I write this as we near the one-year mark of the COVID global pandemic in the United States. By most accounts, stress levels seem to be through the roof. What can we do?
A recent January 2021 snapshot from the APA Stress in America survey provides a glimpse into our national stress levels. When 2,076 people in the U.S. were asked to rate their stress level on a scale from 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), 44% rated their stress in the 4-7 range and 28% rated their stress in the 8-10 range. Respondents were also asked about stressors such as the future of our nation, the coronavirus pandemic, political unrest around the nation, the current political climate, and the breach of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Even seeing some of the stressors included in the survey itself felt stark and bleak.
What Is Stress?
I always feel a little sheepish defining stress because, if you are reading this, you likely already know: you are stressed. Here I am, preaching to the choir. If it helps to hear a scientific perspective, one definition of stress is that it's the subjective experience that arises when our stressors exceed our coping resources (Hooley, Nock, & Butcher 2020).
Some manageable level of stress will always be present in our lives by way of the fact that we are mortal humans living in an inherently fallible world. Accepting this as reality may help us ride out the ebbs and flows of life in an even-keeled way.
Some stress might even be welcome. Known as "eustress," this type of stress may arise due to a happy event in life, such as wedding planning, getting a promotion, or having a child. The more unwelcome type of stress, sometimes termed "distress," is the type of stress we all dread. This type of stress can take many unhappy forms, and you likely don't need me to tell you this! Examples would include work demands, family caregiving responsibilities, an ever-expanding email inbox, financial strain, health issues, and so many more.
Thankfully, it's often the case that we can find ways of navigating everyday stressors and coping with them head-on. The purpose of this post is to equip you in doing just that. However, if stress is ongoing and reaches toxic levels in our life, we run the risk of suffering from a much more nefarious type of stress: chronic stress. This can have lasting negative repercussions for our physical health, mental health, and relationships.
If you'd like to learn more about the connection between stress and our physical health, check out these videos:
Responding to Stress
Part of the good news about stress is that we have the capacity to respond to it, regardless of the timing, nature, number, or chronicity of stressors that come our way. This was one of the key conclusions that psychiatrist Viktor Frankl came to when he lived through Nazi death camps—we always have the capacity to choose, to cope, and to find meaning in our experience here as humans.
Although "stress management" is a popular phrase, and I highly value the skills this phrase implies, I would reframe this a bit to say that it's not so much that we mange stress—it's that we manage ourselves and our response to stress.
If stress is the subjective experience of our stressors exceeding our coping resources, then we can try to 1) decrease our stressors and/or 2) increase our coping resources. Let's take a look at both of these dimensions. I don't mean to suggest that these are magical fixes for anyone but am instead floating some potential ideas your way.
The following sections of this post are more like a menu rather than a recipe. Don't look at this as a to-do list but instead as options you can try. Pick one or two to experiment with.
Decreasing Our Stressors
You might be thinking, "Decrease my stressors? That's like trying to shrink an elephant in the dryer." You might be right. I would challenge you, however, to really take a close look at all the stressors on your plate. Are there any that you can control or even have a small measure of control over? If there are pieces that you can control, then problem-focused coping may help decrease these controllable aspects of those stressors to some degree.
Here are 68 coping skills to try for anxiety or depression today
Consider every stressor in your path and write them down, draw them out, put them all somewhere external to you so you can look at them. Reflect on the controllability of each stressor – what aspects could you control related to each one (if anything)? Pay special attention to any areas where you could respond differently than you have been. This isn't about laying blame or feeling bad—it's about empowerment.
Some people benefit from developing systems that give them a personal sense of control and organization, almost like a dashboard. Personally I have three main systems—a project list, a task list, and a calendar. Everything gets written down within those systems. The project list is an ongoing list of projects and their respective step-by-step pieces. When I need to tackle an upcoming piece, that gets added to the task list. That task list also has other everyday tasks that cross my path. The calendar is where events go, and it's also where I block off time to complete tasks. I sit down once a week for a weekly review of these systems and tentatively plan the upcoming week. This is certainly not everyone's style but has worked well for me. What systems might work well for you?
Speaking of the calendar, some of us benefit from time-blocking. Do you have an overwhelming, never-ending influx of emails, phone calls, paperwork, readings, assignments, etc.? Estimate how much time you realistically need to spend on that influx per week. Block off those hours in your week, maybe spacing them across different days. Then try to only tackle the influx during those planned hours. If you don't get to all of it, have the patience to step away and come back to it during the next planned block. Readjust the allotted time from week to week, if needed.
