First, though, you need to understand how I define emotional stress. I specify ‘emotional’ stress, because with college admissions we’re not talking about physical danger fight-or-flight stress, although you might get the impression we are if you look at recent headlines about how rapidly some have been willing to abandon their integrity to gain an advantage.

Here’s my definition:

What is emotional stress?

The tension between  

the reality currently in front of us

and

the vision we have in our minds

of

how we’d like that reality to be.

And actually, I’d take this one step further and say that all of our emotions are to at least some extent defined by the interaction between reality and our wishes for how we’d like reality to be. Take some time to consider that later.

But right now we’re going to focus on stress.

Just as we all have rules we’ve adopted to help us make decisions, we are all constantly creating goals for how we’d like reality to be different. So there’s always our current reality vs. the reality we’re trying to create.

Some goals are very short-term and so easy to accomplish that most of us don’t even notice the stress associated with them.

I’m hungry and want something to eat. You may at first think that being hungry is not a stressor, but you can see that it is if you look at babies and those with physical limitations that make it difficult to feed themselves. Or at those who live in places where food is scarce. Or those who are severely overweight and trying to diet. Or those who have a huge deadline looming and can’t afford to take time to seek out sustenance. The reason most of us don’t notice any stress when we want something to eat is that we’re so confident we can make it happen that the small amount of stress associated with it doesn’t even register.

Other goals are more medium-term, like having a project to do for work or school. Again, there’s a variability in how much stress we notice depending on how confident we are that we can get the job done in the time allowed.

And a few goals are long-term, such as finding a life partner or owning a home. Or getting into college.

Each goal we add to the list adds anywhere from a tiny to an enormous amount of stress to our lives, and we are constantly working to eliminate stressors. Let’s look at our options for reducing stress within this framework.

How can we reduce stress?

Change reality to achieve our goals.

Cope through constructive methods: exercise, yoga, meditation, therapy, medication, etc.

Cope through potentially destructive methods: comfort food, smoking, alcohol, drugs, thrill-seeking, self-harm, etc.

Change or remove our goals.

By far the most common way we deal with stress is through working to change reality. We take steps to complete a project at work or school. We make a list of things that need to be done for an upcoming party we’re hosting, then start getting them done. We start researching appliances or cars in order to feel more confident about choosing a new one to replace the one that just died. Or we simply make a sandwich for lunch.

Our lives are filled with new stressors all the time, and we act to eliminate them by changing reality to match the pictures in our heads of how we’d like reality to be. Just taking the first steps begins the process of reducing stress, and it continues to diminish as our goal becomes reality.

This is good stress at work, with the desire to eliminate it motivating us to get things done. Most of the stress we have in our lives is good stress and is resolved pretty quickly, and we move on to the next task.

But sometimes reality doesn’t cooperate with us, and our goals are unattainable. Or we don’t see a path to attaining them yet. Or the path is there, but it’s evident we’re going to have to deal with something for a long time before reality changes.

One way we can reduce stress in this type of situation is to not make efforts to change anything, but rather to find means of coping with it.

This coping can be through positive means like exercise, yoga, meditation, therapy, or medication, which all have the potential to reduce the symptoms of an ongoing stress we’re not acting on. The source of the stressor will still be there, though, so we’ll need to keep coping until this source goes away on its own or until we act on it.

Coping is all-too-often done through potentially destructive means, too, including over-consumption of comfort food, smoking, abuse of alcohol and drugs, various forms of thrill-seeking, and sometimes even self-harm. These coping methods may temporarily reduce stress, but they will not eliminate the source, either, and often add new stressors through negative effects on our health and our relationships with others.

We do have another option, though, when we’re not able to change reality to match how we’d like it to be: We can change our goals to be ones that we are more likely to be able to make happen. This is an important strategy in many situations.

If the wedding you imagined for your child turns out to cost $75,000 instead of the $40,000 you have budgeted, you’re probably going to make some changes to what you’re hoping for. If it becomes apparent that the project you’re given at work is going to require 70 hours a week of work in order to be completed on time, and you’re also planning the aforementioned wedding at the same time, your picture of how it will get done may need to evolve to include requesting the assistance of a coworker or spouse.

And if we as a nation have millions of kids and parents obsessing over a small group of colleges that collectively have under 40,000 spots a year for new students, then we probably need to assess how to change this goal to one that doesn’t leave over 90% of those who have it in their heads unable to make it become a reality.

It’s not healthy to keep a major stressor in your life for years that you know has only a 10% chance of being resolved happily. Right?