Stress is not something that has to happen to you. Two individuals can go through the same situation – job loss, long working hours, illness or bereavement, for example – yet report very different levels of stress.
In the late 1990s, the University of Miami’s Charles Carver looked at the effectiveness of particular behaviours and coping strategies at dealing with stress. For example, denial of issues is not uncommon but tends to bring further anguish. People who agreed with statements such as ‘I’ve been saying to myself this isn’t real’ and ‘I’ve been refusing to believe it has happened’ tended to report higher levels of distress.
Sometimes people engage in behavioural disengagement, which is measured by agreement with statements such as ‘I’ve been giving up trying to deal with it’. Another ineffective strategy is self-blame: people wasting energy on criticising themselves for the situation or wishing they could have done things differently. Self-blame is ineffective because it is clearly not possible to change what has already happened. Likewise, substance abuse – alcohol, medication or illicit drugs – is rarely helpful in the long run. It is better to deal with the root cause of the stress or to minimise the ensuing distress.
In terms of dealing directly with the cause of a problem, three strategies have been linked to reduced stress. One involves taking action to improve the situation. A second involves planning – taking time to think ahead about steps to take. These two strategies are related but not the same: it is possible to act on impulse, and it is also possible to make a plan but fail to follow through.
A third strategy involves getting advice or assistance. Sometimes, stressed individuals feel ashamed and withdraw from others, but research suggests that seeking guidance from colleagues, friends and professional advisers may be more beneficial.
Coping with stress effectively requires both problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies. For example, people coping with situations such as unexpected job loss or illness often find comfort in humour – making jokes about the situation – while others turn to religion, spiritual beliefs or meditation.
Self-distraction is another coping strategy – using TV, reading, daydreaming or shopping, for instance. Taking the mind off difficulties in this way may work when people have invested properly in problem-focused strategies such as taking action and making plans. In cases of overwork, for example, it can be unproductive to put in yet more hours at the office, and switching off by doing something different at least for a while may be a better idea. In other situations, people misuse self-distraction – going shopping or watching TV rather than tackling the issues causing them stress.
One of the most effective emotion-focused strategies is positive reframing. People who agree with statements such as ‘I’ve been trying to see it in a different light, to make it seem more positive’ and ‘I’ve been looking for something good in what is happening’ tend to experience better psychological well-being. Positive reframing involves deliberately seeking out the benefits of a situation – for example, being fired is an opportunity to look for more satisfying work, or illness is a chance to re-evaluate values and priorities in life.
University of Kent researchers Joachim Stoeber and Dirk Janssen found that positive reframing was of particular use for people with perfectionist tendencies and unrealistic standards for themselves. Seeking the positives in a situation takes mental effort but may help to reduce levels of stress.
Another effective emotion-focused strategy is to seek emotional support. This is about seeking comfort and understanding rather than advice. Colleagues and business acquaintances may provide practical assistance when it comes to finding a new job or handling difficult circumstances at work, but friends and loved ones may be better at listening and compassion.
Stress does not have to be passively endured. It can often be assuaged by a combination of tackling the problematic situation and using the right emotion-focused coping strategies.
Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace