Stress Management Tip #5: When You Feel Overwhelmed, Do a “Stress Scan”

By Warren Holleman
Revised and updated March 16, 2017

There are at least six spheres of life where normal stress can overload and become dis-stress. If you take a few minutes to scan these key areas, you’ll get a snapshot of the places where you need to do some preventive maintenance.

Social Problems in relationships involving: lack of communication; frequent arguing; unresolved conflict; broken commitments; loss of trust; abuse, co-dependency, and other toxic binds. Frequent work-home conflicts. Spousal/partner conflict. Parenting problems. Caring for aging parents.
 Emotional A significant loss: death, divorce, serious illness, disability, friendship, job. Even a relatively minor loss can also be stressful: a car, a cell phone. A major change: relationship, geography, job. Trauma. Lack of social support. Alcohol problem – self or loved one.
Spiritual Feeling that I have violated my conscience or integrity. Feeling that others disrespect my faith, beliefs or values. Feeling I have lost connection with the things that give my life meaning and purpose. Religious abuse, clergy abuse. Moral distress.
Societal Cultural, racial, religious or political upheaval. Gender wars. Hate crimes and terrorism. Societal conflicts that leave me feeling unsafe, unsettled, disrespected, or angry. War. Incivility. Political actions that pit one group against another.
Technologic Addiction to cell phone, email, social media, games. 24/7 news cycle. Sports Center OCD. Multi-tasking. Feeling overstimulated. The tyranny of the urgent. Focusing on shiny objects rather than more important priorities. Losing touch with the big picture. Not feeling fully present.
Occupational Workplace conflicts, changes, uncertainty. Workplace unfairness, poor communication, lack of transparency, dishonesty. Unsupportive relationships with co-workers. Working worried, scared, frustrated, or angry. Bad leadership, supervision, or mentoring. Being micromanaged.

Let’s say you do the Stress Scan and find two or three problem areas. The next step is to drill down into those areas to see what is driving the dis-stress. Then you can develop a strategy to address it.

Example #1: Social Dis-stress

Take an honest look at the following aspects of your relationships:

  • Communication: Am I assertive in expressing my needs and wants? Am I appropriate in doing this–being assertive without becoming aggressive–or  could I use some skills training in how to communicate difficult things?
  • Conflict: Is there too much conflict in my relationships? Do I or my friends express our differences too vociferously or too frequently? Or, on the other hand, is there too little conflict expressed in my relationships? In other words, do I and my friends avoid conflict to the point that we are not authentic with each other?
  • Commitment: Do I know which of my relationships have the highest levels of two-way commitment? These, of course, are the people with whom I can and should be most vulnerable and trusting. Do I make the mistake of sharing deeply with people who are not my trusted friends and thus create situations where the commitment does not match the communication?
  • Do I have two or three best friends with whom I can share my deepest feelings? My values? My hopes? Fears? Uncertainties?

These areas–communication, conflict, and commitment–are normal growth areas for all relationships, and areas where we can always find room for improvement.

IMG_0539But there are other areas that tip into the pathological or dysfunctional realm, areas with red flags flying, telling us we need to address these issues urgently or extricate ourselves from the relationship. I’ll offer a personal example: my relationship with Martin. (Should be Martina, but that’s another story.) She’s a diva, and she only cares about herself and her own needs. She takes advantage of me all the time. But there is one redeeming factor: Martin is a cat, and that’s pretty much the way it’s gonna be if you choose to be in a relationship with a cat.

It’s another matter, however, if you have human friends who treat you this way. Or, more accurately, whom you permit to treat you this way. If you find yourself in this predicament, ask yourself some tough questions, and give honest answers.

  • Am I entangled in toxic relationships involving codependency, enabling, addiction, shame, abuse, or violence?
  • Am I stuck in relationships where one does all the taking and expects the other to do all the giving?

If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, you may be trapped in a DYS-functional relationship. My recommendation is very simple: Get out! You aren’t going to fix each other. You’re only going to be abused, taken advantage of, or enmeshed in someone else’s drama.

Now, back to so-called “functional” relationships. These can cause dis-stress, too, but if you drill down and figure out where the dis-stress is coming from, you can make a plan for addressing it. Consider getting help from a professional, such as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). LMFTs are relationship experts, and they’ll help you get (and give) the most out of your relationships.

Example #2: Occupational Dis-stress

When my colleagues suffer from occupational stress and come to me for help, we do a breakdown of their workplace demands, priorities, and conflicts to identify all possible sources of workplace stress. I run a wellness program for an academic health center, so my clients are mostly doctors, nurses, and biomedical scientists, and the examples I list below are from those occupations. But if you take a look at how we break it down–just brainstorming all the potential stressors–you’ll be able to make a similar list for your occupation.

Sources of occupational stress for doctors, nurses, and other clinicians

  • Patient care responsibilities: Will this patient be okay? Am I forgetting anything?
  • Patient suffering and death: Do I have the communications skills and peer support I need to handle this?
  • Patient/family complaints or unrealistic expectations: Again, do I need some communications training? Peer support?
  • Medical errors: fear of harming a patient and the guilt and shame that go with that
  • Conflicts, rudeness, disrespect between team members
  • Productivity quotas, “new normals,” pressure to make “targets”
  • Paperwork, inefficiencies
  • EMR (Electronic Medical Record)
  • Conflicting values
  • Clinics runs by administrators who do not understand or share my priorities
  • Leaders and health care organizations who preach one set of values (quality care) but practice another (making money)
  • Not feeling valued by my organization or its leadership
  • Unfairness or perception of unfairness

Sources of occupational stress for biomedical scientists

  • Grant deadlines
  • Bureaucracy, meetings, busywork
  • Fears about the future: Will I be able to get and maintain funding?
  • Too much time spent fundraising
  • Not having time to do the very thing I was trained to do, I love to do, and what I feel called to do: research
  • Conflicts between team members: personalities, work ethic differences, fairness, authorship issues, incivility
  • Supervision and mentoring issues
  • Leaders who preach one set of values but practice another
  • Not feeling valued by my organization or its leadership
  • Unfairness or perception of unfairness

Even if you don’t work in health care, you can see how I developed this breakdown of occupational stressors and apply it to your own work-related stressors. Take a few minutes and brainstorm all the stressors you’ve experienced and that you’ve seen among your colleagues. You might even want to do this with your co-workers as a team-building exercise. Then take a few more minutes and explore what measures you might take to prevent or manage these stressors.

Summing Up
Whatever sphere your stress is coming from—and in most cases there is more than one—drill down and make a list of all possible sources of stress. Then develop strategies for coping with the stress. Don’t be shy about asking for help from friends, colleagues, counselors, and coaches.

There are two basic types of strategies: (1) coping through preventing and problem-solving, and (2) emotional coping. Emotional coping is essential for those stressors that we can’t control. We’ll cover these strategies in Tip #6 and Tip #7. Stay tuned!

Note to reader: If you’d like to read other Stress Management Tips, scroll back up to the top of the page and click on the tab.
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  1. John - October 18, 2021 @ 9:30 pm

    This is good stuff, I think what I’m stressed about is I have a tough time consetrating. And I think it is leading to me having panick attacks. I don’t know how to correct the cycle

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