Coping with Stress: What to Do When Life Seems Overwhelming

Updated April 26, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

No one can avoid stress completely, and in fact, you might have trouble achieving your daily tasks and life goals without some element of stress. 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 might be more beneficial than others. Here are some examples of both unhealthy and healthy ways people can deal with the stress in their lives.

Is Stress Becoming Too Much To Handle?

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 might help to recognize unhealthy coping strategies that can do more harm than good.

Escaping Into The Digital World

People might avoid uncomfortable feelings that can come from stress through videos, social media, or video games. This is not to say that it's unhealthy to ever watch videos, but it’s all about balance. Too much time spent on activities like social media can negatively impact your mental health.

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 can 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 might overeat when they're stressed. Many people might eat fatty or sugary foods that can provide some kind temporary pleasure, which they may feel is lacking in their lives. But behavior like this can lead to weight gain and may even cause illness. This also might help someone avoid the problem for a brief while, but it does little to address the issue head on.


When life seems overwhelming, many people might want to climb into bed and stay for as long as they can. They may go to bed early 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 can also keep you from doing the things you may need to do. Extended bed-time can even be physically harmful, potentially increasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

Overindulging In Alcohol

People might 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 drinking during trying times. But consuming too much alcohol is not only unhealthy, but it also may turn into an addiction if you are using it to escape from reality.

Smoking Too Much

Many people might start smoking or increase their smoking when they're in a stressful situation. Smoking can give you a momentary feeling of relaxation. After a while, though, anxiety and tension increase. At the same time, you can be putting your health at a serious 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 may increase, especially if you do so without also giving your body healthy and nutritious foods to use as fuel. In addition, excessive caffeine can cause insomnia, nausea, increased breathing and heart rates, headaches, and irregular heartbeats.

Violent Outbursts

To say that reacting to stress with violence is a coping mechanism might seem a bit farfetched. Yet, many people might take their frustrations out on others, perhaps 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 might 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 can 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 harmful. They don't only have the potential to damage your physical and mental health but they may also land you in jail or with fines.

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.

Is Stress Becoming Too Much To Handle?


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 can 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 can work even better.

Healthy Eating

Eating healthy foods in reasonable amounts can keep your body healthy and your mind clear. While too much heavy or carbohydrate-rich foods can make you sleepy, foods with lots of vitamins and minerals like vegetables, fruits, proteins, and small amounts of healthy fats can 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 might not work as quickly when you’re tired, so it can become harder to think of ways to solve your problems or reduce your stress. The same can be true of sleeping too much. Get the right amount of sleep and coping with stress can become 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 can be 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 can be a great way to relieve stress. As long as you use humor in kind ways, you might 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 to start laughing a bit.


Think about what could be 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. And if there is nothing you can do about the situation, then try to let it go.

Social Support

Getting social support when you're dealing with stress can help you cope with it better. Spend time with friends and family. Or just enjoy some easy-going companionship while doing things like taking a walk, playing a sport together, going grocery shopping, 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 still don't know what to do when you're 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 might need to learn to accept. You can talk to a counselor for online therapy at BetterHelp or visit a counselor in your local community. However, consider that online therapy is not only more convenient and accessible than traditional therapy, but it is also more affordable. And if you’re worried about efficacy, it may comfort you to learn that various medical studies have successfully proven that online therapy is just as effective, and sometimes even more effective, than traditional therapy in treating the symptoms of anxiety and depression.


Stress is almost certainly going to be a part of your life, so if you cope with it, the effects can be wide reaching and astounding. The important part will be learning to differentiate between negative and positive coping methods for the best results.

When you learn how to cope with stress better, you can look forward to many years of enjoyment and improved mental health.

Here are some frequently asked questions about the topic:

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