Stress & Coping Mechanisms
It is not uncommon these days to feel stressed. Many of us are facing challenges that are stressful and even overwhelming; these kinds of challenges can cause strong emotions in both adults and children. The pandemic and its ongoing effects have exacerbated our feelings of loneliness and isolation, often increasing stress and anxiety levels. However, it is critically important to learn healthy coping mechanisms that can help to reduce feelings and symptoms of stress.
What is stress?
When a person experiences fear or uncertainty from a stressor, the brain triggers a “fight or flight” reaction. This causes a person’s body to begin preparing to fight or flee, which means:
- The digestive system shuts down
- Muscles become tense
- Heart rate increases and heart starts pounding
- Hearing may become more sensitive
- Vision may narrow, in order to focus
- The body is in a state of high-alert
If a person is experiencing an actual emergency that requires a “fight or flight” response, these automatic physical reactions are helpful, even life-saving. But if a person is simply going through his or her daily routine, these feelings can become chronic and uncomfortable. This is where the idea of “stress” comes in. Stress is the result of being in a high-alert state for a long period of time.
Other common symptoms of stress are:
- Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
- Difficulty sleeping or having nightmares
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health conditions
It’s important to remember that it is perfectly natural to feel stress when you are facing challenges. There are many ways that you can help yourself, others, and your community manage stress.
What are some of the negative ways that people cope with stress?
Some of the most common reactions to stress or fear are behaviors that some might consider “coping mechanisms,” even though they are not very effective strategies. While you technically can deal with stress using these methods, you are much better off seeking out healthy coping mechanisms, particularly if you want to lower your daily dosage of stress.
However, it is advantageous to be aware of the bad ways to cope with stress, so that you can avoid them.
Some examples of the unproductive ways that people cope with stress are:
Anger isn’t a helpful response to stress, because it’s hard on your body. Long-term anger actually negatively impacts your health. It also hurts people and destroys relationships, which is likely to generate more stress.
Complaining is a way of tricking your brain into thinking that you are resolving the issue. By thinking about it and talking about the problem, your brain believes that you are fixing it. Except you aren’t. When you complain, you focus on the negative aspects of a situation, which only creates an increased fear response. This cycle only makes things worse in the long run.
When the body is in that high-alert state, it shuts down the digestive system in order to preserve energy for activities that are more important at the time. In an emergency, you probably don’t have time to stop and grab a bite to eat. But if you do choose to eat, you may notice feeling calmer. That’s because eating will trick your brain into thinking that you’re safe, which will make your heart slow down, your “fight or flight” response subside, and your digestive system – and appetite – turn back on.
The problem is that this is not a healthy way to address a stressor – it doesn’t actually make the root cause of the stress go away. Once you’re done eating, you’re going to feel stressed again, almost immediately, because your body will go right back into high-alert mode.
Worrying is the process of thinking about a stressful situation over and over again. It is common to think of new ways that things could go wrong or that you could fail. Many people experience feeling this way before a first date with someone they really like. They fixate on the things that could go wrong or the awkward things they shouldn’t say, which results in increased stress and fear.
- Substance use and/or abuse
Some people use substances (alcohol, drugs, or nicotine) to cope with stress. This is because using substances provides a temporary “high” that may relieve feelings of stress or fear. Just like other unhealthy coping methods, relying on substance use for stress relief will only cause more problems in the long term. Research has shown that people who use alcohol as a coping strategy are more likely to experience negative consequences from drinking. In addition, people who rely on alcohol as a way to cope with unwanted emotions are less likely than other drinkers to transition out of heavy drinking patterns as they get older.
There are many good reasons to avoid these unhealthy coping strategies, with the most important being that, over the long term, they do not result in an improved state of being.
Are there better ways to cope with stress?
Yes, there are lots of healthy ways to cope with stress. We call these methods “coping mechanisms” – the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them maintain their emotional well-being.
Significant life events, whether positive or negative, can cause psychological stress. Difficult events, such as divorce, miscarriage, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, can cause pstress as well as grief and distress. What’s interesting is that even events that are considered positive by many – getting married, having a child, and buying a home – can lead to significant amounts of stress.
To adjust to this stress, people may utilize a combination of behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, depending on the situation. People use coping mechanisms for stress management, and for a variety of other purposes as well: to cope with anger, loneliness, anxiety, or depression.
What are some examples of effective coping mechanisms?
Some examples of common coping mechanisms are:
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed, but hearing about traumatic events constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from phone, TV, and computer screens for extended breaks.
- Take care of yourself. Eat healthfully, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and give yourself a break if you feel stressed.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals
- Exercise regularly
- Get plenty of sleep
- Avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use
- Continue with routine preventive measures (such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, etc.) as recommended by your healthcare provider.
- Make time to unwind. Try to do some activities you enjoy every day.
- Talk to others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a parent, friend, counselor, doctor, or other individuals you trust.
- Connect with your community organizations.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. These may seem to help, but they can create additional problems and actually increase the stress you are already feeling.
- Recognize when you need more help. If problems with stressful feelings persist or you begin thinking of harming yourself or others, talk to a psychologist, social worker, or professional counselor.
Experts agree that coping is a process rather than an event. You may alternate between several of the above coping strategies in order to come to terms with the stress in your life. Remember that people differ in styles of coping and prefer to use certain coping strategies over others. These differences in coping styles usually reflect differences in personality.
Rigidity around coping mechanisms is less likely to help than flexibility when coping with stress. What is most valuable is the ability to identify which coping strategy is most appropriate and will prove most beneficial for the demands of different scenarios.
What else can I do to protect myself against stress and enhance my ability to successfully cope?
The most important strategy is to maintain emotionally supportive relationships with others. A vast field of research demonstrates that emotional support buffers individuals against the negative impact of stress.
It’s also valuable to evaluate your overall lifestyle when encountering significant stress. Engage in stress-reducing activities to help your overall approach to coping with stressors.
A third recommendation is to seek out relevant educational programs and courses so you can learn more about your behavior, including your stressors and coping mechanisms.