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How a strength-based approach enables us to be proactive in managing stress

This is an excerpt from Stress Management by Nanette E. Tummers.

Strengths-Based Approach

We often look to the medical model to help us deal with the effects of stress. Medicines such as aspirin and anti-anxiety medications, however, treat the symptoms of stress but do not address the problem itself. It is up to each of us to develop our own stress management toolbox and to choose to respond to stress with these tools. When, instead, we habitually choose to be fearful, we feel helpless and unable to cope. We have the power to change this habit of being fearful and insecure, worrying all the time, being anxious and on edge.

A strengths-based approach to stress management enables us to be proactive in managing stress. Instead of focusing on what not do (e.g., have an angry outburst or self-medicate by drinking excessive amounts of alcohol), this approach focuses on health-enhancing practices such as being optimistic, believing in our abilities, increasing our happiness and motivation, and tapping into our unique intelligences.


Martin Seligman is considered a pioneer in the field of positive psychology. He used the term flourish to indicate a state of positive mental and social well-being (Seligman, 2011). Seligman's “well-being theory” addresses positive emotion, engagement, meaning, positive relationship, and accomplishment (2011, p. 12). This section explores in depth the qualities of well-being, or the strengths-based approach.

When people believe in their ability to make changes and take action, they have a sense of self-efficacy, a belief in their strengths (Bandura, 1986). To build your strengths, you must investigate your perception, or locus, of control. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, having an internal locus of control means being able to tap into and use your strengths.

Seligman and colleagues also developed the concept of learned helplessness (2007). People who show a lack of motivation, distort situations, and use being helpless to get others to step up and do the work for them or to excuse themselves from expectations are said to be in a state of learned helplessness. Such people clearly have an external locus of control. An example of learned helplessness is a student who uses a past illness as an excuse to not hand in work on time because she has “learned” that she can get away with this behavior.

Seligman and colleagues went on to develop a construct called learned optimism. Helplessness and optimism are not inherited, but rather, are learned behaviors. In other words, optimism can be taught. People's levels of optimism are rooted in their locus of control. They perceive and explain their locus of control through what Seligman termed their explanatory style (see table 1.1). Explanatory style includes three aspects:

  • How much responsibility the person takes for the situation
  • How much responsibility the person assigns to others
  • How much the person attributes the situation to luck or chance

People facing a difficult situation who focus on their ability to take responsibility have an internal locus of control. Those with an external locus of control assign responsibility for the outcomes of the situation to someone or something else—“the professor is having a bad day,” or “people just don't like me,” or fate, or chance. When we hang on to limited and pessimistic thinking, it becomes who we are and our reality. If we continue to feed these negative thoughts, they become self-limiting beliefs and self-fulfilling prophecies (e.g., “I am too stupid to do that,” or “I am too slow”). Putting the blame on others leaves very little room to make the situation better, which can lead to feeling helpless and a victim. Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, summed this concept up well when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” The play on this, “I think, therefore I suffer,” is equally apt.

Hierarchy of Motivation

Abraham Maslow was one of the first to study the positive characteristics of people who had weathered adverse circumstances—specifically during World War II. He called this a “humanistic approach” to understanding people's needs and motivations (see figure 1.6). Maslow described a hierarchy of needs from the basic level of physiological needs such as food and shelter. His premise was that basic needs must be fulfilled before we can move on to fulfilling higher-level needs. The highest need is for transcendence to a higher self.

Fulfilling basic physiological needs is certainly imperative, although we can become too focused on external needs such as clothes, living spaces, and cars. At some point we need to move toward higher-level, inner needs such as love, compassion, and connectedness. External needs cannot substitute for these internal needs.

Maslow's hierarchy is the foundation for many of the subsequent models of a strengths-based wellness approach. His research on the characteristics of motivation relates directly to the concepts of hardiness and resilience (2011). Maslow also found creativity to be an important skill for dealing with change. The ability to think outside of ruts and to learn from mistakes motivates people to perceive challenges as opportunities.

Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner provided another perspective related to developing our strengths and fulfilling our highest potential. Instead of looking at our weaknesses, he suggested that we seek opportunities to improve our innate intelligence (1983). Many who hear the word intelligence automatically think of intellectual intelligence. Gardner suggested that intelligence is multifaceted and includes the following:

  • Music intelligence
  • Visual-spatial intelligence
  • Logistics and mathematical intelligence
  • Verbal and linguistics intelligence
  • Naturalistic intelligence
  • Body intelligence
  • Self-knowledge
  • Social intelligence

For example, a person who is a whiz at math but can't work with people and communicate may have difficulty finding a job. This text offers numerous ideas for improving each area of intelligence. This approach challenges you to get out of your rut of doing what you always do to manage your stress and instead try something that strengthens another area of intelligence. For example, if you are not very athletic, trying some of the physical activities known to decrease stress, such as yoga and tai chi, can improve your kinesthetic intelligence.

We tend to focus on negative behaviors that contribute to and amplify our stress symptoms such as pessimism, hopelessness, defeatism, anger, and aggression. This book examines people facing similar stressors to yours, and perhaps even stressors worse than any one of us could imagine, and yet remained healthy and happy. What do these people have going for them, and how can we get some?

