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How to Cope With Stressful Situations

Updated on February 26, 2013
Stress can make you feel like pulling your hair out!
Stress can make you feel like pulling your hair out! | Source

How we respond to stress is generally referred to as coping. By coping, we're trying to maintain our physical and mental health. Coping has many facets including cognitive, behavioral, and emotional ways to deal with stress.

For more information on how stress affects our health, see: How Does Stress Affect Your Health?

Problem vs Emotion Focused Coping

Richard Lazarus was one of the initial researchers to try to categorize coping methods. Each method is beneficial, depending on the circumstance. Conversely, using the wrong method for the wrong situation can be damaging to us.

Problem-Focused Coping

Problem-focused coping involves:

  • Activity
  • Planning
  • Removing/reducing competing activities
  • Practicing restraint
  • Seeking social support for instrumental reasons

Emotion-Focused Coping

Emotion-focused coping involves the following:

  • Reducing stress by addressing the emotional consequences of a behavior
  • Seeking social support for emotional reasons
  • Positive reinterpretation
  • Acceptance
  • Turning to religion
  • Venting

Avoidance coping doesn't really solve the problem.
Avoidance coping doesn't really solve the problem. | Source

Avoidance Coping

Also worth mentioning is Avoidance Coping, which may involve:

  • Denial
  • Behavioral disengagement
  • Mental disengagement
  • Disengagement through use of alcohol or drugs

Emotion-focused coping is appropriate when a loved one dies.
Emotion-focused coping is appropriate when a loved one dies. | Source

So, Which Type is Most Effective?

The answer depends on at least two factors:

  • The type of stressor (controllable or not controllable)
  • The duration of the stressor

Studies show that problem-focused coping works best when the stressor is controllable (for example: developing strategies to manage the time prior to a loved one's death).

Whereas emotion-focused coping seems to work best in uncontrollable situations (for example: when the loved one dies).

Avoidance coping appears to have very temporary or no benefits and tends to be counter-effective in the long run, for example: denying the existence of the problem, or drinking alcohol or taking drugs might push the stress into the background temporarily, but the issue remains unconfronted, and the avoidance may make the situation even worse.

Positive Coping

The coping mechanisms that researchers have found to have the most positive effect on our health include the following:

  • Determine to use proactive, up-front efforts to ward off stress, including breaking large tasks into smaller, manageable tasks (See: Gradualism Works for Me)
  • Be flexible: What's the worst that could happen? It's not the end of the world. Let's not obsess about a failure but find a work-around.
  • Relax: Take frequent breaks from your current tasks to visualize positive images.
  • Perceive yourself as having choice: Even if reality dictates that in your current life or work position, you have little choice, the fact is, that you have chosen your life and your work. Then, within those functions, you have choices. Research has shown that too little or too much choice leads to stress. But, even if you choose a career or job that appears to offer little choice, you can make daily choices, such as the order in which to tackle tasks, the way to tackle tasks, or who you choose to help you tackle the tasks. These are but a few very simplistic examples; use your creativity to realize that you do have choices at every turn.
  • See the humor in a situation (helping to improve your immune system) - for instance, you're in a meeting, and you recognize that a mid-manager is using textbook tactics to attempt to assert his/her superiority, a private chuckle can be therapeutic.
  • Exercise
  • Take advantage of, cultivate, or reappraise your social support network. This may involve reconnecting with friends, reassessing the benefits of familial support we may have previously taken for granted, or working at deepening current relationships.
  • Be optimistic: Optimists are reported to have up to a 20% mortality increase. Don't fake it, but find at least one positive thing to say about your situation.
  • Express, don't repress: Research has shown that when there is a large difference between verbal emotional disclosure and physiological measures of stress, the emotion-focused style of repressive coping is being employed. This is when someone is trying to hide their high level of anxiety by being defensive or by controlling their emotional responses so that they don't appear to themselves and others as emotionally imperturbable. Ask yourself whether or not you may be employing this technique. Are you being truly honest with yourself and others?

Most Effective Coping Strategy - Perception

In all, changing our situation to avoid stress is preferable. However, in the majority of situations, that's just not possible (or so we think). The next best and most frequent coping strategy employed is to change the way we view our stressors. If we view them as humorous, controllable, temporary, choosable, etc., our stress related to the situation greatly decreases.

What is your "go to" form of coping with a stressor?

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