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When Stress Management Fails

February 6, 2014

I believe that getting it wrong is one of the most useful learning experiences we can have. When we get things wrong we have an opportunity to get up, dust ourselves off and look at what we could have done better. You only have to watch a baby learning to walk to see that at its most basic level, learning is about making mistakes and trying again.

I’m also a great believer in the idea that we never stop learning. Maybe this means that we never stop making mistakes and most of these ‘learning opportunities’ will tend to be fairly subtle and easy to miss, but sometimes something sneaks up and hits you between the eyes. For me one of these more drastic experiences happened a few years ago.

My Story

As a Qigong practitioners and keen cyclist I considered myself to be fit and healthy so when I started getting 3 or 4 migraines a week and the face looking back at me from the bathroom mirror was rather grey and drawn I decided that enough was enough, I needed to see my GP.

It came as no surprise when my GP asked me about my stress levels and when I described my work situation (I was telecommuter working in the IT sector) she asked how many weeks this had been going on. She was rather taken aback when I said 4½ years and told me I must have been doing something right to cope for that long. Needless to say I didn’t agree, I was more interested in what I was doing wrong and how I had ended up in this situation.

This was one of those conversations that gain relevance with time. My GP was of the opinion that I had a great coping mechanism in order to sustain things for such a long period of time, but to me it was obvious that my approach to managing stress was failing at some level. To draw an analogy, it felt like I was trying to sort out a leaky roof by getting bigger and bigger buckets, at some point the combination of stress and coping techniques take over your life, and when there’s no more space left its your health that starts to suffer.

The more I thought about my GP’s comments, the more I felt that I had been missing something very basic in the way I balanced my life, and the thing that kept coming up was around the term ‘coping technique’.

Coping or Transforming?

Coming back to the analogy of the leaky roof, a bucket to catch the water and stop the rain coming in is a useful tool but on it’s own it just allows the cause of the problem to worsen. As a coping technique it has merit, but we really need to find a way to address the cause of the problem while still catching the drips.

So the question that arose was ‘if my practice of Qigong worked well as a coping technique, can the same practice be used to change our relationship with stress?’

As with fixing a leaky roof, the trick with addressing the effects of stress seems to sit with preventing it from having a damaging effect at the source. Experience suggested that using a coping technique that allows us to diffuse the damaging effects of stress that build up over time didn’t seem to be the answer in the long term. The best solution to prevent stress from becoming a problem in modern life seems to fall into one of two categories:

  • Diffuse the stress response when it happens. In the natural world stress is responded to immediately, a deer won’t store up its worries through the day then go for a run in the evening…
  • Prevent, or minimise inappropriate activation of the stress response.


Both these techniques require integration of the stress management process into our daily lives. The techniques that are most effective in this process are the ones that become habitual, the things that we do without consciously applying them. What we’re talking about here is a new healthy habit that enables us to respond to stress in a more positive, more embodied way.


Coping techniques have their place, but when we only address the short-term accumulation of stress we run the risk of filling our lives with stress and stress management. When we integrate stress management into our daily lives we are more able to transform our relationship with stress, think more clearly and be far healthier in the long term.