What’s wrong with most Stress Management courses?

The problem I see is that most resources on managing stress tend to give you a generic list of techniques to try i.e. practise mindfulness, exercise, eat well, sleep well, get out in nature, or go to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).

Now of course, all these activities will help, so it’s right to suggest them. However, in most cases, two crucial steps are missed that should come before trying out any of those techniques. These missing steps are likely to be the answer as to why you’ve been unable to manage your stress levels more effectively and more sustainably.

What are the two missing steps?

The first missing step is to stop calling everything ‘stress’, and instead start to identify, understand and explore the emotions you are feeling underneath that label of stress.

The second missing step is to develop a better understanding of yourself in terms what triggers your emotions, how emotions show up in you and what you need in order to help you manage those emotions.

Why are these two steps important?

As I mentioned earlier, in most stress management courses you will be given a generic set of techniques, however this list is often given without any explanation as to what’s happening inside of you, or how to identify which technique will help and why. Each time you try a technique, it will be a bit hit or miss as to whether it works.

For instance, if you just try mindfulness without really knowing why, or whether it’s really what you need, then it’s quite likely that on some days it will work and on others it won’t. But if you understand emotions, how they show up in you, and what you need, then you are more likely to find the right technique pretty much every time.

Sounds too simple to be true, I know. But in my work as an Executive coach working with clients who have persistently suffered from stress and burnout for most of their adult lives, I find that covering these two steps has enabled my clients to make tangible and sustainable progress in their ability to manage stress. Not only that, the likelihood of stress showing up in them significantly reduces, and if stress does show up, then it is likely to be short lived.

…if you understand emotions, how they show up in you, and what you need, then you are more likely to find the right technique pretty much every time.

Steph Tranter, YC Associate

How can identifying emotions help to manage stress?

The word ‘stress’ is unhelpful. It’s unhelpful because we use it as a catch all to describe any emotion. It seems to be more acceptable to say, “I’m stressed”, rather than I’m pissed off, or I’m worried, or I’m sad, or I feel guilty, ashamed, or jealous. It’s not surprising we use the word stress instead of naming emotions, because most of us have had little (if any) education around emotions. Moreover, the word ‘stress’ has become a universally unhelpful habit of language, like when any word enters the common psyche. I’m pretty sure there was once a time when every adjective wasn’t superseded by ‘super’.

When it comes to the word stress, we use it in all sorts of situations. For example, have a look at these phrases:

  • They are really stressing me out

  • That was a stressful situation

  • I’m so stressed out right now

Three different scenarios all using the word stress, but when you unpick each scenario, there is likely to be a different emotion underneath each one.

In scenario one ‘they are really stressing me out’ I suspect that it’s more, ‘they are really annoying me’.

Scenario two is likely to be ‘that was a worrying situation’.

If we can more articulately name the emotion we are feeling, rather than calling everything ‘stress’, then we will be giving ourselves a much better chance of dealing with our emotions and therefore reduce the impact they can have on how we function in our day to day lives.

Steph Tranter, YC Associate

Scenario three could be related to worry or frustration, or it could indicate the presence of secondary emotions being felt in response to an initial emotion, i.e. you might start to feel angry, and then feel ashamed for getting angry, and then worried that you’ve hurt someone with your anger, and then angry again that you’re worried, and on and on. In fact, the third phrase is likely to point towards another state we get into when we experience many emotions at once. This state we regularly label as feeling ‘overwhelmed’ – which is yet another unhelpful word when trying to manage our ‘stress levels’.

Test me out on this, think back to the last time you felt stressed. Now dig a little deeper and see if you can find the emotion or emotions that you were feeling. Note down any emotions you can identify.

If we can more articulately name the emotion we are feeling, rather than calling everything ‘stress’, then we will be giving ourselves a much better chance of dealing with our emotions and therefore reduce the impact they can have on how we function in our day to day lives.

What are emotions and why do we have them?

Emotions are natural, normal responses to the events that happen in our lives; they drive our behaviour in everything we do and every decision we make. The overall purpose of emotions is to help us to survive, that is why they fundamentally drive our behaviour. It’s surprising really that something that can so fundamentally impact the quality of our day to day lives, was completely left off the school syllabus.

Everyone experiences emotions, but the extent to which they show up and are expressed can vary from person to person. Some people feel emotions more deeply than others, and some people express them more outwardly than others. Every person is different, and so whilst the following information is universally true for all of us, it is equally important to understand how you personally experience emotions.

Emotions get triggered rapidly and automatically by situations, people, and even thoughts; and can appear as if from out of nowhere, making it feel like they are not in your control. Furthermore, not understanding emotions can also lead us to believing that there’s not much we can do about them. This can leave you feeling stuck, and at the mercy of any emotion that shows up in you.

But you are more in control of your emotions than you think.

The overall purpose of emotions is to help us to survive, that is why they fundamentally drive our behaviour.

Steph Tranter, YC Associate

As human beings, we experience a range of emotions that psychologists have categorised into nine emotion families, although the research to fully understand these families is ongoing. The nine emotion families are: Fear, Sadness, Anger, Guilt, Shame, Jealousy, Envy, Disgust, and Happiness.

Current research has also found that each of the nine emotion families contain a range of emotions that can be felt at different intensities. This accounts for the many variations of feelings we experience, and therefore the many different words we have within each emotion family. For instance worry and and anxiety are part of the Fear family, and frustration and annoyance are part of the Anger family.

All emotions share three core qualities:

  1. They have a purpose for showing up in us
  2. They initiate an urge to act
  3. They prepare our bodies to take action to help us survive

Understanding the purpose of each emotion family, what action it stimulates us to want to take, and how that emotion shows up in our bodies and minds, can be a great first step into helping you to manage and take control of that emotion.

