Explore your options

We have options for dealing with stress and adversity. Learn how one of the four A’s – Accept, Avoid, Alter or Adapt – can help you respond to stress.

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The options

The University of Chicago developed the 4 A’s model. We’ve adapted it to support you to think about life, health or work stressors, especially those you feel you have no control over.

When we experience severe or chronic stress, it’s not unusual for us to be less than objective and rational about our situation. By using this model, you help your mind think more objectively about your options.

For each of the 4 A’s, you’ll consider both the pros and the cons of choosing to:

  • Accept. Put the situation into perspective – it is what it is – so that it becomes less personal or stressful.
  • Avoid. Refocus away from the stressful situation or person toward something more positive or important for you.
  • Alter. Shift your external environment in some way to reduce or eliminate the stress.
  • Adapt. Change the way you think about or interact with the source of the stress.

Some less helpful strategies include problematic use of alcohol, cannabis or other substances, like junk food or sugar. It can also include binge-watching television or anything else that’s not good for your well-being. These strategies can help to distract us from the source of the stress, but they rarely make things better and often make things worse.

If, on the other hand, you can step back at a time of stress and objectively consider potential approaches, you may gain perspective about what you can do.

We can use the 4 A’s to help us do just that with any stressor.

Accept the things and people you really cannot change

As hard as it may be, accepting what’s not possible to change, rather than desperately or hopelessly wishing it were different, enables you to manage your stress more effectively.

It can also help you see your ability to rise above a challenge to learn and grow. So, you didn’t get that special assignment you’d hoped for? What did you learn from the application process that you could do differently next time?

Talking about it helps. Simply telling someone you’re not at your best is a way to start the conversation and reduce the hold your emotions might have on you.


  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable
  • Look at challenges as opportunities for personal growth and learning
  • Share your feelings to help reduce their power over your emotions
  • Forgive and move on

Avoid unnecessary stress

Not all stress can be avoided. It can even be unhealthy to avoid stressful situations that need to be resolved. However, when appropriate, try to avoid unnecessary stress.

For example, if someone causes you significant anxiety, avoiding that person if you can might not be a bad thing. Another example is if you’re a recovering alcoholic. You can reduce your stress by calling ahead to a hotel you’re going to be staying at and asking them to remove alcohol from the minibar in your room. Sure, you may be avoiding the temptation, but you’re also saving your willpower for things you can’t avoid.

Not all stress can be avoided. You may have financial or health issues that’ll get worse if you avoid dealing with them. But when looking at the 4 A’s in relation to your stressors, don’t discount avoiding as an option.

Saying “no” to a potential stressor, like attending a social event you really don’t want to go to, can be incredibly empowering. Consider how good you’ll feel once you’ve made the decision to not do something that wasn’t serving you in some way.

Avoiding is also about setting healthy boundaries for yourself, such as eliminating or reducing the time spent doing things, or hanging out with people, that constantly drain your energy.

Avoiding stress may also mean avoiding stressful places. One student found a corner on the highest floor of the library where almost no one ever went. She used this hiding place as a sanctuary whenever she had to focus on difficult tasks. The rest of the time, she studied with her friends in a fun, noisy environment and loved it.

Write and stick to your to-do list. Make sure the tasks are what you really need to do and drop the rest. We often tell ourselves it’s all important, but that’s rarely true.

Remember to:

  • Say “no” and stick to your boundaries
  • Avoid people who may foster or create a stressful environment for you whenever possible
  • Take control of your environment, such as establishing a low-stress workspace
  • Prioritize your to-do list and drop tasks or activities that aren’t truly necessary

Alter the external environment

Alter your external environment in some way to reduce or eliminate stress.

You can alter how you operate in your home, work or study environments by clearing away unnecessary clutter. Then, surround yourself as best you can with positive or neutral things.

For example, someone delivered a freezer chest to a friend’s home and put it in their kitchen. They didn’t want it there, but couldn’t move it themselves. After realizing they were ticked off every day it was there, they decided to hire someone to move it. By altering this daily stressor, they were better able to cope with some of the more serious stressors in their life.

Another example of altering a situation is taking a different route if you have road rage due to traffic congestion. Even if it takes a bit longer, a new route could reduce your stress.

Find safe people and places where you can open up about your stress. Take a walk with a trusted colleague or friend and let it out – but try not to just make it a complaining session. What’s the positive spin you can put on this?

Take pressure off yourself in intentional ways. What’s the worst thing that’ll happen if you don’t spend another hour on that report tonight?

Tell people when a situation is causing you stress. Tell them what you need for it to be healthier for you. That may mean you need to close your office door or barricade the entrance to your cubicle for a while. Or maybe you need people to socialize out of your hearing range, so you can focus and relax in your own way.

While many of us will continue to work around the clock, planning just 5-minute breaks every hour can make a world of difference. Think about how you can plan your day to allow for this. Avoid getting sucked into time-wasting conversations or email trails.

Remember to:

  • Modify your environment
  • Change your routines, including what you consume, how you move, what you watch and where you go
  • Set boundaries in your relationships

Adapt to the stressor

Adapt your internal thought processes.

How might you adapt to the stress of sleep deprivation if you don’t have the luxury of sleeping longer? Focus on ways to improve the quality of your sleep even if you can’t improve the quantity – darken your room, don’t keep electronics nearby, don’t snack or watch screens for 3 hours before you go sleep – or whatever works for you. Find solutions to reduce stress rather than focusing on problems you can’t solve, like not enough hours in the day.

We ask how each of the 4 A’s can make your stress better or worse because sometimes we spring into action, but fail to see how certain actions can create new stressors.

For example, angrily confronting someone may seem reasonable when you’re stressed by their words or actions. However, this action may ultimately break down the relationship in ways that are difficult to fix later.

Sometimes, we need to adapt our own high standards or self-imposed demands. Lowering the bar to a more realistic level can have astonishing results. Keeping work or study to reasonable daily limits can allow you to engage much more fully with the rest of your life, making you better at work and school.

Remember to:

  • Change the way you think about or interact with the source of the stress
  • Re-frame problems as a desired solution, such as “I need to improve the quality of my sleep” instead of “I don’t sleep enough.”
  • Consider potential consequences of taking various actions – look at the big picture
  • Set clear and reasonable expectations and standards for yourself

Choose your approach

What’s the difference between alter and adapt?

Adapt applies to you personally changing the way you interact with a stressor. Alter focuses more on changing the stressor.

For example, you may alter a relationship with another person by changing how often, when or where you meet. You can adapt to the relationship by modifying how you communicate or interact with the other person.

Here’s an example of the difference between alter and adapt if the stressor is difficult communication with your parents. To alter the situation, you may prefer text, email or a phone call at specific times. You might say to your parents, “I’m working really hard right now and need to focus during these hours. Let’s plan to connect at this time on this day.”

If you can’t alter the communication, you may need to adapt by saying to yourself, “I won’t answer the call when I’m in the middle of something. When I do answer, I’ll take a deep breath, be polite and allow my parents to speak without reacting to them.”

Perhaps your coping strategy is more damaging than healthy or helpful. Considering all the 4 A’s might help you manage your perspective of the situation and reduce your stress level. The 4 A’s are used by many schools, businesses and organizations because they work.

Use the worksheet on page 14 of Plan for resilience | PDF to try this out.

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann Baynton

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