Stress management skills are learned behaviors. In fact, you can start by taking small steps today, and building your stress coping skills one at a time.
When we’re confronted with stress that threatens our stability, we appraise the situation to decide whether we can manage it or whether it’s beyond our coping resources. Coping is any strategy you use to deal with a situation that strains or overwhelms your emotional or physical resources. For example, let’s say that your boyfriend takes off for greener pastures… At first, you might feel angry and hurt, spend a couple of days alone – moping, even fantasizing about revenge, then you pick up the phone to call a friend and treat yourself to a nice evening on the town.
Different stressors require different coping strategies; grieving the loss of a child, for example, requires different coping strategies from handling a chronically nagging spouse. Coping strategies tend to fall into one of two categories: Problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.
In problem-focused coping, you deal directly with the stressor to change it or eliminate it; for example, you confront your husband directly about the long hours he’s been working and the toll it’s taking on the marriage. Problem-focused coping works best when the stressor is controllable; in other words, you can actually do something to change the situation – either change or eliminate the stressor.
With emotion-focused coping, you try to change the way you feel about the stressor. For example, when your boss is critical, you may not chew him out because you need to keep your job. But you might seek emotional support from empathetic friends and co-workers.
Technically, there’s a third category of coping: avoidance coping. Common avoidance tactics include denial or pretending there’s no problem, distraction, venting, and sedation or numbing (e.g., through drugs, alcohol, overeating). As you’ve probably figured out by now, this approach has a fairly low success rate and, ultimately, tends to only cause more stress!
Many stressors have both controllable and uncontrollable aspects. It’s always helpful to break down the problem and identify what you can control and what you can’t. For example, if someone you care about has a serious illness, you can seek the best possible medical care, but you can’t change the diagnosis. So you must find ways to cope with your fear, anger and sadness.
You’ll probably find that your coping strategies will draw from a number of resources: external problem-solving skills, internal emotional skills, and social support from others.
If stress is getting the best of you, try keeping a Stress Journal for a few weeks. A Stress Journal preserves a record of the thoughts and events that caused stress and will help you identify patterns.
The following strategies will help you self-monitor stress levels and ultimately manage your stress more effectively:
- Understand how you experience stress. How do you know when you’re stressed? First, you must learn to recognize when your own stress level needle hits the red danger zone. We all experience stress differently. Notice how your thoughts and behaviors are different from times when you don’t feel stressed.
- Identify your stressors. What events or situations trigger stressful feelings? Are they related to your spouse, children, friends, family health, financial decisions, work, or something intensely personal? Pinpointing your stressors helps you identify patterns. You might discover that much of your stress stems from issues that are easy to correct. Or you may find that you’re letting brief situational stress get the best of you (e.g., getting stuck in a traffic jam) and you’ll learn to relax, take a deep breath and accept things that you can’t change.
- Monitor your moods and emotions. As you notice yourself feeling stressed, jot notes about your moods, along with the thoughts, feelings or events that triggered your stress. Do you feel depressed? Anxious? Angry? Helpless? Resentful? Afraid?
- Recognize how you deal with stress. Determine whether you’re using unhealthy behaviors to cope with stress. Is this a routine behavior, or is it specific to certain events or situations? Do you make unhealthy choices as a result of feeling rushed and overwhelmed, such as stopping for junk food while running errands or picking up the kids from school? This awareness can help you put things in perspective. Prioritize – make time for what’s really important. Delegate responsibilities. Identify ways your family and friends can lessen your load so that you can take a break. Back-burner the less important tasks.
- Find healthy ways to manage stress. Insert healthy, stress-reducing activities into your life… aerobic exercise, a short walk, or discussing problems that are bothering you with friends and family. It’s important to be aware that unhealthy behaviors develop over time, which is what makes them more difficult to change. Don’t try to tackle too much at once. Focus on changing one stressor at a time, one behavior at a time.
- Walk away when you’re angry. When you’re feeling stressed, don’t take it out on your spouse or kids. That’s the most dangerous thing you can do and no good can come from it. Count to 10 before you speak. Better yet, walk away. Engage in a physical activity to work off some steam. If you need to communicate your stress and anger to someone, do it when you’re not stressed or angry.
- Reach out for support. Accepting help from supportive friends and family can improve your ability to persevere during stressful times. If you continue to feel overwhelmed by stress, you should consider talking to a therapist who can help you manage your stress and change unhealthy behaviors.