Written by Dr. Anneke Olthof
Mid-Winter can be a particularly stressful time – the holiday spending and eating has finally caught up with us, outside it is dark and cold, and we may be feeling some guilt for how quickly we broke our New Year’s resolutions. It is important to think about how we cope with stress during these times, and things that we can do to moderate the impact of stress.
What is Stress?
Stress can be thought of as any situation that threatens, or that we believe threatens, our state of harmony such that we must use our coping abilities. Experts have warned us that chronic exposure to stress can lead to physiological problems, such as decreased immune functioning and increase heart disease, and put us at a higher risk for developing psychological problems, such as anxiety or depression (link here for experts warning about stress: https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-symptoms-effects_of-stress-on-the-body).
How We Think About Stress
We’re so used to giving the stressful event full credit for the stress that we feel – we’re stressed because we have a big presentation the next day or because our child is sick or because our car broke down. But the stress felt from a given event varies enormously from person to person, and this alone proves that stress can’t just depend on the event itself. It isn’t just the broken-down car – it is what we think about having the broken-down car.
This shows us that a big part of how stressed we feel after an event depends on our appraisal of our ability to cope with the demands of the event. If we appraise our broken car to have demands that we can’t meet – we don’t have a phone to call a tow truck, we don’t have money to fix the car, we don’t know how to fix a car, and we don’t have any other means of transportation – then we will feel high stress. But if we appraise our same broken car as being an easy situation that we’ve handled countless times, we will feel much less stress.
After we appraise an event as stressful, our bodies prepare by activating two pathways: one pathway is for fight-or-flight and the other pathway ensures we have energy for the job.
The Stress Response
Our body’s stress response is an incredible result of evolutionary adaptation that benefited the ancient human by anticipating and dealing with dangers. But for the modern human, the stress response is being activated far too often – sitting in traffic, having a job interview, or giving a presentation. And having too much of our body’s well-designed physiological stress response will kill us – this is exactly why health experts today are harping on stress being bad for us.
What can we do about decreasing our physiological response to stress? Coping involves active efforts to decrease or tolerate the stressful event. When faced with stress, we have two main ways of coping: maladaptive and constructive.
Not Helpful Strategies
Maladaptive coping strategies may make us feel better in the short term, but usually increase our stress in the long term. For this reason, we would want to avoid these types of coping strategies, including:
- Self-indulgence – things like smoking, overeating and/or eating junk food, shopping, gambling, drinking, and so on
- Lashing out – cathartic expression of stress, usually aimed at an innocent victim
- Denial – ignoring the source of stress and carrying on like it doesn’t exist
- Learned helplessness – passively accepting the stressful situation without making any efforts to cope
Constructive coping includes healthy efforts to deal with the stressful event. These could involve:
- Confronting the problem directly – if you have a problem with your neighbour, go and talk to your neighbour about it
- Performing a realistic appraisal of the event and your abilities – making an error here can increase stress, particularly if you find yourself under-prepared because you believed your abilities would exceed the demands of the event and then you later learn that they don’t
- Regulating your emotional response to the event – people with high emotional intelligence excel here, and there are many ways to do this: reinterpret the event as less stressful, control your emotional display of stress, replace negative emotions with more positive ones through breathing, meditation, singing, imagery, and so on
- Reinterpreting your physiological stress response – research has shown that we show a healthy physiological response to stress if we interpret our body’s reaction as a response that is preparing us to meet the challenge
- Ted Talk by Kelly McGonigal – How to make stress your friend: https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend)
The Power to Choose
The important message is that we have some flexibility in the stress we feel. We all have the power to choose whether we label an event as ‘stressful’, how strongly we believe in our ability to cope, how we respond to an event on an emotional level, and how we interpret our physiological response to the event.
Comer, Ogden, Boyes, & Gould (2018). Psychology around us (3rd Canadian edition). Toronto, ON: Wiley