How many times do you pause during a stressful day and think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to be sitting on a tropical island, drink in hand, without a care in the world?” That at least is my version of stress-free living. Unfortunately, many of us are ill-equipped to effectively handle the stresses life throws our way, and instead, turn to more destructive ways of coping. A recent study by Harvard-trained psychologist, Robert Epstein, found that despite the panoply of stress-management techniques discussed by experts (meditation, yoga, exercising, etc.), the most effective way to cope with stress is to learn how to sidestep potential stressors before they happen.

Sounds pretty logical, right, but the problem is that we stink at this. Epstein’s article references four trainable skill sets people can use to manage stress in a healthy way:

1. Reducing or eliminating the source of stress

2. Practicing relaxation techniques

3. Correcting irrational thinking

4. Prevention (planning your life so that you avoid stressors before they can affect you)

While practicing relaxation techniques and learning how to re-frame your thinking are effective stress management techniques, the study found that prevention was by far the most powerful predictor of happiness and success. But how many of you have had formal training in managing your stress? Only 17 percent of the subjects in Epstein’s study had received formal training in stress-management, this despite the fact that a Google search of “stress management techniques” produced over 16 million hits.

So how exactly do you fight stress before it starts?

1. Plan your week. A good friend of mine uses this strategy. Her entire family sits down on Sunday night to discuss and plan out the entire week. They map out who’s going where, who has which sporting event when, what school activities are coming up, and what days she might have to work late. By accounting for all of the known stressors during the week, she can play offense and get ahead of the stress.

 2. Eliminate tolerations. What are you tolerating in your life? Tolerations are those things (big and small) that you put up with every day that distract you from other more important matters. Tolerations can be anything from a dead-end job, a bad relationship, a car that needs repair, or disorganization, to furniture that needs repair. For each thing you are tolerating, ask yourself these three questions:

a. Can you get rid of the toleration completely?

b. If no, can you delegate it or ask someone else to do it?

c. If no to both questions, ask how can you better it?

3. Grab the good stuff. Thanks to the negativity bias, human beings are predisposed to notice and remember the bad stuff that happens during the day. Good stuff abounds during the day but is rarely sought out or remembered. At the end of each day, write down at least three good things that happened and reflect on their importance. The next morning, take a quick glance at the list. This exercise only takes a few minutes, but studies show that those who make this activity a regular habit experience increased levels of happiness and optimism (Seligman, et al., 2005).

4. Identify where you have control. Many people spend excessive amounts of energy trying to manage issues and solve problems that are outside of their control. This creates a high level of stress and frustration. I was working with a client recently on a recurring problem she was having, and after we worked through an exercise, she realized that about fifty percent of the problem was outside of her control. After a big sigh of relief, she refocused her efforts on the pieces that were within her control.

One of the more dramatic results of Epstein’s study was the finding that, “Nearly 25 percent of the happiness we experience in life is related to, and perhaps even the result of, our ability to manage stress.” When it comes to managing your stress, an ounce of prevention may very well be worth a pound of cure.


Paula Davis-Laack is a lawyer turned stress and resilience expert who works with attorneys to help them manage their high-achieving ways to live healthy lives and avoid burnout. Connect with Paula via:

Her website:





Epstein, R. (2011, September/October). Fight the frazzled mind. Scientific American Mind. Retrieved April 20, 2012, from

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, July-August, 410-421.

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