4 proven ways to manage stress

Stress affects people in different ways but most people react:

  1. Physically (e.g., sweating, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, dizziness, low blood sugar level, tiredness, headaches, pain)
  2. Psychologically (e.g., depression, anxiety, anger, low tolerance threshold)
  3. Behaviourally? (e.g., avoidance, irritability, insomnia, oversleeping, helplessness, lack of focus, workaholism, burnout)

Early models viewed stress as a physiological response – fight or flight Canon 1929 which prepares to attack or flee. Danger passes – the flight or fight responses subside. However, when stressors are longer-lasting e.g., long term unemployment, ongoing problems at work or in a relationship, these responses are only the beginning of a longer sequence of bodily reactions. 

Not all stressors have to have a negative effect, a little stress can spur the body/mind into action e.g., if we have an exam we haven’t prepared for. We may not be motivated until the date approaches to revising for it, and this starts the body’s stress reaction to motivate us into action. People can also experience a long-term stressor e.g., being in a job or a relationship they don’t enjoy, but if there are factors in place that mediate the effects of stress, things can continue to stay this way over the long term without too many noticeable detrimental effects.

There are several mediating factors, at play here that influence the impact of a stressor on a person’s health. These factors, including predictability, control, social support and coping skills, may have positive or negative effects on how a person reacts in the face of a stressor. 

Predictability

Predictable stressors often have less impact than those that are unpredictable, especially when the stressors are intense and occur for relatively short periods (Abbott, Schoen & Badia, 1984).

People seem to be less shocked by stressors when they know they are about to happen. In one study, men and women whose spouses died suddenly displayed more immediate disbelief, anxiety, and depression, than those who had weeks or months to prepare for the loss (Parkes & Brown 1972).

Control

Stressors usually have less impact if people can exert control over them (Rodin, 1986). In one experiment, Maths’s students working on a problem showed far less physiological arousal and psychological distress if they could control the rate at which the problems appeared on the computer screen than if problems appeared on a fixed, uncontrollable schedule (Bandura et al., 1988).

Simply believing a stressor is controllable, whether or not this is true, can also reduce its impact. For example, in one study some participants were told that the duration of the shock they were about to receive could be reduced from 6 to 3 seconds if they responded quickly enough to a warning light (Geer, Davison & Gatchel, 1970). Other participants received no instruction. In fact, everyone received 3-second shocks regardless of what they did, but those who thought they had more control gave milder physiological responses than the others. Other studies have found that people who feel in control of events experience those events as less negative and stressful and are less prone to psychological and physical disorders than those who feel less in control (Rhodewalt & Zone, 1989). 

Social support

The quality of social support may influence a person’s ability to cope with stress and the relationship may work the other way around – people’s ability to cope may determine the quality of social support they receive. For example, people who complain endlessly about stressors but seldom do anything about them may discourage social support. Further, having too much support or support of the wrong kind can be as bad as not having enough. When friends or family overprotect a person, he or she may put less energy into coping efforts. Overly protective family support has been associated with increased disability and a tendency not to return to work after an accident or illness (Wortman, 1984). Further, if the efforts of a social support network become annoying, disruptive, or interfering, they may increase stress and intensify psychological problems (Pagel, Erdley & Becker, 1987).

Coping skills

People who are better equipped to cope with stress tend to suffer fewer ill effects (Aldwin & Ravenson, 1987). Lazarus (1999) described two different ways of coping: Emotion-focused and Problem-focused.

Emotion-focused coping is aimed at controlling the emotional response to a stressful situation. People can regulate their emotional responses using behavioural and cognitive approaches. Behavioural approaches include using alcohol or drugs, seeking emotional support from others and engaging in activities. Cognitive approaches involve how people think about the stressful situation e.g. thinking about stressors as challenges rather than threats, redefining a stressful situation to make it more positive e.g. noting that things could be worse, making comparisons with others who are less well off or seeing something good growing out of the problem. Other emotion-focused strategies include defence mechanisms.

People tend to use emotion-focused coping when they believe they can do little to change the stressful situation (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For example, when a loved one dies, people often seek emotional support and distract themselves with funeral arrangements and chores at home or at work. Coping methods that focus on emotions are important because they sometimes get in the way of the person seeking medical treatment or involve un-healthful behaviours such as smoking and misusing substances to reduce tension.

Problem-focused coping is aimed at reducing the demands of the stressful situation or expanding the resources to manage it. People tend to use problem-focused strategies when they believe their resources or the demands of the situation are changeable (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For example, people may leave a stressful job, negotiate an extension with bill repayments, choose a different career to pursue, seek treatment, or learn new skills. People engaging in problem-focused behaviours are therefore trying to eliminate or alter a source of stress by seeking help or planning strategies (Lazarus, 1999).

 How do you cope with stress?

Are your mediating factors helping or hindering your ability to manage stress well? How could you change them to feel healthier and more in control of your work and life?

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