Unless you’re the most laidback person on the planet, it’s likely you’ve suffered your fair amount of stress, as we all have. When we come across a stressful situation or go through difficult times we learn to cope. However, there are healthy coping mechanisms and unhealthy ones.
Before we talk about healthy coping mechanisms, here is a list of unhealthy ones:
- Being defensive
Psychologists Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus were the first to coin the phrase ‘coping mechanisms’ and describe them as:
“constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing.”
So there are healthy coping mechanisms and unhealthy ways of dealing with stress.
We are going to concentrate on the healthy coping mechanisms.
There are numerous ways of coping with stressful situations or difficult times, so it might be helpful to categorise these mechanisms into groups. A recognised category of coping mechanisms has been detailed in Weiten’s psychology textbook:
This is where a person challenges or alters the way they think about the problem. They may distance themselves from the problem or employ humour to see it in a different way. They change their mindset and revise their thoughts about the stress.
They adapt the way they think about the stress.
This is where a person will take steps to try and reduce the problem itself. They could find out information or learn new skills. They will always take control and deal with the stress. They change their behaviour in order to relieve their stress.
They adapt the way they behave about the stress.
Here a person will try and change the way they react emotionally to the stress. This could involve realising bottled up emotions that have been buried or managing hostile feelings. They may have to accept blame or responsibility.
They adapt the way they feel about the stress.
So what does this mean in real life?
If you know how you are most likely to react to stress or difficulties in your life, for instance:
- You overthink the problem
- You overreact about the problem
- You get over emotional about the problem
You can then decide which type of coping mechanism is best for you.
Healthy coping mechanisms for those who overthink problems
Start by challenging your own beliefs and assumptions about what is stressing you and try to change the way you think about it. This could include giving yourself a break from the stressful situation and coming back to it at a later date. If this is not possible you could try distancing yourself from it. Or you could try moving the goals to make them more attainable.
The mind is a wonderful tool and there are many options available for those who use it when they are stressed out. Using different language, for instance, to spin a negative into a positive is very powerful.
Four appraisal-focused coping mechanisms:
- Seeking support – Talking to a professional person is one of the best ways of reducing stress. For people who overthink matters and get bogged down in their own thoughts, having someone there to gently steer them back onto the right path can be invaluable.
- Using humour – Bringing humour into the darkest of situations allows people to put their situation into perspective. It can prevent them from feeling too overwhelmed and doing something that might be harmful in the future.
- Team sports – Being part of a team builds up your confidence and makes you think about others and other problems apart from yourself.
- Meditation – This is perfect for those people whose mind tends to wander or gets filled with panicky and busy thoughts of stress. Meditation can slow the mind down and allow the person to focus on what is around them, not what might happen in the future.
Healthy coping mechanisms for those who overreact about problems
People that tend to overreact when it comes to difficult times or stressful situations are more likely to want to do something about them. They will be proactive and practical rather than sitting around analysing the situation.
Therefore, the best coping mechanisms for these types of people would involve doing things. This could include learning new skills or finding out more information.
Four problem-focused coping mechanisms:
- Exercise – Anything from jogging, playing a sport, swimming, going to gym and more. Physical exercise reduces stress and releases endorphins, our ‘happy hormones’ that raise our spirits.
- Learning a new skill – Ideal for those who are stressing about not knowing enough about a subject. They can find out and put this new knowledge to good use.
- Pros & Cons – Look at the pros and cons of the situation and weigh up the good against the bad.
- Finding the right help – If you are unable to solve your situation by yourself, you may have to resort to asking for external help. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, that’s what experts are there for!
Healthy coping mechanisms for those who get over-emotional
Understand that you are not able to manage your emotional reaction and try and find ways to reduce or moderate it. This could involve finding other ways to release your emotions such as talking to a therapist or counsellor, or by using relaxing methods.
Four emotion-focused coping mechanisms:
- Writing a journal – Some people find that writing down their thoughts allows them to get some form of relief as they can then focus on the rest of the day.
- Listening to music – Music is a very powerful medium and can rouse or calm in equal measures. For those who find it hard to meditate or relax, music can be the first step towards slower breathing and mindfulness.
- Talking to friends – This is essential for people who have to live with a situation that is not likely to change and have to accept it for what it is. Having a good friend that they can talk to, day or night, can be the difference between life and death.
- Spirituality – There is evidence that becoming spiritual can help with the stress of a trauma as it gives a wider perspective on what has happened. It also allows people to believe there is some meaning to life.
Of course, people will use a mix of different coping mechanisms and it is possible that these will also change, depending on the situation and over time.
Research has shown, however, that although emotion-focused coping mechanisms are best when it comes to dealing with a traumatic event, it’s problem-focused that get the best results.
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