It is well documented that an interaction between our environments, genetics, personalities and experiences all contribute to our stress levels. Coping is our intentional cognitive reaction to stress. This reaction is learned and we become habitual in the way we do it. This develops a unique personal stress response that we practice given the coping skills we have accumulated. Whilst it is important to recognise the debilitating features of maladaptive coping and the diagnosis of chronic mental health issues this is beyond the scope of this blog.
Although it is not clear wherever we use our strategies for the same intended purpose as we progress through our lives. It is clear that some coping can be more effective than others. Perhaps when things get stressful you talk about wanting to ‘take a break’, ‘getting away for a while’, or ‘needing a rest’……
To understand this further lets consider 2 main coping styles.
Passive or avoidant coping includes masking or understating what is reality. You may become selective and withhold your true opinions or emotions. To do this you may use sarcasm or ‘sugarcoating’, or avoid the sensitive issue or uncomfortable subject and magic it away from existence. Perhaps through self medication or making vocal expressions of not wanting ‘negativity’ but yet the distress is felt to pursue this avoidance. ‘The white elephant in the room’ where you may talk, but not address the underlying or real issue is a form of withdrawal from the situation. This may encourage a controlling alliance (with yourself or another) where you appear to be in control by using inflexible absolute terms and labelling. This may implicate controlling others with coercion to your way of thinking, or deepening your view by replaying it in your minds eye or through self talk and story telling. You may find conversations are dominated by ‘cutting’ others up in and overstating the facts. Abruptly changing the subject topic or using loaded questions to direct the conversation may appear assertive, but this controlling behaviour may evoke anxiety. Pulling out of the conversation, hanging up the phone, or by exiting the room may all by synonymous with passive or avoidant coping.
Actively engaging in problem solving to manage stress can be achieved by approaching the stressor with an understanding of solution focused coping. We may engage in constructive self talk or ask others for help as well as engaging in self help and purposeful self care. This informational support can deepen awareness to changing your own behavioural reactions, which offers an alternative to being intent on changing others behaviours’. Some report an empowering mind-set which overcomes the helplessness of avoidance coping as they learn to ‘let go’. However if you are faced with a situation that is unlikely to change. e.g the diagnosis of a terminal illness, there may be no comfortable solution possible to the problem. Emotional focused coping can create a ‘pause’ and a ‘break’. By seeking pleasure and positive engaging with music, massage, medication, exercise, bathing, creative expression of arts and crafts, writing in a journal, and watching watching funny movies whilst accepting moral support can have benefits when managing this induced stress.
Furthermore, the context and function of coping, as well as the purpose and personal gain is an important factor to explore within your own personal insight. As there is not a ‘one fits all’ approach to stress management, nor is there a long term inflexible pattern of coping behaviour to promote.
Striving to seek a stress free existence is unhealthy as it is entirely natural to respond to experiences as they occur. So weather booking time off work to spend the time with a friend instead, spending less time on social media, perhaps taking a short city break, walking instead of driving, or booking some time alone to pursue your favourite hobby. This intentional cognitive ‘change' will activate your pre-frontal cortex encouraging new thoughts and new outcomes, un-learning unhelpful responses as you find new intentional useful coping strategies.
As an end note I would like to share that not too long ago I heard a soldier talking publicly of his experiences serving for 20 years in the British Armed Forces. After loosing both legs in an injury on his last tour he recalled ‘After I had been supported to process the initial shock and trauma, I knew I had to cope the only way I knew how, just as I would if the dishwasher broke’.
Take Care of Yourself, and each other
Kimberley Cairns BSc MSc MBPsS-Personal Wellness Trainer