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How To Rate Your Progress In Stress Management

Stress is a part of life, especially in the modern world. You're not going to wake up one day and never experience stress again. Most of my clients are realistic enough to recognise that, but it's common that their goal, or their main goal, is simply to experience less of the feelings of anxiety and stress. That's very understandable, but if we just left it at that, it could be problematic, and for several reasons. One is that expectations matter: having unrealistic expectations that never materialise leads to frustration, which of course simply adds to and amplifies stress. In other words, expectations condition results – false expectations can get in the way of results.

In this article I'm going to consider the question of how to rate your progress with stress management, because it sheds light on the question of what to reasonably expect from coaching and therapy, and indeed what the most appropriate goal should be.

Let's start with what is perhaps the most prominent symptom of stress, which is the feeling of anxiety (if that word doesn't quite fit for you, then substitute some other feeling like agitation, restlessness, worry, feeling on edge.) What are the dimensions, or the variables, or the things that might change?

In the first place, we can pick out three:

  • intensity of the emotion, when it happens
  • frequency of occurrence
  • duration of the difficult experience, or how long it takes to recover.

Suppose you have an emotional problem like anxiety or anger. Think about how it would be if the emotion changed in each of these three ways. Which changes would you be happy to have? Or most happy to have?

Some people say they feel anxious all the time, so the second and third dimensions are not relevant. This might be true, but in practice the reality is almost always that intensity does vary – you feel worse at some times compared to others, even if your “best” feels pretty bad.

A word of advice here: it's a very useful skill to be able to rate your problem emotions so that you can discriminate small variations. I suggest getting into the habit of giving your emotion a “score” out of 100, where zero is completely chilled and 100 is the worst it could be. Of course it's going to be entirely subjective, but still a useful thing to do. If you didn't notice a 10% change, how would you know to keep going with what you were doing?

It's also quite possible that frequency and / or duration of a problem emotion can change before intensity does. So again, if you're not tuned into these things you're likely to miss progress.

In fact it's surprisingly common how clients can report no real change, but then on closer questioning they realise that some things have changed. This is something that other therapists and coaches will recognise. It seems that people can be so narrowly focused on whatever problems they do have, and still have, that they lose sight of positive changes that are happening.

This brings up a limitation of the three factors I've listed above, which is that they're all problem-focused. There's a case for saying the real goal in stress management is not to avoid or get rid of stress but to get good at recovering.

As your skills in stress management grow, you'll gain confidence that you can handle more challenging situations. This is definitely progress. But if you start to take on new challenges that you wouldn't have considered before, it may be that your experience of say anxiety doesn't really change. So another marker for progress in stress management is your confidence in your own resilience – confidence that if something happens you'll be able to deal with it, that is, recover and carry on.

Related to this is another factor: living a meaningful life. For some of my stress clients, the real problem is not that they experience certain difficult feelings, but that they put their whole life on hold until the problem is gone. For example they don't take on new career challenges, and they don't go out and meet new people.

If you're living a meaningful life, you're bound to be facing challenges. Life is about growth. You can't really expect to grow and develop as a person without experiencing some challenge and therefore some stress.

In summary, it's important for people working with stress managment to be aware of stressful emotions in their dimensions of intensity, frequency and duration, and to be able to subjectively rate these factors as a basis for appreciating when things change.

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