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Stress: How to cope


 Are you worried about your health?  Maybe an ache that won’t quit, a lump you just noticed, or a scary diagnosis. Coping is all about how we deal with threat and worry. How we cope can make us feel better or worse. Some people worry more than others depending on the coping strategy they use. So how do you cope?

Do you pace the floor, withdraw to a quiet place, develop a plan, find someone to talk with, analyze the situation, fret and stew, or ignore it? 

We each cope with worry differently but how we cope affects our happiness. According to a 2009 study by Hasida Ben-Zur reported in the International Journal of Stress Management, effective coping promotes positive feelings, mental and physical health, and a day-to-day sense of well-being.

Each of us has a predominant coping strategy but may employ some combination of three: problem focused, emotional focused, and avoidance focused. Focus on the problem leads to greater peace of mind and a return to happiness. Avoidance is the least effective, and emotional responses leave us somewhere in between.

Direct attention on the problem is best and means we gather information, develop a plan, look for the silver lining, and approach it head on. Second best are the emotional strategies that lead you to seek support from others, join a support group, see the humor in the situation, confess your worries to a friend or spouse, or allow yourself to feel sad. The avoidance strategies are when you do nothing constructive. You decide to hide your head in the sand and hope it goes away. A common avoidance strategy is rumination, when you have the same worrisome and non-productive thoughts over and over again. Rumination is the least effective coping mechanism and leads to inactivity, depression, and helplessness.

Based on her research, Ben-Zur recommends starting with the coping methods at the top of the list and not even considering those at the bottom. When we gather information, make a plan, and approach problems directly, we take control of the only thing we can: ourselves. In fact, a repeated theme in psychological research is that things always improve when we learn to control our own behavior and feelings instead of others'.

What makes some people more problem-focused than others? In general they have a stronger sense of self-efficacy; they believe in their ability to be successful, to make a difference, and to take charge of their life. A concept first introduced by Albert Bandura in 1977, self-efficacy stems from a history of success, from watching others cope successfully, and from people who believe in you.  It’s when you master your emotional responses and replace fear, stress, and sadness with positive outlooks.

How do you focus on the problem?  If it is a health concern for example, you may compare symptoms with others, research it online, and keep records of the severity and incidence of the symptoms to provide relevant information to your Doctor. Do symptoms subside with rest? Are they correlated with certain foods, times of day, or any other event in your life? Learn as much as you can. You may discover ways to help yourself. Are you doing the things your health care provider recommended?  Should you be more active, drink less, change your diet, or reduce exposure to toxins such as pest and weed spray.

The emotional strategies are less direct but none-the-less get you actively involved in recognizing and dealing with the issue. Getting things off your chest and discussing them with friends, family, or supportive others is a common remedy for things that worry us. And keeping some humor in the mix keeps things in perspective. The best example of that comes from a 2010 study of soldiers stationed in Iraq by Riolli and Savicki. Soldiers who maintain a sense of humor about traumatic situations cope with them more effectively.

So cope for contentment. Keep your head out of the sand, replace destructive rumination with problem-focused action, throw in some humor to lighten your mood, and live well between your ears.


Copyright © 2011 by Doug Spencer


I'd love to get your comments. Thanks. Doug