
February 18, 2015

Stuck in traffic? A stressful situation.
Finding it hard to pay bills? You’re completely “stressed out.”
Having an argument with your spouse? Well, you know where this is going.

You’ve likely used some version of the word “stress” more times than you can count and in a variety of different situations. “But stress has become a catch-all name for all negative emotions—it doesn’t really describe how you feel,” says Ann Pardo, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. That is a big part of why stress management can be challenging for many: When you haven’t pinpointed exactly what is bothering you is, it’s hard to find a solution that will help make things better. It’s akin to a mechanic trying to fix a car when the only thing he knows is that it doesn’t run.

Ask yourself: What’s really going on?

Are you frustrated because you won’t make your dinner on time?
Are you worried that you will not be able to provide for your family?
Are you angry that your partner hasn’t been too helpful around the house?

Notice how a word other than “stress” is used in each of these examples. Try to find a descriptor that captures what you are feeling. There are many possibilities, but here are some to help you along:

  • Annoyed
  • Betrayed
  • Bullied
  • Conflicted
  • Confused
  • Disappointed
  • Embarrassed
  • Invisible
  • Judged
  • Lonely
  • Misunderstood
  • Sad
  • Scared
  • Tired

Once you have labeled your stress, you may start to more clearly see how you can ease your situation. For example:

I’m so stressed. I have to finish this report by three o’clock.

Can become:

I’m scared that my boss will think I’m a bad worker if I don’t get this report done on time.

Thinking of things this way, a solution that was perhaps unclear before may more easily present itself. What will remove the element of fear, and thus ease your “stress?”

I will tell my boss that, to turn in my best work, I need a one-hour extension.

An issue that may have, at first, seemed hopeless begins to turn a corner. Of course, you may be facing more challenging or complex circumstances that can’t be helped as easily. Going through this exercise is still a worthy task, though, says Pardo. It is a powerful first step in getting to the root of what is weighing so heavily on you.

Take the above scenario: A pushed deadline may indeed help you feel better. But, if fear about what your boss thinks of you extends far beyond this one project, it may only offer temporary relief (if any). Your “stress” remains. Continuing describing what’s really going on can help unearth what is truly putting this burden on your shoulders:

I am scared that my boss will think I’m a bad worker if I don’t get this report done on time.  

I am worried that if my boss doesn’t think highly of me, I may get passed over for that promotion.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the last promotion, so I really want to get the next one.

Here, as it turns out, the looming deadline isn’t what is truly stressing you after all. Discovering this, you may be motivated to identify more ways you can position yourself for advancement, such as volunteering to lead the next project. You may feel better knowing you’re doing all you can to achieve the success you seek.

Stress management is an important part of wellness—not just for a balanced mind, but body and soul. Actually taking a step back and labeling your stress is essential to getting a handle on it, but it takes practice, particularly to do it “in the moment.” Allow yourself time to develop this new awareness.