Coping Skills in Times of Stress

What Is Stress?

Stress is simply your body’s response to change. Since your environment is constantly changing, you are constantly under some level of stress. Your nervous system is equipped to handle a certain “normal” level of stress. This “normal” level of stress, or the amount of stress that a given person can experience without experiencing the physical symptoms of stress, varies from person to person.

When you have surpassed the normal level of stress that your body is equipped to handle, you will begin to experience the physical and emotional effects of stress, and your behavior will change as well.

What Are Stressors?

A stressor is defined as any physical, psychological, or social force that puts real or perceived demands on the body, emotions, mind, or spirit of an individual. Simply put, a stressor is something that causes stress.

What Are Coping Skills (Strategies)?

We all develop defense mechanisms to avoid or lessen psychological pain. Coping skills are ways in which we learn to deal with various stressors. Each person copes with stress differently. Over time, we all construct coping strategies that are “right” for us as thinking and feeling individuals. “Right” is in quotes because many people often do not realize that how they deal with life stressors is not only unhelpful, but also destructive, negative, and painful for not only themselves but those around them.

Coping strategies can be both constructive/adaptive or destructive/ maladaptive. Maladaptive coping skills are ways of dealing with stress that usually make things worse. These types of coping strategies can hurt your social relationships, make preexisting problems worse, and even result in new symptoms of a stress-related injury. Many of us have known someone who has overreacted to something which resulted in them losing touch with a friend or loved one. Maladaptive coping strategies put pressure on your relationships with friends, family, comrades, and coworkers. They can damage your body or create more emotional pain in the long term, even when they seem helpful in the short term. In extreme cases, maladaptive coping skills can ruin lives. Through the information in this booklet, and psychological activism, we can lessen the impact of negativity in our lives, including that which we inflict on ourselves through learned maladaptive coping skills.

Allow Yourself to Feel

“If I don’t think about, it it’s not there, right?”

Some people believe that it is best not to think about a troublesome issue, thought, or feeling, as getting upset about it may only make the issue worse. In some instances, this will be true, depending on how you react to any given situation. However, we must never put a troubling issue to the back of our minds in hopes that time will make it all go away. Such behavior is often harmful in the long run. Sure, you will not be “bothered” by such thoughts right this moment, but while you’re ignoring your problems THEY ARE STILL PRESENT IN YOUR AND OTHERS’LIVES. What is most beneficial for all involved (especially your own long-term mental health!) is to deal with any stress, anxiety, or troubling issue as it arises. Waiting for time to “take its course” in solving your problems can create more stress in your life.

In many cases of maladaptive coping we do not allow ourselves to feel and analyze our emotions. You should always ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL. Oftentimes our rational self tells us that feeling isn’t constructive. Socializing in our society has conditioned us to believe this. This is true for all people, although society socializes the genders differently. Regardless of your gender, FEELING IS NORMAL. Allowing yourself to feel a whole range of emotions about any given situation is healthy. What you do in reaction to these emotions, however, can be unhealthy.

Leaving the Situation When “Fight or Flight” Kicks In

The first step when confronted with a stressful situation is to remove yourself physically from the stressor. Doing this will give you time away from the stressor to process how you feel. If you remain in physical proximity to something that causes you stress you will not have the mental capacity to focus on your thoughts. If the stressor is a person and you do not take a physical time out, you may lash out irrationally at them, whether verbally or physically. I keep emphasizing “physical” because at no point should you distance yourself emotionally. If you are engaged in a conversation, and want to continue the conversation once you cool off, consider saying, “I need to take a time out. Can we continue the conversation in 30 minutes?”

Once you are away from the stressor, take some deep breaths, sit down, and allow yourself to feel. If you are angry, be angry. If you are sad, feel free to cry. Feel whatever feelings come to you—do not suppress them. Try writing about it, or talking to someone who is far- removed from the situation. Make sure you allow yourself 20 minutes to calm down. This is not just an arbitrary number. It takes the body 20 minutes to get out of “fight or flight” mode.

Coping with Overwhelming Emotions (a Quick Reference list)

A common reaction to experiencing overwhelming emotions is a heightened sense of personal vulnerability or fear. The following strategies may lessen the impact overwhelming emotions will have on your mental health.

