4 Approaches for Managing Stress That Work

What is in your stress management toolkit?

Here is my interpretation of the 4 A’s of stress management from the Mayo Clinic. I am not sure I would keep them in this order. But, then again, I do not think the order matters much. The list is more a menu than it is a recipe.

We always have the option to choose our response to a stressful situation or to a stress that is present in our lives. The upside is that being able to choose gives us a power that we often forget we have – we can tailor our response to suit both our natural style and the situation.


Avoiding stress has gotten a bad name over the years because we associate it with denial and being passive aggressive. But sometimes we can take a quick detour and avoid a stressor. This strategy works when a stressor is temporary, passing, and the impact of avoiding it is small. Not all the time, but some problems can work themselves out if we are patient. But even when the problem is bigger, we can still benefit from taking a break when the problem threatens to overwhelm us, regain a sense of balance and control, and approach the problem with renewed energy.

But timing is important. The key is that our avoidance is only temporary, that we use our time to strengthen our mental, emotional, social, and other resources, and that we return and address the problem as soon we are better prepared, even though it may be uncomfortable.

  • Avoid toxic people
  • Learn to set boundaries and to say no
  • Don’t avoid the situation by substituting an unhealthy behavior
  • Prioritize your to-do list
  • Spend time on the things that are most important to you


When we are stressed, we basically have two options. We can change how we react to it or we can change the conditions. Altering the source or the conditions around a stressor focuses externally. It asks the question, “How can I make this situation better?” Many times, we can just use a simple problem-solving approach to resolve the issue and move on. Other times, we may need to honestly look at how our behavior is contributing to or sustaining a bad situation. We may need to politely ask others to help by changing their behavior. Life is a path of stepping stones, sometimes we are just in a bad place and need to move on. We might need to take an honest inventory of our lives and find better options.

  • Set limits in advance to head-off problems later
  • Ask others to change their behavior or change your own
  • Set goals for the future
  • Proactively work on solving problems


Sometimes there are situations we just cannot change no matter how hard we try. I had a friend who used to say, “Don’t beat your head against a rock.” Sometimes there are situations that don’t really need changing. We have to pick our fights carefully. This sentiment is echoed in the Serenity Prayer, “Lord, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

We often benefit from sitting back and thinking about what parts of a problem are in our control and what parts are not. This means that we might need to slow down a bit, regain our composure, and put things into perspective, especially when we are frustrated, flustered, or angered.

  • Talk with someone to release emotions and gain a new perspective
  • Practice positive self-talk to stay anchored and confident
  • Learn from past mistakes
  • Take a break or relax to reground your mind in what is really important


Just as altering requires us to look outside, adapting requires that we look inside and make changes there. Stress has an emotional impact, sometimes a very strong one. Part of adapting involves reassessing and recalibrating our perspectives. While we cannot always change the source of the stress, we can change how we react to it. Because a lot of stress is persistent, we sometimes tend to ruminate over our problems. We have to learn to keep things in perspective. We may ask ourselves, “Will this matter in five years?”

  • Adjust your priorities. “Is this really important?”
  • Reframe the problem. “What advice would I give a friend?”
  • Practice thought-stopping to head-off negative or depressing thoughts
  • Focus on the positive and the things you can control
  • Adopt a personal mantra, “This too shall pass.” “We can always make it better.”

Stress is a natural part of everyday life. The key to handling it, or to any approach to stress management, is to practice doing it. When we think about and practice techniques like these, we make them more readily available in our mind and increase the chance we will remember them and use them later when we need them. The good news is that this toolkit is light and easy to carry.

For more insights see my books and blog at JamesMcGinley.com.

James McGinley

James McGinley

James E. McGinley, PhD, is a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, Certified Life Coach, and adjunct professor teaching counseling psychology at major universities for over 14 years. He was trained in Positive Psychology by some of the leading researchers in the field, including Dr. Martin Seligman, the originator of Learned Helplessness Theory. He is the author of six books covering topics such as coping, stress management, and cross-cultural adjustment, several research monographs, and over a dozen journal articles. For more insights from his blog and access to his books visit JamesMcGinley.com.

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