Constructive coping mechanisms for stressed out people

It’s both ironic and expected that I’m feeling stressed studying about stress and coping mechanisms for a Psychology final tomorrow.

Exams create stress, but I love to write. So I’m going to write about stress and coping with the hope that I retain at least some of it and de-stress in the process. Besides, it makes me feel good this may impart some real benefit to you as a reader, which is far more than what I can say about aimlessly memorizing content for an exam.

There’re good, somewhat ok, and bad ways of coping with stress. But before we cope, we must first understand the framework we use for acknowledging stress.

In the presence of a potential stressor, our brains go through two stages of appraisal to assess the situation. First, we try to recognize if the situation is relevant and is, in fact, a threat. Once a threat is recognized you can then determine if you have the resources to deal with the stress. Only when you don’t have the resources to deal with the situation does it become an active stressor.

For example, consider an exam, if your primary appraisal views the exam as a possible stressor then your secondary appraisal would determine if you’re capable of dealing with it. If you’re running out of time to study and feel unprepared then it’s likely going to act as a stressor. Knowing this, there are numerous coping mechanisms you can apply at various stages of the process to help you reduce, master and tolerate the stress.

While all coping strategies help alleviate stress, not all coping strategies are created equal. Some, like self-indulgence, aggression and blaming yourself can be counterproductive. For the purposes of this post, I’ll only talk about the constructive ones.

Understanding the Source

Focusing on rational thinking and using positive reinterpretation.

The experience of stress is subjective to how one interprets a threating event. It’s easy to gloss over coping at this stage, but you do feel the way you think.

The rational-emotive behavior therapy created by the influential theorist  Albert Ellis focused on reducing catastrophic thinking as an approach to helping one better respond to stress. This involves training one’s self to better recognize unrealistic pessimism and wild exaggeration when assessing stressful situations. Subject your thinking to strict scrutiny in order to uncover the source of your conclusions.

Once you’ve uncovered the source of the stress it’s easier to rationally evaluate the situation and ask yourself if your conclusions were derived logically. In practice, you can use this strategy to redefine stressful situations in ways that are less threating.

Fixing the Problem

Improving self-control, seeking support and active problem-solving.

Another way to deal with stress involves taking a systematic approach to solving the stress-producing problem itself.

Clarify the Problem

Sometimes it’s obvious, but if not you need to arrive at a concrete definition of your problem. It cannot be something general like “I never have enough time” nor can it be a consequence of the problem like “I’m so depressed all the time”.

Generate a list of actions

It’s in human nature to try and tackle problems head-on. But when dealing with stress it’s important to think through all your options instead of taking irrational actions. It’s wiser to brainstorm a bunch of possible solutions first.

Evaluate and select a course of action

This is completely subjective of the situations, but in general, you want to be sure to pick one that’s realistic, with a clear understanding of the risks, costs and probable outcome of taking this course of action.

Take action while maintaining flexibility

Not all plans work. Try to maintain flexibility and look for improvements of any kind. If your plan doesn’t seem to work out too well then understand why it didn’t and try another.

Sometimes the best executed coping strategies can have no effect on the situation. In these cases, it’s important to acknowledge one’s emotions and work on both regulating and expressing them constructively. This leads us to the third and last group of coping strategies:

Managing your Emotions

Distractions, managing feelings, exercise, and meditation.

There will be occasions when the strategies above simply won’t work. Some problems are too serious for re-appraisal and other’s simply cannot be solved.

The four factors below define what is known as emotional intelligence, and it’s the key to resiliency in the face of stress. While some are better at it than others it’s definitely something you can actively try to be better at.

  1. Being able to accurately perceive emotions in yourself and others
  2. Being aware of how your emotions affect your thinking
  3. The ability to analyze your emotions
  4. The ability to regulate emotions by dampening the negative emotions and heightening the positive ones.

(Source: Mayer, Sa- lovey, & Caruso, 2008)

There will be instances where none of these tactics might seem to help. In the face of adversity, we can also rely on releasing pent-up emotions, sometimes by talking or writing about it or simply by ranting (this is one of the unconstructive ones, but it definitely can help temporarily).  

Adding to the irony of my day, some might consider taking the time to write, draw illustrations and edit this post a sub-par coping pattern involving self-indulgence that creates marginal adaptive value for dealing with any form of stress, or much less for preparing to write an exam. But on the other hand, one could also label this as a form of active learning and constructive emotional expression — the act of self-disclosure itself is a powerful therapeutic agent.

It’s an entirely different story that it’s currently two in the morning, seven hours before my exam and I’m positively exhausted. I guess wish me luck.

Credits; this is essentially a summary of content learned through lectures, notes, and Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustment in the 21st Century.