Years of clinical experience has come with years of running coping therapeutic groups and lots of hours spent in individual counseling helping clients find ways to cope with stress. My first number one tip is always whatever you choose as your coping behavior it should fit seamlessly into your life and not ADD to your stress. The reason I give this tip is that there is a lot of advice/tips out there that require experience, time, physical strength, or a lot of preparation education before they become capable of managing stress. When you’re stressed, you need something that you can do right now that can help you feel better right now, help you feel more in control, and builds your resilience (that capacity to bounce-back from stressful situations). As such, I’m going to break down coping strategies in this blog into three general categories: (1) cognitive, (2) emotional, and (3) physical. So let’s get started.
During stress, how we think about the stressful situation/event can make the difference between your ability to cope and feeling overwhelmed. In fact, this is so important that in the next blog I will specifically address cognitive challenges. Why is cognition so important to stress management? It’s all about the brain. I used to explain it this way–our capacity to reason, plan, make behavioral adjustments that overcome our instinctive emotional responses has to do with the neocortex of our brain–the “new” brain. That top and front part of our brain that developed last in evolution. It has the capacity to interrupt the instinctive/emotional response loop and the hormones that flood our bodies when we are stressed. But because it’s in our greatest survival benefit to respond automatically to stressful situations (think at one point this was the difference between being eaten by a lion and being able to survive), we don’t automatically think our way out. But that doesn’t me we can’t apply this amazing coping response.
Quick and Dirty Tips
The Value of the Question: If you stop and ask yourself questions about the situation you are currently in, you get your neocortex involved. Some practical questions are: “Who are my supports?”; “Am I thinking myself into a box?” “What happened that led to this situation” and “What do I want to do to help myself cope with this situation?” — start questioning and consider writing down some short answers. Notice, I didn’t put a question that says “How do I fix this situation?” — looking to fix a situation that’s stressful tends to be non-productive. Instead we need to focus our thoughts on being proactive and foward thinking. What can I do right now to feel a bit better?
The Value of Self-Affirmative Thoughts: If you are finding yourself, as most of us do when stressed, thinking negatively about yourself then taking short moments to challenge those negative thoughts is important. When we start thinking negatively about ourselves we increase our stress because we decrease our ability to think we can manage our stress. But it’s not easy to fundamentally change negative self-perceptions. So we need to think what’s the minimum we need to change for this situation. Don’t try to alter long-term patterns of thinking. Get used to the quick and dirty statement of “Under these circumstances [specify the circumstances as specifically as possible] I am capable of finding coping strategies that can work” Quick and simple. This gets you started on self-empowerment.
Think Specifically: It can be easy to start to think globally (my life is ruined, this will never change, everything is a mess, nothing can work, etc.). No one can cope with any situation that effects ALL things, thankfully most situations are very specific and often time-limited. Get as specific as possible when you think about your stressor.
More Experience Required Cognitive Coping strategies will be addressed in the next blog.
Our emotions give color to our lives. Positive emotions support relationships, careers, resiliency; while negative emotions can devastate us. In fact, most individuals seeking psychotherapy do so precisely because positive emotions are hard to access or nonfunctional due to biochemical changes. We need positive emotions to encourage us; yet negative emotions play important roles in our survival and these are the emotions that can keep us safe. Fear pushes us to run or fight–to ourselves; anger can be a strategy to stand up to social injustice in society; sadness can call us to make positive changes in our lives because we feel defeated or disempowered.
Quick and Dirty Tip
The Opposite Emotion Exercise: When situations are stressful sometimes we have to change our emotional focus to something less upsetting. I call this the Opposite Emotions Exercise. If you are sad, you need to turn toward joy. If you are angry, peace and joy. If fearful, safety. I recommend you plan for this if you can so you can quickly implement it before feelings get stuck. And stick to your coping choices because they will change how you feel if you allow enough time to pass. You don’t have to feel perfect, you just need to take the edge off to liberate your cognition to take control over the situation rather than your mood.
Stress leads to a complex flood of hormones in the body that impact most of our organ systems. When the physical body is responding, we need to break the response. This requires some form of physical intervention.
Quick and Dirty Tips
Walk or Run: Our stress responses served an important purpose way back on the African Savannah. They allowed our bodies to flee or fight off dangers. These are short-term physiological responses; in fact one of the reasons chronic stress can lead to physical illnesses is because the stress response is meant to last only short periods of time. When it lasts longer, our organs become more vulnerable to damage from stress hormones. As such, we need to take control of the physical response to stress as soon as possible. Running and walking were two ways our ancestor’s reduced their physiological responses. They walked or ran until safety was reestablished. You can see this in other animals even today. Exercise for short periods of time can go a long way to helping reduce the physical responses of stress.
Deep Breathing: Slowing our breathing down and taking deep breaths through the nose and out through the mouth can go a long way to reducing the physiological stress response. It also helps us slow down to get our thoughts together.
These are just a few ideas to get you started. We’ll dive more into emotional and cognitive issues when coping with stress and challenges.