April 20, 2014
   
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Stressed Out, Part II: Managing Stress
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Stressed Out, Part II: Managing Stress

 

If you read the first article in our Stress series, Stressed Out: The Behavior and Biology of Stress, you may have become more intimately acquainted with the biological processes behind stress than you ever imagined! Many of us can identify with the feelings associated with stress and anxiety, particularly in this age of multi-tasking, economic downturn, and increasingly present technology (which is not in and of itself a bad thing, but it does make it difficult to put the work day to rest after getting home at night). While it’s valuable – and, in many ways, necessary – to understand the biological underpinnings of stress, and how our bodies react to and are affected by stress, there is one burning question that remains: “How do I cope with it?”

People vary widely in the ways in which they respond to stressful circumstances – in other words, how they cope with stress.

When we are bombarded with a constant stream of stressful situations — from financial worries to the stresses of new parenthood, to long-term health issues — we may react to these situations in various ways. Some events are obviously more stressful than others, but some days even small things – like the daily commute to work or school – can set us over the edge. As mentioned in the first part of the series, the stress response has both behavioral and biological components: not only do we feel stress mentally (and as many of us know, it’s not a pleasant sensation), but there is also a purely physical part to it, which can leave us feeling run-down, tired, and a victim of many of the health issues described earlier (like heart, weight, and sexual problems).

People vary widely in the ways in which they respond to stressful circumstances – in other words, how they cope with stress. This installment will discuss the different aspects of the coping process and the various ways in which people cope, as well as outline some of the more effective methods for dealing with stress – methods that have been shown to be effective both throughout millennia of tradition and in the current research. These methods include exercise, meditation, yoga, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Coping Styles

When we encounter a stressful situation in life, whether it’s a traffic jam or being fired from a job, we are bound to have some thoughts about it. And we are likely to react in some way. How people deal with stress varies a lot from person to person, as you may have noticed from observing your friends and family (and yourself) in action. Some people seem to take stressful situations in stride, tackling them head-on and appearing more or less unruffled. In contrast, others may react to a stressful event by shutting down, feeling powerless, or avoiding the situation altogether.

How You Think About Stress Matters
The coping response is actually a two-part process: the first involves our appraisal of the situation at hand (our initial reaction) and the second part is how we cope with it (what actions we take to respond to it).(1) People who appraise situations positively or neutrally ("No problem; I can handle this.") tend to be less stressed out about them and react more productively. Those whose first thoughts are negative, however ("Oh no! How am I going to handle this? I'll never get it all done!"), the coping response will be stress-induced, and, most likely, it will be less appropriate and less productive as a result.

Some people seem to take stressful situations in stride, tackling them head-on and appearing more or less unruffled. In contrast, others may react to a stressful event by shutting down, feeling powerless, or avoiding the situation altogether.

Take, for instance, a person being let go from his or her job. This is clearly a stressful situation and likely to make anyone feel low. Even so, there are a many different ways to appraise and then cope with the situation, and the example below outlines just two of the possible methods. Person A might have the initial reaction, “being let go is not a reflection on me, it’s just a fallout of these rotten economic times.” He or she might then respond by beginning a full-fledged job search after taking a few days off to enjoy their freedom. This person’s appraisal and coping methods are both positive, and ultimately lead to a productive action plan. Person B, on the other hand, might have a very different reaction and response process: he might think to himself something along the lines of, “I was fired because I wasn’t good at my job. I think it is really that they didn't like me. Now no one will hire me.” These negative emotions actually add fuel to the stress response, and therefore affect the coping process negatively, making it difficult to write a compelling resume or cover letter. Feeling inadequate or powerless in the situation, this person might respond to the challenge by avoiding action (a job search), rather than embracing it.

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