Coping with Stress: What to Do When Life Seems Overwhelming

By: Julia Thomas

Updated February 10, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Stress is a fact of life. You can't avoid it completely, and in fact, you would probably have trouble achieving your daily tasks and life goals without it. However, if you don't know how to handle stress in positive ways, it can lead to both physical and mental illness. Everyone deals with stress their own way, but some ways people cope with stress are more beneficial than others. Here are some examples of both unhealthy and healthy ways people can deal with the stress in their lives.


Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms For Stress

Unhealthy coping mechanisms are either self-destructive or they compound the effects of stress immediately or in the long run. Before you look at positive ways of coping with stress, it's a good idea to recognize unhealthy coping strategies you're using that do more harm than good.

Escaping Into The Digital World

Many people avoid uncomfortable feelings that come from stress through escapist movies, television, or online videos. That's not to say that it's unhealthy to ever watch videos. But when you're watching endless hours of mindless video content, you miss out on life and avoid dealing with problems.

Social Withdrawal

Withdrawing from your friends and family may seem more comfortable when you're feeling stressed. Isolating yourself may seem less risky or less emotionally demanding. However, if you stay away from loved ones, you miss out on the support and companionship they could give you. What's more, always being alone can lead you to ruminate on your problems unproductively rather than finding better ways to address them.


Many people overeat when they're stressed. Typically, they eat fatty or sugary foods that provide some kind of pleasure, which they feel is lacking in their lives. This usually leads to weight gain and may even cause illness. And again, it does nothing to help you deal with the realities of your everyday life.


When life seems overwhelming, many people will climb into bed and stay there much longer than they should. They may go to bed early and/or stay in bed until afternoon. They may take long naps throughout the day, so that they're only up for a few hours at a time. While sleeping can seem comfortable and soothing, it keeps you from doing the things you need to do. And it can be physically harmful, increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Overindulging In Alcohol

People often enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a beer during a sporting event. Then when life becomes extremely stressful, these same people who only drank occasionally sometimes start drinking much more than usual. Others who never drank alcohol might start during trying times. But consuming too much alcohol is not only extremely unhealthy. It may become a habit you fight for the rest of your life.


Smoking Too Much

Many people start smoking or increase their smoking when they're in a stressful situation. Smoking gives you a momentary feeling of relaxation. After a while, though, anxiety and tension increase. At the same time, you're putting your health at risk.

Drinking Too Much Caffeine

Low to moderate use of caffeine is safe for most people. When you use it to try to relieve symptoms of stress, overindulgence can become a problem. Why? Caffeine works by stimulating your central nervous system, muscles, and heart. If you drink too much coffee or caffeinated energy drinks, your anxiety and agitation increase. In addition, it can cause insomnia, nausea, increased breathing and heart rates, headaches, and irregular heartbeats.


Sometimes people deal with stress by having sex with many different partners. For them, promiscuity seems to ease the emotional pain and distress they're feeling. This is another form of escape, and it's one that can lead to STDs or unwanted pregnancies. Plus, it's not a solution to your actual problems.

Violent Outbursts

To say that reacting to stress with violence is a coping mechanism might seem a bit far fetched. Yet, many people do take their frustrations out on others by yelling at them, starting rude arguments, or even physically assaulting them. Not only might you end up hurting someone you care about, but also you could lose your job or face legal repercussions.

Taking Medications You Don't Need

People who want to deal with stress on their own often make the mistake of using prescription or over-the-counter drugs that are not intended for stress relief. They may take pain relievers, muscle relaxers, sleeping pills, or other medications that cause drowsiness or "take the edge off." If their doctor has prescribed anti-anxiety drugs, they may overuse them. None of these medications are intended to be used in these ways, and each comes with its own risks to your health.

Taking Illegal Drugs

Taking harmful illegal drugs may provide a temporary escape. They might make you feel more relaxed for a while. However, many are addictive, and most are extremely harmful. They don't only damage your physical and mental health but they may also land you in jail.

Healthier Coping Strategies For Stress

So, if none of those stress coping mechanisms are healthy, what are some better stress coping strategies? Here are some of the ways of coping with stress that can provide relief, long-term safety, and help you resolve problems in more positive ways.


In some cases, you can prevent stress reactions before they happen. You also can increase your ability to cope with stress by using the following preventative measures regularly.



Being physically active can help your body deal with the negative effects of stress. Exercise can also prompt your brain to release the feel-good neurotransmitters that increase your ability to deal with stress mentally. Sometimes all you need to do is take a quiet walk around the block. If you're healthy and able, vigorous exercise works even better.

Healthy Eating

Eating healthy foods in reasonable amounts keeps your body healthy and your mind clear. While too much heavy or carbohydrate-rich foods can make you sleepy, foods like vegetables, fruits, proteins, and small amounts of healthy fats keep you feeling your best.

Getting The Right Amount Of Sleep

Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Less than that can make you feel weak and exhausted. Your mind doesn't work as quickly, so it's harder to think of ways to solve your problems or reduce your stress. The same is true of sleeping too much. Get the right amount of sleep, and coping with stress will be much easier.

Time Management Techniques

Doing a little time management can help your days run more smoothly. Make a list of tasks you need to do for the day, but don't be afraid to adapt the list to what happens as the day goes on. Focus on the activities that are most important to you. Avoid procrastination and limit the amount of multi-tasking you try to do.

How To Cope With Stress When It Happens

If you're already stressed, there are still several things you can do to minimize the harmful reactions to stress that can happen both in your body and mind. Here are some healthy coping skills for stress that you can use in the moment when it happens.

Relaxation Techniques

You can choose from a variety of relaxation techniques. One stress coping strategy is deep breathing. Another is meditation. You can also use video or audio recordings of guided imagery. One way to deal with stress on the spot is to do systematic muscle relaxation, tightening and relaxing each muscle group one at a time from foot to head.


Finding the humor in everyday life is a great way to relieve stress. As long as you use humor in kind ways, no one is hurt, you feel better, you may help others feel better, and you may make stronger social connections. You can also read a funny book or watch a comedy TV show or movie.


Think about what's causing your stress. Once you've identified a stressful problem, think of some steps you can take to deal with the issue. Then, follow through with action. What you do doesn't have to completely solve the problem or even make a major impact. Any small improvement can bring some relief and help you avoid feeling powerless in the situation.

Social Support

Getting social support when you're dealing with stress and coping with it better go hand in hand. Spend time with friends and family. Talk about your feelings and the problems that are causing you stress with a trusted friend or family member. Or just enjoy some easy-going companionship while doing things like taking a walk, playing a sport together, chatting about things that interest you, or playing a board game.

Talking To A Counselor

If you've tried all these ways of coping with stress and you're still feeling overwhelmed, a counselor can help you in several ways. They can teach you new stress-reduction skills and how to do relaxation techniques better. They can help you learn to think differently about your problems and your ability to solve or live with them.


Another benefit of talking to a therapist is that they can help you sort out what you can change and what you need to learn to accept. You can talk to a counselor for online therapy at BetterHelp or visit a counselor in your local community. Stress will probably always be a part of your life. When you learn how to cope with it better, you can look forward to many years of enjoyment and improved mental health.

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