How To Manage Stress and Emotions

How To Manage Stress and Emotions

Everyone deals with stressors in life, but each person responds to difficult situations differently. The way you manage life stressors is known as a coping mechanism.

There are two main types of coping mechanisms: adaptive and maladaptive. Generally, adaptive coping mechanisms tend to include healthier ways of coping, while maladaptive coping mechanisms are usually less healthy and sometimes self-destructive.

Coping mechanisms are a natural reaction to stressful situations. When stress occurs, your fight-or-flight system becomes activated, which causes you to feel on edge and alert. This response also releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

When stress is coursing through you, you can’t simply stay in a state of high stress because it would be extremely difficult to function in daily life. That’s why coping mechanisms are necessary.

Psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman first described coping mechanisms in 1984. They characterized them as cognitive and behavioral ways of managing external and internal threats to a person’s overall well-being. Many studies have found that coping mechanisms play an essential role in your life and are one of the key ways people deal with stress.

There are two main types of coping mechanisms: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive coping mechanisms are generally considered a healthier way to manage stress than maladaptive mechanisms.

Adaptive Coping Mechanisms

Adaptive coping mechanisms describe productive reactions to stress. In most cases, these coping mechanisms consistently lead to more positive outcomes. There are four types of adaptive coping mechanisms, including:

  • Problem-focused coping: Uses strategies like planning, problem-solving, eliminating harmful activities, and seeking support
  • Emotion-focused coping: Involves decreasing the negativity that stress can induce by accepting the stress, reframing the situation, engaging in spiritual or religious practice, and using humor to cope
  • Meaning-focused coping: Includes implementing strategies to help you find meaning in a stressful situation
  • Social coping: Refers to reducing stress by reaching out for community support

Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms

Maladaptive coping mechanisms refer to harmful or unhealthy ways of coping. These types of mechanisms tend to be associated with negative mental health outcomes. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are often how people initially act in stressful situations until they build more resilience and find healthier ways to manage stress.

There are a few types of maladaptive coping mechanisms, which may include:

  • Avoidant coping: Refers to coping mechanisms that use avoidant behaviors like substance use, violence, or self-harm
  • Disengagement: Uses strategies like withdrawing from a relationship or situation
  • Emotional suppression: Makes a conscious effort to put a disturbing feeling, thought, or event out of your mind by distracting yourself

Anytime you experience a stressor, it’s important to cope with it. Coping mechanisms can help you navigate challenges, but the outcomes depend on what type of coping style you’re using and the exact situation you’re experiencing. Consider the examples below.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs after someone witnesses or experiences a traumatic event, such as natural disasters, domestic violence, child abuse, war, and mass shootings. Symptoms can linger long after the event, which may include hypervigilance, nightmares, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, and anxiety.

There are many different ways that people cope with PTSD. Avoidance is one way that many people manage their symptoms. This might look like turning to alcohol or drugs to cope, working too much, and avoiding people or situations that are causing you stress.

Avoidant-focused coping mechanisms aren’t the only way to cope with PTSD symptoms. More adaptive coping mechanisms include:

  • Learning more about PTSD and trauma
  • Reaching out to others for support
  • Talking about your experiences and feelings
  • Engaging in relaxation methods like deep breathing, yoga, exercise, meditation, and journaling
  • Seeking care from a licensed mental health professional

COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique situation where everyone faced a stressful situation that we had little control over. However, not everyone coped with the pandemic in the same way. Various studies have examined how people managed their stressors, feelings, and experiences during the pandemic and which coping mechanisms helped. Here’s what they found:

  • A 2020 study showed that positive reframing, humor, and acceptance of the pandemic were associated with better mental health. Disengagement tactics and self-blame contributed to poorer emotional well-being.
  • A 2021 study examined the effect of various coping mechanisms among college students during the pandemic. They found that adaptive, emotion-focused coping worked best for decreasing mental health concerns.
  • A 2022 study looked at deaf students during the pandemic. The researchers found that students who used constructive (adaptive) coping mechanisms fared better emotionally than people who relied on destructive (maladaptive) coping mechanisms. Most importantly, the students who fared best were the ones who received family support for their mental health.

No one can remove stress completely from their life. However, you can develop healthy ways to cope. One way to do this is by building your resilience. Resilience refers to your ability to withstand difficult circumstances. It involves adapting to adversity, overcoming trauma, and coping with everyday stress in families, work, and relationships.

Resilience isn’t something you have or don’t have. You can cultivate resilience by intentionally managing and coping with your emotions and dealing with challenging situations. Here are some ideas for building up resilience in your life:

  • Prioritize meaningful relationships and connections with people who are loving, compassionate, trustworthy, and positive
  • Be active in your community, local civic organizations, or groups related to your hobbies or passions
  • Create a wellness plan for yourself, which may include eating a nutritious diet, engaging in physical activity regularly, practicing meditation, and prioritizing sleep
  • Avoid self-destructive activities like using drugs, drinking alcohol, or binge eating
  • Find meaning and purpose in life, whether that be through activities like creating art, community engagement, supporting a friend who is in crisis, or volunteering for an important cause
  • Practice positive coping skills like keeping things in perspective, learning to accept change and life uncertainties, and learning to grow from past mistakes

It can be very difficult to cope with stressful or traumatic situations. If you find that you are engaging in maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as acting out in anger, burying your feelings, avoiding situations or people, or turning to drugs, alcohol, or binge eating, it’s time to reach out for help.

A licensed mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist or psychologist) can help you understand why you are coping this way and offer techniques to manage your stress more positively.

Coping mechanisms refer to the different ways people manage stress during challenging situations. Adaptive coping mechanisms are generally considered healthier than maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Building resilience via seeking social support, putting situations into perspective, and practicing self-care can all help you improve your coping style and, ultimately, your well-being.

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