Look at the stressors on your plate, perhaps looking specifically at upcoming projects, tasks, events, or roles, if that's more helpful. What is more urgent and needs priority? What is upcoming but not urgent? What is for someday in the future but not upcoming? It may help to use an app such as Any.Do that provides you these categories to sort tasks and prioritize. Maybe try to focus on three main things per day. If that's too much, pick two or one instead.
Once you can see all your commitments in one place, consider which of these is subject to revision. Are there any ongoing, rolling commitments that are no longer a good fit for your values and personal mission? If so, it might be time to consider excusing yourself from those. Are there any commitments that could be negotiated so that you have a less burdensome role or less frequent involvement? For example, maybe there is a team you can continue to be involved with but on a less burdensome or less frequent basis.
We all have many demands on our time, and no one really knows anyone else's situation. In most cases, the only person who can see your stuff and make decisions about it is… you. When you consider what's on your plate and a new request or opportunity comes in, include a gracious no as one of many possible responses at your fingertips. It's also okay to ask for time to think about it and then respond later with a gracious no email after carefully considering your other commitments. Sometimes when people have said no to a request I made, I actually appreciated how they modeled saying no. I felt empowered by their example.
Really listen carefully to your language and your thinking patterns. Be on the lookout for any rigid black-and-white assumptions about your roles or commitments. Even the most committed folks need a temporary break sometimes. In fact, you might be in a role where others would appreciate your modeling of rest.
If you are overwhelmed by what's on your plate, is there anyone you can ask for help? If part of your stress is a skills gap, maybe you can reach out to a mentor or other wise owl who can give you some pointers. If you're a parent, maybe there is a creative and safe way to share childcare duties with someone or even just create a moment of respite to catch your breath. If you've been holding on to roles or responsibilities that can be delegated to others, then maybe it's time to let go a bit and do some delegation when appropriate. People might even feel honored that you asked.
Avoidance is not our friend. Be brutally honest with yourself here: are you avoiding something inevitable such as a difficult conversation, a school assignment, a work project, a flurry of texts, etc.? Avoidance will typically feed our stress and anxiety, so if you can find even a bite-sized way to begin chipping away at what you're avoiding, that can help you take first steps toward staring down this stressor. Sometimes you might even find that your expectations were worse than the reality of that avoided thing!
Increasing Our Coping Resources
If stress is when our stressors exceed our coping resources, we can also try increasing our coping capacity. This sometimes involves emotion-focused coping—changing our attitudes and actions to change how we feel in the face of stress. This is especially helpful when dealing with stressors that are not so controllable. Remember the intention here is empowerment and equipping, not making yourself feel bad or giving yourself a burdensome self-care to-do list. These are ideas to experiment with as part of a lifestyle.
Each of us has different preferences in terms of how much our week is planned out versus spontaneous, but find the mix that works for you. Consider if there are a few or many pieces of your week that you'd like to have as a flexible routine. This predictability can do a brain and body good, especially in more stressful seasons. Especially consider elements such as sleep, exercise, hydration, and nutrition.
We can always choose which thoughts we entertain. We can also close the door on some thoughts, invite other thoughts in, and kick others out of the house entirely! We all need this housekeeping habit for our minds. Although I could probably write an entire blog post about this, I'll give one example related to the current COVID pandemic. One person may tell themselves, "The world is ending" whereas another person may tell themselves, "This too shall pass." You can see how these two different thoughts could lead to profoundly different feelings and corresponding actions.
Perfectionism is not our friend. Given your personal bandwidth, limitations, energy, time, and resources—what is realistic in this season of your life? This applies across our various roles but it also applies with specific stressors. If you're stressing about an upcoming presentation, it's more realistic to think "I can practice beforehand, take some deep breaths, then show up, relax, and be myself" rather than "I need to include every resource under the sun in this presentation and blow them out of the water" or "I'm going to bomb, big-time."
Having an attitude of gratitude might sound cheesy, but if gratitude was a cheese it sure would be a life-changing and powerful one! Gratitude involves mindfully expressing thanks. It can revolve around big or small things. Pause to notice what you're grateful for, maybe even writing them down. Be careful to temper gratitude with honesty so as not to invalidate your own difficult experiences or those of others. We can be grateful and honest at the same time.