The table in the appendix shows the purpose of four of the nine emotion families that can show up in us, what tends to trigger emotions in that family, and what urge to act is usually associated with it.

How do I deal with the emotion?

To begin to manage or regulate the impact an emotion is having on you, there are four practical steps you can take:

1. Notice the emotion as soon as it shows up in you

The quicker you can spot when you are experiencing an emotion, the easier it will be to manage it. That’s one of the many reasons why accurately labelling an emotion rather than calling it stress is so important to managing ‘stress’. Signs that you are feeling an emotion, can show up in your thoughts, in your body, and in your behaviour. For instance, not being able to think straight, or having repetitive and escalating thoughts. You might also notice tension in parts of your body, like in your shoulders, chest or stomach. You may withdraw from people, or find that you are sleeping more or less than usual. Everyone’s signs are likely to be different, the key is to know what your signs are and then look out for them, so you can spot them as soon as they arise.

A practical way to identify what your signs are:

Think back to a time when you felt ‘stressed’ and make a note of what was happening to your thoughts, body and behaviour. You can also set daily reminders on your phone to check in with your body and your thoughts to see if you can spot any signs that you’re not in a good place. Getting to know yourself better, will help you get quicker at spotting and managing any emotion that shows up in you.

2. Accept you are feeling an emotion

Once you’ve spotted that you are feeling an emotion, you then need to accept that the emotion is there. This sounds easy, but it is probably one of the hardest steps to take because we generally try to hide and suppress emotions. The problem with suppressing emotions is that it will tend to make things worse by intensifying the emotion, and therefore creating more tension within you. But the quicker you can accept that you are feeling an emotion, the quicker you will be able to reduce the impact it is having on you.

Practical ways to accept the emotion:

There are a few phrases that can help soften the fight against an emotion and help you start to accept it. Try saying the following to yourself:

  • “(insert your name) it looks like you’re feeling (insert name of emotion)” – this needs to be said in the third person like you are looking down on yourself
  • “I may not like this, I may not want this, but it is here”
  • “I won’t feel like this forever, this will pass”.

3. Find a way to express the emotion in a safe way

The best way to deal with an emotion is to allow it to be expressed. Now it’s not always possible to allow that to happen in the middle of a meeting or conversation. You can’t just shout, scream or punch someone who has made you mad, or burst into tears if someone has upset you. However, it is important to find a way to allow that emotion to be expressed as soon as you can, as expressing the emotion is the quickest way to releasing it from your body.

Practical ways to express the emotion:

  • Make an excuse to remove yourself from the conversation or meeting, then allow yourself to get the emotion out by phoning a friend and ranting or crying (or both) at them, or going somewhere private to release the emotion
  • Invest in a punch bag. This will enable you to get out any pent-up energy from feeling angry
  • A brisk walk, run or session at the gym can help get out any tension in your body brought about by an emotion.

But you are more in control of your emotions than you think.

Steph Tranter, YC Associate

4. Identify and give yourself what you need

When you’ve been ‘hijacked’ by an emotion, it’s important to know what you need to help bring yourself back to a calm and focused state. What you need is likely to be different to what someone else might need, and will depend on what emotion you are feeling. That’s why it’s not enough to just ‘do mindfulness’, or to just go for a walk. It’s important to know what you’re feeling, what that emotion is telling you that you need, and what you know helps you get what you need.

For instance, you may be feeling worried and so need to calm your thoughts down. Therefore, mindfulness or techniques from CBT are likely to help. However, if you’re full of rage, then it’s likely that doing a bit of mindfulness or meditation in the moment, will not be helpful or effective. It’s more likely that in fact what you need is to expel all the built-up energy in your body, therefore doing some sort of physical activity could be a better choice. So, my point here is that when stress management courses give out a prescriptive list of stress management techniques, this isn’t helpful if you don’t choose the correct activity for what you need. You need to be more conscious, deliberate and discerning in what you choose to do.

Practical ways to give yourself what you need:

  • Think back to times when you have been ‘emotionally hijacked’. Was there something you did that really helped you deal with that emotion effectively? What was the emotion and what did you do? Start to build up a list of all the activities that have worked when you have felt different emotions. You can also think back to times when you’ve been at your best and build up a list of activities you know were in place at that time that helped you manage your emotions better, or even stopped you getting triggered as much.
  • If you don’t know what will help you, then start to try some things out. Experiment with going for a walk, or getting some extra sleep, or drinking less alcohol, or phoning a friend who makes you laugh. And start to identify the things that work and those that don’t work.

Final thoughts

Stress is the result of mis-managed emotions, and counter to popular belief there is no good or bad stress, there are only emotions! The key to managing stress effectively and sustainably over time is to know your signs that you’ve been emotionally hijacked, know what you need to get back to being calm and focused, and then consciously choose an activity that will give you what you need. This will help you manage the emotion effectively, which in turn will help you focus and think more logically about your situation, as well as reduce the impact that the emotion is having on your day to day life.

Three key takeaways from this article:

  1. You are more in control of your emotions than you might think
  2. Feeling and showing emotions is not weak, it is in fact the antidote to stress
  3. Stress is the result of mis-managed emotions! Get better at managing your emotions, and you’ll get better at managing stress!

About the author

Steph Tranter is a hybrid Executive Coach and author. She primarily works with c-suite directors and their Leadership teams, and her approach blends the worlds of corporate coaching and person-centred therapy. Steph has a broad experience across a range of sectors, industries and sizes of organisations, from small Tech start-ups, to large well-established global brands like Harrods, Tesco and WeWork. Steph has also worked extensively in the Sports industry, notably helping the British Olympic Equestrian Team prior to the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020.