The reason for a holistic approach to stress management is to go beyond the symptoms to a deeper understanding of the problem, and then to develop the strengths to deal with the problem proactively. Imagine that you have to give an oral presentation in class. To decrease your stress level before the event, you have a few beers to loosen up; but now you have to deal with the possible consequences of this choice such as drunk driving. Better choices would be to examine your self-talk, use affirmations, plan your time, rehearse with flash cards, get a friend to listen to your presentation, practice deep breathing, and use creative imagination before the presentation. These action help you take control of the situation, and represent a skill set you can use over and over again.

Negative coping skills or ways to deal with stress include drinking, overeating, and getting into arguments. This text focuses on positive coping skills. Keep in mind, however, that positive coping skills can change to negative. For example, an exercise regime to manage stress can become a negative means of coping if it is done compulsively or excessively.


People who view change as a necessary and vital part of life are considered to be hardy. Suzanne Kobasa (1979) at the University of Chicago researched workers suffering from a massive layoff (not an uncommon event in today's economy). She found three consistent characteristics in those who weathered the storm of stress and uncertainty and termed this hardiness:

  • Challenge. Perceiving a situation as a challenge fuels creativity and increases one's motivation to meet it. Part of the characteristic of challenge is what is called compensation, which is the ability to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses and engage one's personal sense of responsibility.
  • Commitment. Sticking with one's goals and striving for one's highest potential describes commitment. Committed people have an intention to be part of the solution and not the problem; they believe that their efforts will result in things working out for the best.
  • Control. The ability to do all one can within one's power is a definition of control.

Kobasa (1979) found that hardiness can be increased by two strategies: self-improvement and reconstructing past stressful events. Self-improvement means focusing on what we can control and putting our energies and focus into positive actions. Reconstructing the stressful event involves reframing our skewed perceptions of it and imagining responding with constructive actions next time.


Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe the experience of being passionately immersed and totally engaged in a challenging activity without attachment to the outcome, to time, or to one's performance (1997). Csikszentmihalyi discovered that intrinsic motivation increases when an activity such as work becomes more like play—that is, something the person would continue to do it without reward. Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow resonates with another strengths attribute called mindfulness, which is a state of being in the present moment with full attention and without attachment or expectations. Mindfulness is discussed in greater detail in chapter 4. Can you find things to do every day to make you feel in a state of flow? Doing a hobby, performing some physical activity, cooking, creating something without expectations about the results—it is what Nike's slogan says: Just do it!


Resilience is the ability to adapt and be healthy in spite of stressful and aversive circumstances. How resilient we are in the face of stressors has a lot to do with how we assess or perceive and subsequently cope with life events. Researchers led by Karen Reivich (Reivich & Shatte, 2002) at the University of Pennsylvania found the following qualities in resilient people:

  • Self-efficacy—A belief in the ability to steer through difficult times.
  • Emotional regulation—The ability to stay calm during stressful situations.
  • Impulse control—The ability to respond in a controlled manner rather than act out in a compulsive way.
  • Empathy—The capacity to recognize emotions in others.
  • Optimism—The ability to see situations and future outcomes in a positive light.
  • Reaching out to others—A sense of connectedness results in a strong base of social support.
  • Problem solving and learning from setbacks—An ability to analyze and solve problems and learn from setbacks.

We can all improve our resilience; this text provides pragmatic and concrete ways to improve this and other strengths.


Barbara Fredrickson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provides substantial evidence to support a strengths-based approach to health. In her book Positivity (2009), Fredrickson discovered the connection between being positive and open-minded in learning, the ability to cope, and relationships with improvements in health. She recommends a ratio of 3 to 1—that is, for every negative emotional experience, or downer, people should have at least three positive emotional experiences, or lifters. Negativity can never be eliminated, but a lot of negativity results from having rigid expectations. Negativity can be simply a habit such as stewing over being wronged or jumping to conclusions. Fredrickson offers 10 forms of positivity:

  • Joy
  • Interest
  • Amusement
  • Love
  • Gratitude
  • Pride
  • Awe
  • Hope
  • Inspiration
  • Serenity

Take the positivity self-test to determine your ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions developed by Barbara Fredrickson (


Journaling is the practice of documenting personal feelings, thoughts, and perceptions in writing. Journals have been used throughout history to process personal issues. Writing can serve the following functions:

  • To release toxic emotions (as a catharsis)
  • To increase awareness, accountability, and ownership
  • To view situations with detachment and objectivity

Establishing a journaling ritual can increase the benefits of the writing experience. Such a ritual can include the following:

  • A breathing or centering activity
  • Setting an affirmation to be authentic, honest, spontaneous, uncensored
  • Using a designated journal
  • Seeking out a quiet environment where you won't be interrupted
  • If writing is difficult, including doodles, sketches, or images
  • Setting a timer when writing (15 to 20 minutes is optimal)

Resist the temptation to use a word processor on a computer when journaling. Give yourself the time necessary for the slower physical practice of writing your thoughts, emotions, and feelings by hand.

Learn more about Stress Management.

More Excerpts From Stress Management