Coping With Stress
There are two parts to coping. One is being able to tolerate stress: to function reasonably well in stressful situations and get through them. The second part is recovering: getting back to normal when the stressful situation is over.
Good coping skills prevent stress from getting us down and help us thrive, even in challenging times.
How people cope
Here are the most common coping techniques identified in the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Stress in America survey:
- listening to music
- physical activity
- praying, going to church
- getting a massage
All of these strategies were rated as effective by more than half the people who used them.
Some coping strategies are not so great
But people have other ways of coping that aren’t quite as effective. For example, lots of people use screen time – watching TV or movies and surfing the net – to distract themselves from stress. But in the Stress in America survey, relatively few people said screen time was truly effective as a stress management strategy.
Some coping strategies give people temporary relief, but can cause other problems. For example, people may feel relief from stress after eating junk food or having a few drinks. But both can cause health problems if they become habits.
That doesn’t mean you should never watch TV or eat the occasional bag of chips to distract yourself from stress. Almost everybody does things like that sometimes. But it’s a good idea to learn about other coping strategies that may be more helpful.
Here are some proven coping methods that are both effective and low-risk. Some of them are “first aid” – strategies that help us manage stress in the moment. Others are “stress maintenance” – strategies that build our ability to deal with stress or help us recover from it.
Stress First Aid
Take a break
There’s an old saying, “A break is as good as a rest.” When it comes to stress, a break actually is a rest. Taking a break to do something that gets your mind off of stress – reading, having coffee with a friend, or going for a walk – gives your stress response system a much-needed rest. That refreshes you physically and mentally, which can help you break a pattern of "stressing about your stress."
For centuries, people who practiced yoga and Buddhism have used breathing to relax and think more clearly. They were right. Research shows that slow, deep breathing – exhaling slowly is particularly important – lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and has other effects that help people to feel calmer and more focused. Relaxation breathing is easy to learn and can be can be done almost anywhere.
For more information about deep breathing, click here.
Everybody loves to laugh. But laughter is actually a stress fighter. It helps us release tension, gets our minds off of our troubles and it also causes physiological changes in the body that are similar to the changes we experience when we exercise.
Getting support from other people is one of the most important ways we have of coping with stress. In fact, humans are wired to receive and give social support. Social support sometimes has a physiological impact that makes us feel better right away. Think of how quickly a crying baby often calms down when his mom or dad picks him up and holds him close. Our need for support from others continues throughout life.
The following real-life story illustrates how reaching out helped a young woman deal with a mildly traumatic situation.
One day Chantal was the first person on the scene after a hit-and-run car accident. A young woman had been hit by a car and the driver sped off. Chantal got someone to call 911, then went over to see to the victim. She seemed to be pretty badly hurt. She was also in pain and scared. Chantal stayed with the victim and tried to comfort her until the ambulance arrived. Chantal was a little shaken by the experience. She kept wondering how the victim was doing and if she’d done the right thing. Later that night she called her dad and told him the story. Her dad was a good listener and Chantal felt a little better after telling him about the experience.
Reaching out for support is one of our action strategies.
Physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your health and it has been shown to improve people’s physiological response to stress. Physical activity causes the release of brain chemicals that make you feel good ,so it can help you recover your sense of well-being after a stressful experience.
Armand, a middle-aged single man, discovered a physical activity that changes his mood, making it easier to get out of negative thinking patterns.
“When things are not going well I have this way of sitting around and thinking up worst-case scenarios that totally stress me out. I found out, sort of by accident, that exercise gives me a mood boost than makes it easier to think positively. I have some dumbbells that I use to keep my arms in shape. So now when I feel trapped in a pattern of negative thinking I do a few minutes of exercise with the dumbbell, or go for a walk, and it changes my mood. That helps me stop obsessing about all the things that can go wrong.”
Stress Stategies has ideas to help you include more physical activity in your life.
Learning to think differently about a stressor we can’t change
When we're dealing with stress, the way we think can either help or hinder us. Negative thinking patterns can add to our stress by making an already stressful situation seem worse than it really is. Therefore changing the way we think about a stressor can make it easier to cope.
Changing the way you think about a stressor involves learning:
- to accept and adapt to stress you can’t change
- to recognize and “turn off” negative or catastrophic thinking that can increase feelings of stress
- to think about stressors in less negative and flexible ways
Changing your thinking patterns is by no means easy. But it’s a skill that can be learned. Changing the way you think about a stressor is one of the our action strategies.
Yoga combines physical activity, deep breathing, relaxation and meditation. So it's sort of a one-stop-shop for stress-busting. In the Stress in America Survey, people who practiced yoga said it was very helpful for dealing with stress. Most communities have yoga classes at various levels, including beginner.
A stress-friendly lifestyle
Everyone knows that if you don’t take care of yourself ,you can get run down and become more vulnerable to illness. It’s similar with stress. Taking care of yourself – getting enough sleep, eating well, being physically active, making time for activities that you enjoy, and avoiding the overuse of alcohol and or “recreational” drugs – will improve your ability to tolerate stress better and recover from stress.
Meditation has been used throughout history to help people clear their minds of worries, cares and negative thoughts so they can focus on what is happening right now. Modern research has confirmed that meditation can help people manage stress.
Read how a man learned to use simple meditation techniques to cope with stress after his divorce.
“After my marriage broke up, my ex-wife and my children were really angry with me for a long time. I felt sure that leaving the marriage was the right thing for me, but still I felt responsible for their grief. I kept trying to help them accept the new situation, but nothing I did seemed to help. I felt responsible for the fact that I couldn’t make it better for them. It was very stressful. In desperation I started going to Buddhist meetings to learn to meditate. Eventually I learned a technique known as the two-minute meditation method. It made a huge difference and helped me accept that I might not be able to change the way my children felt, even if I kept reaching out to them.” – 40-year-old divorced man
You can learn more about meditation here.
Doing something you love to do
Leisure activities are more than just fun. They have also been shown to increase peoples’ sense of well-being and help them recover from stress. Leisure gets your mind off stress and also causes your brain to release stress-reducing chemicals. Singing, for example, is a great destressor because it releases the same feel-good chemicals as physical activity and sex.
Read a story from woman who found that singing with her choir each week helped her cope with a stressful period as her parents were making the transition from their home to a retirement home.
“Five years ago I was in an eldercare crisis. My father, who had Parkinson’s disease, had been hospitalized after a drug reaction. He was then moved to a nursing home and he was very unhappy. Meanwhile my mother was trying to get ready move to a retirement home apartment. I was spending two days a week in Toronto, helping them, while trying to stay on top of my paid work. I talked to several people, who had been through similar situations. It was remarkable how many of them said something like: “Whatever else you do, make sure you keep some time for yourself to do something that makes you feel good.” So I made sure I got to choir practice every Monday night. I always feel good after singing with a group of people. That helped give me the strength to get through the crisis.” – Annie, a middle-aged woman.
Get more “green time”
Some research has shown that simply being outdoors in a natural environment such as a forest can relieve people’s stress and increase their sense of well-being. For some urban dwellers it isn’t always easy to get out into the true wilderness. But a weekly walk in a wooded park or other natural space can provide similar benefits.
Stress Strategies will help you decide which coping strategies are right for you.
If you want to read more about stress, click here.
If you want to read more about a stress-friendly lifestyle, click here.