= Validate the emotion. Remind yourself that it is normal to experience feeling overwhelmed as well as the range of other emotions you may be experiencing.

= Share your emotions with others. Understanding, supportive others who can listen to you often provide relief. You may find that they have experienced similar overwhelming emotions sometime in their life. Even if you do not talk about your emotions, the company of supportive others who are experiencing similar reactions, thoughts, and feelings can be a comfort.

= If you do not want to be alone, find ways to be with others. Spending time with familiar others can make you feel safer and more comfortable. Entertain the notion of inviting a friend over to spend the night with you, travel across town with friends, and let people know you would like their company.

= Create a safe environment. Analyze your living, working, and school environment and identify ways to increase your sense of personal safety and security.

= Obtain accurate information about your reactions. Seek out the assistance of informed others who can help you sort out your feelings and thoughts. Avoid persons who deny or minimize your experience.

= Realize that you cannot control everything. Often our fears are exacerbated by situations that remind us that we cannot control all persons, places, and things. It is often helpful to identify those things that are in our control, and to try to let go of those things that are not.

= Remember that your emotions are valid. Over time, you will start to regain your sense of security and balance. If you feel that you could benefit from assistance in this process, seek out a peer support group or mental health professional. It is often helpful to consult with others in a therapeutic setting if you feel that your daily functioning is negatively affected. “Therapeutic” does not have to equal “professional”! Stick with what makes you feel comfortable.

Mindful Communication with Others

Mindful communication is often the key to a successful relationship. If you’re constantly making judgmental statements to someone, the chances are good that you’ll lose that relationship. Let’s look at how to be more mindful of the messages you send to other people.

Consider the following statements:
“You make me mad.”
“You’re such a jerk, I could scream.”
“Sometimes you make me so upset I just want to end it all.” “I know that you did that to me on purpose just to hurt me.”

What do all of these statements have in common? It’s true that they all express some kind of emotion, such as anger, distress, and sadness. But more importantly, they’re all judgments of the other person. Each of the statements blames the other person for the way the speaker feels. Now consider how you would feel if someone said one of these statements to you. What would you do? Maybe you would say something just as angry back to the person, which would lead to a big fight. The result would be that nothing gets resolved. Judgmental statements like these stop any form of effective communication. So what can you do instead?

One of the solutions is to turn “you” statements into mindful “I” statements. Mindful “I” statements:

  • = Are based on your own mindful awareness of how you feel.
  • = Are a more accurate description of how you feel.
  • = Let a person know how you feel in a nonjudgmental way.
  • = Evoke greater empathy and understanding from the other person, which allows the person to meet your needs.Turn Judgmental “You” Statements into Mindful “I” StatementsHere are several judgmental “you” statements turned into mindful “I” statements. After looking over these examples, take the opportunity to write down your own.

Judgmental “You” Statement

“You make me feel horrible.”

“I know you’re doing this on purpose to make me go crazy.”

“You’re being insulting.”

“Stop fooling around; you’re getting on my nerves.”

“If you don’t listen to what I’m telling you, I’m not going to talk to you anymore.”

“You’re being an asshole, stop it.”

“Why do you keep doing that to me?”

“Sometimes I feel like you’re being too inflexible.”

Mindful “I” Statement

“It makes me feel really horrible when you use negative name-calling.”

“I sometimes feel unsure of your intentions behind some of the things you do or say. Because of this unsurity, I sometimes come to the conclusion that you are purposefully trying to hurt me.”

“I feel insulted when you say that/take that tone with me/roll your eyes at me.”

“I feel anxious/tired/angry/annoyed when you tease me like that.”

“I feel like my thoughts and feelings are not being heard. When I feel like this, I sometimes would rather avoid talking to you than feel as if my feelings are not being addressed. I would rather address how we both feel about the situation than practicing avoidance.”

Usually when you ask someone to stop doing something, it’s because the action hurts. You could say instead: “I feel hurt when you do/say that. It would be helpful for me if you do not do/say that to me.”

“It makes me upset when you keep doing hurtful things to me.”