Tried-And-True Coping Strategies to Turn to When Stress Strikes
Stress is a big, broad term. It can come in many shapes and stripes. Many of the stressors that Patrice Douglas’s clients experience revolve around work and family. They feel “overwhelmed, unappreciated, and stuck.”
Psychotherapist Stephanie Dobbin, LMFT, CGP, works with healthcare professionals, who frequently feel stressed about their jobs: “the long hours, the tedium and pressure of having to complete documentation in a timely manner, the unpredictability of being on-call, and feelings of frustration and inadequacy as they attempt to juggle home, family, and career.”
Maybe you can relate to these stressors. Maybe your stress comes in a different form. Or maybe your stress feels especially immense and nebulous, and you’re not sure where it’s coming from.
The first step to coping with any stressor is to try to pinpoint what’s causing it, and why, said Dobbin, a relationship and group psychotherapist who specializes in helping busy healthcare professionals have happier relationships and less stress in Rochester, NY. “Sometimes even the act of reflecting for a few moments is a coping strategy in and of itself, because clarity can be reassuring and calming.”
To delve deeper, Dobbin suggested jotting down your responses to these questions:
- “What am I feeling?” (You might jot down angry, sad, or hopeless.)
- “What am I thinking?” (“Thoughts are sentences in our mind: ‘I hate that my job is so demanding’; ‘I never seem to get any time to myself.’”)
- “What circumstances are contributing to the way I’m feeling?” (“Stick to the facts: ‘I’m working 80 hours a week’ or ‘My partner is saying I’m not doing enough at home.’”)
Next, Dobbin noted that there are two approaches: coping strategies help us to reduce our discomfort in the immediate moment; and a longer-term plan helps us to resolve the root of the stressor. The latter might “include having a difficult conversation you’ve been putting off, expressing feelings you’ve been avoiding, or saying no to someone or something that is draining you,” she said.
The below tried-and-true strategies mainly focus on coping in the immediate moment, along with a tip that addresses successful solutions.
Recognize old coping strategies (that don’t work). This is crucial in moving forward toward a healthier, more satisfying life. Everyone develops “coping strategies starting from a very early age that help us ‘survive,’ whether we experience anything profoundly traumatic or not,” said Erin K. Tierno, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of Online Therapy NYC, where she specializes in helping dynamic, intelligent, driven, busy people to connect in healthier, more fulfilling relationships through online therapy.
“But often when we reach adulthood we hang on to the same coping strategies we developed earlier in life, even when they don’t suit our current circumstances well.”
Sometimes, we might not even be aware of these coping strategies. This is when Tierno suggests paying attention to all the behaviors you’re engaging in, and getting curious about how you respond to your feelings.
She shared this example: You realize you make up excuses to avoid socializing with people you actually like—“a coping strategy that you developed at some earlier point that now just prevents you from having support and feeling connected when you really might need it most.”
Create a “coping skill box.” Douglas, founder of Empire Counseling & Consultation, suggested filling your coping box with items that help you to feel good, and using them as needed. For instance, she said, you might include Play-Doh, headphones, a journal, and your favorite candy. “Many times, my clients [tell me this] is their little getaway from reality to help them refocus and get back to their responsibilities.”
Set a dedicated coping session. When coping with a specific, really difficult issue, Tierno recommended scheduling in 30 to 60 minutes a day (or week) to “really go there,” and feel whatever feelings arise. “Outside of that time when painful feelings arise, gently—and kindly—remind yourself that you have a safe and dedicated time for processing those feelings.”
Modify your schedule. “Instead of jam packing your day with tasks, remove the ones with less importance, and add a coping skill to do instead to increase energy levels and peace,” Douglas said. For instance, instead of running all your errands on the same day after work, split them up, and take that time to take a walk, watch your favorite show, or cook your favorite meal, she said.
Give yourself breathing room. If you have the financial means, hire a cleaning service to deep-clean your home, drop off your laundry to get washed and folded, or schedule a massage, Tierno said. Another option is to ask loved ones to help out.
“What are some creative ways you can delegate some of your burdensome tasks so that you have a little more breathing room?” Tierno said.
Do any physical activity. Exercise is a potent stress reliever. According to Douglas, any physical activity—from jumping jacks to squats—can decrease stress. The key is to find ways to move your body that you actually enjoy. So if you don’t enjoy jumping jacks or squats, try something else. Dance. Swim. Buy a hula-hoop or roller-blades. Take an in-person yoga class, or try an online class.
Surround yourself with trees. Because nature can be incredibly soothing, Tierno suggested carving out at least 30 minutes a week to be outside among the trees. “Studies have shown that being near lots of trees significantly reduces blood pressure, anxiety, cortisol levels, and naturally combats depression,” she said.
Get creative. “Sometimes we think our situation is unchangeable when, in fact, there are things we haven’t tried,” Dobbin said. That is, we stop ourselves before we ever start. Instead, channel your creativity into considering a variety of solutions—without discounting them. Make a list of all the possible ways you can resolve a problem. Then consider why you’re tossing these options without even considering them, Dobbin said.
She gave this example: “If you feel backed into a corner about attending a family party out of town that you really don’t want to go to, [you] brainstorm ideas like ‘tell the host that we’ve reconsidered and decided that we can’t make the trip after all,’ ‘turn it into a longer trip that we will actually enjoy,’ ‘make a stop on the way out and the way home that will be really fun,’ ‘call my sister ahead of time and try to resolve that argument from a few months ago so it’s not hanging over my head at the party.’”
Focus on kindness. “The most important healthy coping strategy is really just gentle curiosity and kind self-parenting,” Tierno said. This might look like saying the following to yourself, she said: “Hey, self, you’re going through a lot right now, so maybe instead of diving into that [glass] of wine, let’s try a warm bath and going to bed early? Whaddya say?”
It also might look like gently reflecting on what’s going on—instead of bashing yourself for struggling, or screaming at yourself that you shouldn’t be struggling. Again, you might explore why you’re reacting a certain way, and how your behavior or perspective might be perpetuating the stressful situation—and the changes you can make.
When stress strikes, it’s important to have a toolbox of strategies you can turn to. Reflect on how you’re currently coping—and whether or not it’s actually supporting your well-being. Add a few tactics and approaches from the above that resonate with you. And regularly re-evaluate them.
And regularly remind yourself that you are strong enough to weather the storm—no matter the magnitude.