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Developing a Personalized Stress Prevention Plan

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Stress prevention takes the idea of stress management to a level beyond typical stress management. The common approach to stress management is reactive in nature. People go on with their lives as usual, occasionally getting overloaded with stress and, at that point in time (and that point in time only), pulling out a stress management or relaxation technique, using it to gain some relief and then going on about their merry ways. Stress prevention can't work if it is pursued in such a reactive manner. Instead, effective stress prevention strategies require people to change their lifestyles so that they take proactive steps to avoid stress and enhance their health every day. A commitment to daily practice of stress management techniques is required. It is not enough to think about stress management techniques; they must actually be performed. In this final section of our stress management document, we address the critical question of how people can best make and then sustain this important lifestyle change.

hand making a listChanging your lifestyle is seldom an easy thing to do, even when it is in your best interests. When trying to create desired change, the tendency is to jump into the deep end and try to hold yourself to a rigid set of new lifestyle rules that aren't comfortable, and which don't allow room for unforeseen circumstances or backsliding. People manage to make it work for a while through sheer willpower, but ultimately, something tends to trip them up. When this happens, people tend to revert back to the way they behaved before; retreating towards older habits that give comfort in the moment, even if they are harmful in the long run.

Talking a more deliberate, graduated approach towards lifestyle change can make the difference between success and failure. A graduated approach to change allows for people to more fully develop their motivations, and to prepare adequately for failures and relapses, thus reducing the chance that they will completely derail the change process. In the discussion that follows, we present a formalized version of the stages of change people pass through en route to creating lasting lifestyle change so as to better help you think through and structure your own change process.

Stage 1: Challenge

Motivation is critically important to the change process, serving as both foundation and fuel. It is the basis upon which people set their change efforts, and also the the wind that fills their sails, propelling them forward through the stages of change. All change efforts start with motivation. Motivation is driven by challenging events that upset people's status quo and comfort and which cause them to become aware of problems. Before there is awareness of a problem there is no motivation. If we are content with our lives, it doesn't occur to us that anything needs to change.

In your own life, you can probably think of a few key stressful events that have challenged you and caused you to become aware of life problems, which have also motivated you to learn about stress management. Perhaps you have felt overwhelmed about making a presentation at work. Perhaps you find yourself repeatedly fighting with your spouse or children. Perhaps your doctor says the aches and pains you have been experiencing are caused by overwork or anxiety. Perhaps you have had a heart attack and are worried about not being around to see your children grow up. There are innumerable ways that you can become challenged, and thus motivated to pursue lifestyle change.

Stage 2: Awareness

In the second stage of change, people take steps to expand their awareness of the problems they are facing and how to handle them. If you are reading this article, you probably have already reached the awareness stage of change. You are aware that you have an issue or problem and have started to seek out information about how to manage it. For instance, you have chosen to read about stress management and the impact of stress on your health and performance. You may decide to supplement what you learn here by attending a seminar, taking a class, or reading a book on the subject of stress management. The awareness stage of change is very important as it strengthens the foundation for your future change efforts. Learning more about how your body and mind reacts to stress and what can be done to correct these problems will make you more effective at planning and carrying out your own process of stress management change.