The Buffer Zone Approach to Good Stress Management

Submitted on May 26, 2010 - 2:39pm

Stroll through any modern bookstore's psychology/self-help section, and you will see numerous books addressing concerns about stress management. People in today's society are often stressed out, and the authors of these books offer their thoughts about how to correct the situation.

Some of these books make many fine suggestions, such as encouraging people to learn relaxation techniques, and to look at life's stressors more critically to determine if a particular stress response is truly indicated. This latter technique can be most useful, since people are able to make mountains out of molehills quite easily in our modern environment. By contrast, in my grandmother's day, she and her family really did have to worry about having enough to eat, and enough wood for the Idaho winter. Today, our worry-responses sometimes can be out of proportion.
Buffer zone approach

Although techniques such as relaxation training and perspective-taking can be useful, there is an entirely different approach to stress management that is rarely discussed. The techniques of this approach involve making life choices in a manner that leads to reducing the probabilities that stress responses will occur in the first place. I call this the buffer zone approach.
Three key life values

Threats to three particular areas of life consistently cause stress. These key areas are health, wealth, and reputation. When any of these areas is threatened, stress responses naturally result, as they should. Stress responses are built into our natural psychology in order to help us deal more effectively with threats to important values! Stress responses such as increased vigilance, worry, rumination, and heightened arousal are potentially useful. Our ancestors were people who worried and got very focused when important values were threatened. Stress responses helped to increase their survival prospects. Less concerned people were less successful biologically.

Stress responses are an important component of our biological heritage, and can serve us well. If a person quits his job because he doesn't like the boss, but has no way to pay his rent or feed himself in the interim, he doesn't have an effective stress-response system. If a person takes a short-cut down a dark alley in a big city late at night in order to save a few steps, she may pay severe consequences for her lack of a sufficiently pessimistic imagination, a useful component of the stress response.

Health protection

In nationwide surveys aimed at determining the most important factors influencing human life satisfaction, health consistently comes out on top. It is the number one factor associated with psychological well-being. This is probably not due to the fact that everyone thinks about his or her health very much. Rather, it is probably because when health is seriously threatened, the stress response is so great that it tends to dominate the person's overall quality of life experience, as it should! Therefore, the number one key to stress management is to make healthful living a top priority.

No one needs the stress of discovering a growth or a tumor, and then hoping it is benign; or discovering that one's shortness of breath is the result of one's arteries being almost completely clogged. In my view, the best stress-management technique is to avoid health-related stress altogether, if possible! You can do this by making daily choices to maintain, or even improve, your health.

Don't be content just because you are not obviously ill. What you want to do, ideally, is to build a buffer zone around your health, your most precious asset. You want to make it as unlikely as possible for any accident or short-term illness to end in disaster. If you don't take care of yourself, at some point, even a subtle stressor may result in serious, permanent problems.

Many people are walking time bombs, so vulnerable that even a short-term stressful event can result in a heart attack or a stroke. One woman of my acquaintance was so unhealthy that one fateful day, when she sneezed, she experienced a paralyzing stroke. Now, she and her family must live, every single day, with the consequences of her previous lifestyle habits, which caused her health buffer zone to become paper-thin. A key stress management strategy is to consistently invest in your health, so that you have some leeway in your health buffer zone when life sends you trouble.

Wealth protection

Today, people spend a good deal of time and energy worrying about money. This isn't surprising, because so many people have a paper-thin financial buffer zone! If you don't have a few months, savings in reserve, each time the boss looks a bit displeased, stress responses, such as anxiety and tension, can result. If you need a reliable vehicle to get to work, but cannot afford potentially expensive repair and maintenance bills, every strange noise your car makes can initiate a stress response.

Building a sufficient financial buffer zone is one of the most effective things a person can do to reduce his or her life stress. You can do this with a very simple philosophy. Make a habit to consistently produce more than you consume!

Regardless of how much or little you can afford, start saving this month. If you can save $300 per month, in a year you will have saved $3,600. With interest earned, at that rate you will have saved over $20,000 in less than five years. Through the consistent practice of a prudent philosophy, you will have succeeded in building a very substantial buffer zone into your financial life. This will reduce your stress in many ways.

Reputation protection

Your reputation, what those who know of you think about you, can be either a tremendous asset, a serious liability, or anything in between. What others think of you is beyond your direct control. You can influence what they think, however, in reasonably predictable ways.

For example, by making a habit of regularly doing a bit more than is expected, and by always striving to be honest and fair, one can build an excellent reputation over time. This can act as a stress-reduction strategy, since a fine reputation can act as a buffer zone should your judgment, or motives, ever be called into question.

A man of my acquaintance once told me that he had made a regular habit of showing up for work early, for seventeen years. I asked him what others seemed to feel about this. Curiously, he said that he was both admired and envied.

Co-workers observed his unusual habit of doing a bit more than was expected, and this simple strategy had contributed to the development of his remarkable reputation. I asked what he thought would happen if his judgment were ever called into question, or if he needed time off because of a family emergency. He laughed, and said that he was certain his employer would be there for him. It is an insurance policy that he hopes he never needs to use. But should he ever need it, he expects that it is there. That knowledge provides him with a reputational buffer zone each and every day of his life.
Perfection not necessary

The buffer zone approach to stress management does not demand that we seek perfection in our lives. We cannot always make the most healthful choices. We cannot always save more than we spend. We cannot always do more than is expected. Perfection is not the point. The buffer zone approach is part of a philosophy that encourages us to consistently seek to invest in our health, wealth, and reputations, so that should life send misfortune or difficulty in our direction, we are better prepared, and have a greater margin of protection. Some may call this approach old-fashioned, but in my practice as a psychologist, I continue to relearn timeless and valuable ideas. Sometimes simple ideas are the most profound, and an ounce of stress prevention is often worth many pounds of cure.