Coping: How it Can Alleviate or Increase Stress
What is Coping?
Let’s just be honest that living in this world can be stressful, because it is unpredictable in many ways and throws curveballs. It is inevitable that stress will, at some point throughout our lives, get the better of us. Coping is beneficial during these stressful moments or even seasons of life as it aids in adjusting to or tolerating negative events or realities while trying to maintain emotional regulation and a positive self-image. Coping involves adjusting to out-of-routine demands or stressors and oftentimes requires us giving greater effort and intentionality than what we normally would in our day to day routines. It is a process and requires practice, and it is important to remember that not every stressful event is created equally. Coping may often look different based on what is occurring (you may have to pull out a few strategies in some instances to cope); however, implementing coping strategies is linked to decreasing anxiety, helping manage painful or difficult emotions, and increasing emotional well-being.
Types of Coping Strategies:
- Support: Talking about a stressful event with a supportive person (safe and trusting people such as a confident or clinician) can be an effective way to manage stress. Seeking external support instead of self-isolating and internalizing the effects of stress can greatly reduce the negative effects of a difficult situation and help decrease feelings of being alone.
- Relaxation: Any number of relaxing activities can help people cope with stress. Relaxing activities may include practicing meditation, grounding techniques, progressive muscle relaxation or other calming techniques, sitting in nature, journaling, or listening to soothing music.
- Problem-solving: This coping mechanism involves identifying a problem that is causing stress and then developing and putting into action some potential solutions for effectively managing it.
- Physical activity: Exercise can serve as a natural and healthy form of stress relief and can help decrease feelings of restlessness and edginess. Running, yoga, swimming, lifting, walking, dancing, team sports, and many other types of physical activity can help people cope with stress and the aftereffects of traumatic events.
- Thought Challenging: Challenging cognitive distortions based on evidence versus interpretations, assumptions, and opinions. While this takes more conscious effort and intentionality it is a powerful way to combat intrusive thoughts that cause a myriad of painful emotions and sense of powerlessness.
What is adverse coping?
Sometimes people can find themselves avoiding the stress versus facing and coping with it head on, because it can feel too overwhelming or daunting. It can feel safer in the moment to use avoidance techniques rather than proactive strategies when handling stress, however, in the long run, avoidance coping responses to stress tend to exacerbate anxiety and stress rather than alleviate it.
Types of Adverse Coping Strategies:
- Escape: Withdrawing from friends and becoming socially isolated which may look like engaging in solitary activities (e.g., watching television, reading, or spending excess time online).
- Procrastination: Avoiding responsibilities or tasks or trying to not think about it. While it may feel helpful in the moment, the stress tends to pile on due to lack of time allotted to complete the task well.
- Unhealthy self-soothing: Some self-soothing behaviors are healthy in moderation but may turn into an unhealthy addiction if it becomes a habit to use them to self-soothe (e.g., overeating, binge drinking, or excessive use of the internet or video games).
- Numbing: Some self-soothing behaviors may become numbing behaviors. When a person engages in numbing behavior, they are often aware of what they are doing and may seek out an activity that will help them drown out or override their distress (e.g., eating junk food, excessive alcohol use, or using drugs).
- Compulsions and risk-taking: Seeking an adrenaline rush through compulsive or risk-taking behaviors (e.g., gambling, unsafe sex, experimenting with drugs, reckless driving).
- Self-harm: Engaging in self-harming behaviors to cope with extreme stress or trauma.
People who find themselves defaulting to maladaptive coping mechanisms and/or experience difficulty utilizing effective coping strategies may eventually see a negative impact on mental and emotional well-being. If you are experiencing stress and don’t know how to cope in a productive manner, a therapist or other mental health professional can often help you develop and improve your coping skills. Remember, this is a practice and a skill and often takes intentionality and habitual practice. Therapists can provide support and information about coping skills, and therapy sessions can be a safe, nonjudgmental environment for people to explore the coping methods they rely on and determine how they help or hinder stress management.