Can stress be prevented?

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It’s impossible to avoid stress and, in actual fact, we shouldn’t want to avoid stress because it helps us to become stronger and better adapted to our environment. We need challenges and stress to live healthy, successful lives.

What we want to try and minimise are the negative consequences that develop with chronic and overwhelming stress. We also want to try to avoid situations that are clearly harmful to our wellbeing. The same factors that help us to manage stress (see article on “How stress can be managed”) can also help us to prevent stress.

Other preventative steps include:

Cognitive re-framing

Feeling in control comes from having the confidence that you’ll able to deal with whatever challenges you’re faced with. If you believe you can cope and persevere through difficult times, you will be better equipped to deal with any stressful situations that arise.

Conversely, feeling that you’re a victim of negative events and that you have no control over what happens in your life will increase your vulnerability to become stressed. Cognitive strategies involve reframing the problem and challenging your negative belief systems, as well as increasing thinking patterns that decrease stress, such as fostering positivity.

Preparing for challenges

There are some types of challenges that we know about ahead of time and which we can prepare for – for instance, tests, presentations and work deadlines.

Our best approach to decrease the negative stress in these situations is to put more time and effort into preparing for these challenges. The better prepared you are, the more confident and skilled you will feel and the less likely you are to feel overwhelmed by stress. Having good time-management skills also plays a role in ensuring you have sufficient time available to complete the tasks at hand.

Setting healthy boundaries

A key to preventing becoming overwhelmed by stress is knowing your own limits and to act in accordance with those.

Many of us are in a habit of saying “yes” to too many obligations, whether in our work or personal lives, and becoming overwhelmed. We have to learn to say “no” when we don’t want or don’t feel able to do something. Having good communication skills can further help us to better communicate our wants and needs to others, and contribute to having better relationships with the people in our lives.

Enhancing resilience

There are ways in which you can enhance your own resilience, such as having a growth attitude, where obstacles are viewed as learning experiences that help you to become a better version of yourself.

If your emotions are overwhelming and you don’t know how to deal with them, you’ll be more likely to feel stressed. Learning to identify and express your emotions appropriately can also help to make you more resilient. Cultivating optimism, gratitude and having a sense of humour about life’s difficulties are other ways of enhancing resilience.

Reviewed by Dr Leigh van den Heuvel, psychiatrist at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University and Tygerberg Hospital. August 2018.

Read more:
How can stress be managed?

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