We all have deeper values that keep us anchored in life, whether we're aware of them or not. If you dig deep and really get life-and-death existential with yourself—what gives your life meaning and purpose? When you're on your deathbed, what might mean the most to you? Pro tip: it's not usually money, a house, a car, possessions, status, prestige, or the opinions of other people that give our lives true meaning and purpose. If you can identify your deepest values, meaning, and purpose, these can anchor you through storms of stress.
If one of your circumstances involves some unique stressors that other people may not understand—for example, being a working mom, a stay-at-home dad, a healthcare professional, a mental health professional, a first responder, a person with a rare health condition—consider reaching out to communities of people in your same boat. Even hearing that other people are experiencing what you're experiencing can be a validating breath of fresh air. It helps to know we're not alone.
Whether it's baking, pottery, muay thai, or music, find an activity that takes your mind off things. Some people even find that their outlet brings them into that zone of "flow" where they have a sense of timelessness, transcendence, and inspiration.
My view is that our body, soul, and spirit are inextricably interconnected. If you can get your body physically moving in a way that is positive for you, that will inherently lead to benefits in your soul and spirit. Research bears this out—physical activity can have positive mood-boosting effects. Try a 5-minute or 10-minute walk; pay attention to your mood before and after. Keep in mind there are also adaptive forms of movement for folks with physical disabilities. What forms of physical activity might be a good fit for you?
Very related, but more of a lifestyle approach—try adding exercise to your week in some regular interval. Start small if you need to, then gradually increase bit by bit if that's motivating for you. If not, keep it small and simple! Find something you can enjoy and do regularly. Check out some apps or YouTube channels for inspiration or guidance. If you start getting bored or unmotivated over time, mix it up a bit.
If possible, given your circumstances and geographic location, spend some time in the great outdoors. There is some research to suggest that spending time in nature—especially when that time is at least two hours per week—can positively affect our physical and mental health. Your version might be reading on your small patio or walking in a nearby park. The more immersive, the better. If nature isn't nearby or accessible for you, consider changing your desktop wallpaper, getting some houseplants, or even watching nature TV shows.
This is the most commonly cited way to respond to stress. I want to honor that each of us finds different things relaxing, so… you do you. Find what relaxes you and enjoy it. That could be deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, AMSR, bike-riding, meditation, taking a warm bath. There are many apps and YouTube videos related to relaxation you can check out. Regardless of what you try, notice what calms down your nervous system (usually indicated by heart rate) and releases muscle tension.
Distraction can be helpful in small doses, usually when our stress rises into the high registers of 8-10 on a scale of 10. The most usual suspects in terms of distraction these days are Netflix, YouTube, and other streaming services. I don't demonize these because I do think we sometimes need a healthy distraction for a time. Just be careful that distraction doesn't become a pattern over time of escape and numbing out. Healthy distraction helps us be more human not more zombie-like.
Stress is stressful. Coping is helpful. This much is true. There is a bigger picture here that needs to be acknowledged, however, which is that systems exist in our society that place people in pressurized situations. Parents are stressed when we don't have systems of support in place for them at a broad policy level. Teachers are stressed when we systemically ask the impossible of them and then point the finger of blame at them. Health care professionals are stressed when they're not adequately resourced or they suffer the consequences of our collective lack of wisdom in the realm of public health choices. People of color and/or people with lower levels of privilege/opportunity are stressed when they suffer at the violent, thieving hands of unjust systems from generation to generation.
I remember reading a book in graduate school about trauma and evil that used this metaphor: if you were standing by a stream and saw all these diseased or dead fish floating by, wouldn't you be curious to look upstream and see what is causing this? Sorry for the crude metaphor, but it carries a powerful message. Looking upstream involves taking a deeper look at the societal structures that pressurize people. Coping is helpful, but sometimes we also need to acknowledge that "coping" can feel like asking people to bear up better under unjust systems. I won't pretend to offer pat answers for systemic problems of this magnitude, but I do want to acknowledge the reality that sometimes coping means graciously suffering through earthly injustice. Hopefully over time we can collectively contribute to tectonic shifts in our society that relieve pressure off people's backs.
In the meantime, know that you are not alone in feeling stressed and others of us are with you through the waters of this time.
Here are 68 coping skills to try for anxiety or depression today
Dr. Parke is a licensed clinical psychologist located in southern California. She is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Vanguard University, and she also provides therapy to children, teenagers, and college-aged young adults in her private practice.
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