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The Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) is dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.
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Coping strategies

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Coping with stress

Stress has a major impact on mental and physical health. Now that you know how to recognize your stress and identify its source, let’s see how you can cope with it.

This section explains how to live with stress and the different coping strategies.

What is coping?

Coping refers to the thoughts and actions we use to deal with a  threatening situation.

A stressful situation may be considered a threat for you but not necessarily for your neighbor. You and your neighbor may become stressed by the same situation, but for different reasons (e.g.  the situation is new for you, but unpredictable for your neighbor).

After all, since we all become stressed for various reasons we will need to choose different coping strategies.

As you will see, there are many strategies and some are better than others.

Two different coping strategies

Problem-focused strategy

This strategy relies on using active ways to directly tackle the situation that caused the stress: you must concentrate on the problem. Here are some examples:

  1. Analyze the situation
    e.g. Pay attention, avoid taking on more responsibility than you can manage.
  2. Work harder
    e.g. Stay up all night to study for an exam
  3. Apply what you have already learned to your daily life.
    e.g. You lose your job for the second time – you now know the steps to apply for a new job
  4. Talk to a person that has a direct impact on the situation
    e.g. Talk directly to your boss to ask for an extension to the project that is due in one week.

Emotion-focused strategy

Emotion-focused coping strategies are used to handle feelings of distress, rather than the actual problem situation. You focus on your emotions:

  1. Brood
    e.g. you accept new tasks instead of saying “no”, but you keep complaining and saying it is unfair.
  2. Imagine/Magic thinking
    e.g. You dream about a better financial situation.
  3. Avoid/Deny
    e.g. You avoid everything that is related to this situation or you take drugs and/or alcohol to escape from this situation.
  4. Blame
    e.g. You blame yourself or others for the situation.
  5. Social support
    e.g. You talk to your best friend about your concerns.

In a long-term perspective, are these strategies harmful?

Imagine that you are having a bad day at work and that you do not feel like seeing your boss. You can avoid him for many hours or even a day, but if you avoid him everyday this strategy will become unsuccessful and may even cause extra stress. This is why it is important to develop different strategies in order to adapt to different situations.

Efficient coping strategies

Coping strategies are different depending on the situation and the person; here are some good coping strategies.

Coping is a very complex process, that varies according to many variables such as the situation, the evaluation of the situation, and the resources available.
  1. Be positive!
    Look at each obstacle you encounter as a learning experience
    e.g. you may not have done well on your mid-term exam, but that has motivated you to study harder and ace your final exam.
  2. Make the choice not to over-react to stressors and deal with them one at a time
    e.g. take a few deep breaths and carry on.
  3. Take an objective view of your stressor
    e.g. is preparing dinner for 12 people really that horrible?
  4. Communicate!
    Don’t ruminate or bottle up your emotions, as this will lead to an explosion later on.
  5. Accept yourself (and others).
    No one is perfect and there is always room for mistakes.
  6. Make connections with people 
    Social support is key!
  7. Deal effectively with mistakes
    i.e. Learn from your mistakes and apply them to future decision making.
  8. Deal effectively with successes also!
    This will build on your competence.
  9. Develop self-discipline and control
    e.g. train yourself to study harder in preparation for your final exam, or train yourself to work out four times a week to lose those pounds you gained since last Thanksgiving dinner!
  10. Maintenance!
    Practice, practice, practice for a long life of resilient living!

Now that you know how to recognize your stress and you know the different coping strategies, you just need to find the coping strategies  that work best for you and apply them to your daily life.