Developing Coping Mechanisms For Stress

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated January 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There are many different reasons why people may experience stress. Significant life events like being unemployed, separating from a partner, or losing a loved one are common sources. However, people don’t always consider how stress can originate from typically positive experiences too, such as purchasing a new home or obtaining a desired new job. Or, stress may not even originate from external sources. It may come in the form of internal thoughts and beliefs that negatively impact other areas of your life. 

If left unaddressed, external and/or internal stressors can build up until you feel overwhelmed and experience negative effects. Ongoing, unaddressed stress is sometimes referred to as “chronic stress”, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time. Chronic stress can interfere with your mental health, physical health, and daily functioning, which is why learning to cope with it in a constructive way can be so important for your well-being.

Coping With Stressful Situations Successfully Is Possible

Recognizing The Signs Of Chronic Stress

When chronic stress goes untreated, its symptoms can evolve into larger problems. According to Yale Medicine, symptoms of chronic stress may include: 

  • Significant changes in sleeping or eating patterns

  • Low energy levels

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Social isolation 

  • Physical aches and pains

  • Increased substance use 

These symptoms are just a few of the mental and physical difficulties that stress can cause.

Chronic stress has also been linked to more serious health concerns like diabetes, heart problems, and depression. Recognizing the signs and then learning healthy strategies for managing it may help you avoid these consequences.

Harmful Coping Strategies To Avoid

It’s not uncommon for people to adopt harmful behaviors to cope with stress, which may negatively affect them as well as those around them. In many cases, an individual may not even realize that what they’re doing is a response to the stress they’re feeling. That’s why awareness is the first step toward living a healthier life in terms of stress. Here are some common unhealthy coping mechanisms for chronic stress. If you recognize any of these in yourself, it may be helpful to consider some of the healthier alternatives we’ll list next.

Substance Misuse

Sometimes people turn to substances like drugs and alcohol to cope with their stress. While finding ways to relax and unwind is generally a good idea when you’re faced with high stress levels, excessive use of drugs and alcohol is typically not the answer. It may negatively impact your physical and mental health as well as other aspects of your life, such as relationships and employment. Plus, they’re likely to simply dull the feelings associated with any issues you may be facing rather than offering a constructive way to deal with them. Studies also suggest that those who have experienced difficulties with substance misuse in the past may be more likely to relapse under stress.

Other Escapist Behaviors

Escapist behaviors are ones we might engage in to ignore or avoid reality. When practiced in healthy ways, some level of escapism can be helpful. It can provide us a break from what’s stressing us out and allow us to recharge. However, relying on these methods so much so that we consistently avoid reality can be counterproductive. Plus, some escapist behaviors may cause other problems. For example, watching hours of TV to avoid getting important work done can set you back at work or in school. Going on an online shopping spree when feeling stressed can lead you to spend money unwisely and end up with financial stress as well.

Striving For Perfection

Some people believe that to overcome chronic stress, they must work hard to achieve perfection in the portions of their life they do have control over. However, pressuring yourself to achieve perfection can often have the opposite effect and create even more stress. Research shows that perfectionistic tendencies correlate with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, so it’s clear that being self-critical and holding yourself to impossible standards may only make matters worse—especially when you’re already stressed. 

Helpful Coping Strategies To Try

Recognizing unhealthy coping mechanisms is typically part one of improving your response to stress; replacing them with healthier strategies is generally part two. That said, the coping mechanisms that work for someone else may not be right for you. That’s why it may be helpful to try a few until you find what works best for your situation.

Learn To Identify And Address The Root Issue

When you’re experiencing high levels of stress, it can be easy to misidentify where it’s coming from. For instance, if you’re under a lot of stress at work, you might be short or impatient with your partner, causing stress in your relationship too. Recognizing that the root cause is your job and not your partner can be an important step in managing this stress. You can then take action to adjust things in your work life and make things right with your partner, letting them know that work is causing the issue and not them. If you fail to get in touch with the true origin of your stress, it can be that much more difficult to resolve it and the effects may seep into other areas of your life.

Try Meditation

A wealth of research now exists indicating that meditation can work as an effective coping mechanism for stress. Mindfulness meditation in particular can make a difference because it helps an individual cultivate a stronger awareness of the present moment. Over time, you may be able to then sense when stress is coming on and use breathing techniques or other strategies to help calm yourself and avoid letting it take over.

Build A Regular Exercise Routine

The ability of aerobic exercise to reduce the stress response is another well-researched area. Studies indicate that physical activity can change the body’s hormonal responses and affect dopamine and serotonin transmitters in the brain. Both chemical changes can affect the body’s physiological response to stress by boosting mood. Other research suggests that exercise may help because of the time-out theory. It simply states that when an individual engages in exercise, it provides their mind and body with a “time-out” to process and recover from the day’s stress.

Coping With Stressful Situations Successfully Is Possible

How A Therapist Can Help You Cope With Stress

Speaking to a mental health professional is one of the most effective ways to learn to cope with stress and prevent it from impacting other areas of your health and life. There are many different methods that therapists may use to treat chronic stress, including metacognitive therapy (MCT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and more. The right therapist can help you isolate the sources of your stress and provide a structured plan for coping with it. Additionally, if your stress levels are causing or related to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, they can also help you address those symptoms.

The type of therapy that’s best for your situation will typically be decided by your therapist after an evaluation. However, you can generally choose the format that feels most comfortable for you. If you prefer meeting with someone in person, you can search for a provider in your area. If you prefer getting support from the comfort of your own home, you might consider virtual therapy. A platform like BetterHelp, for instance, can match you with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that both in-person and online sessions can offer similar benefits, so you can select the option that feels right for your situation.

Takeaway

Experiencing some level of stress in life is virtually unavoidable, but you can learn to control how you respond to it. Recognizing and avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms and working to adopt healthier ones can be a powerful way to preserve your mental and physical health in the face of challenging circumstances.

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