Sunday, February 19, 2012

3 Approaches to Coping with Stress

Life has its challenges for everyone, so it's inevitable that we'll all experience some degree of stress. Technically speaking, stress is the physiological arousal we experience when we're afraid the demands of a given situation will overwhelm our ability to cope with it. While we may have different thresholds for what situations trigger stress, we approach these situations similarly: we engage in subject appraisal of the situation to assess the degree of threat, and what we can do to cope.

We generally choose one of three main approaches to coping with the stressful situation:

1) Problem-Focused Coping

In problem-focused coping, we try to reduce stress by resolving the situation or overcoming the source of the problem. This is the most active and direct coping response, and it can be very beneficial. Active coping is always better than avoidance, and resolving the situation or problem eliminates that stress moving forward. However, it can also backfire if we become too focused on having control over our environments, attempt to control something that is actually beyond our control, or engage in self-blame for our inability or failure to control something. 

2) Emotion-Focused Coping

In emotion-focused coping, we try to manage our emotional reactions to the situation, rather than trying to change the situation itself. That generally means either shutting down, or opening up. Shutting down includes denial or suppression of unwanted thoughts and feelings. We may try to distract ourselves, or begin avoiding things that relate to the stressor. Procrastination is one common example. Opening up involves actually expressing the distressing emotions, to a supportive friend or family member, in a journal, or in therapy. Opening up can be helpful because it releases tension (catharsis), and may lead to a better understanding of the problem (insight). Emotion-focused coping is beneficial when we have little actual control over the situation; however, it can also be harmful if it keeps us from taking necessary action.

3) Proactive coping 

Finally, proactive coping involves taking action ahead of time to prevent or lessen the impact of a stressful situation. It is generally an ongoing process of developing resources (personal, social, material) that can serve as a buffer against stress. Examples include cultivating a network of social support, spirituality, and a sense of self including varied roles (so that stress related to one role is balanced out by positive experiences in another role). While there's no way to prevent all of life's stress, proactive coping lessens the severity of our stress responses, and gives us resources for responding to the stressors that do occur.

Do you find yourself relying most often on one of these approaches, or do you use all three? What have you noticed about when an approach is, and is not helpful?

(Based on Social Psychology, by Brehm, Kassin & Fein)

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