Taking Stock Of Your Stress: Coping Toolkit

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Dr Ottilia Brown

Taking Stock Of Your Stress: Coping Toolkit

Posted 22 Jul 2018

Mind & Body Health

Dr. Ottilia Brown

Taking Stock Of Your Stress: Coping Toolkit

Stress is a term we are all too familiar with and one which we bandy about quite often. This quarter my blogs will focus on coping with stress. Often when we think about coping, we think about specific strategies like talking to friends or going to the gym. Although this is not off the mark, coping encompasses more than just this list of strategies. Human beings often underestimate the active role their own thinking plays in the coping process.

Let’s start with the basics. Coping can be defined as thoughts and actions that are used to manage challenges that we view as demanding of or exceeding our available resources. The operative word in this definition is ‘view’. Our perception of a challenge or stressor is what causes the experience of stress. As William Shakespeare once said, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. Hence it would be helpful to unpack the ‘thoughts’ content of your coping toolkit.

A simple self-reflective exercise can help with ordering this unpacking.

Reflect on the last time you experienced a major stressor or accumulation of stressors and start unpacking what your thought responses were in relation to the stressor. Sometimes it may be difficult to remember the thoughts, but the emotional responses that are triggered by the thoughts are often easier to recall. Be honest with yourself.

You can extend the exercise and think of a few occasions when you experienced stress to establish whether there tends to be general patterns to your cognitive and emotional responses to stress. For example, do you typically feel overwhelmed and do you generally think, ‘this is just too much, there is no way I am going get through this’ or ‘I am never going to manage’ or do you tell yourself, ‘this is awful, but I am going to take a step back and think about this carefully before freaking out’ or ‘I cannot believe this is happening to me, but I have done this before and I know I will get through this again’? If you are finding this activity challenging, it may be helpful to do this reflection the next time you experience stress.

The powerful role of thinking in the coping process is reflected in each of its 3 appraisal stages:

  1. Primary appraisal entails evaluating the meaning of the event. We typically ask ourselves, ‘How important is this to me? Is this harmful? Am I going to lose something? Is this an opportunity to learn something?’
  2. Secondary appraisal sets in when the event is appraised as worth engaging in or unavoidable. During this stage you will be evaluating your ability to meet the demands of the stressor.
  3. Tertiary appraisal is the process by which the coping response itself is constantly being re-evaluated. Sometimes we neglect this part of the coping process and we get stuck in using the same coping response which may lead to further struggles with stress when the approach is not working. It is important to check in and ask ourselves, ‘Is my coping strategy working? What else can I be doing to manage this better’?

Our thinking, which typically takes the form of self-talk, kicks in right from the point of evaluating the meaning of the event, through to the assessment of available resources, and re-evaluation of the chosen approach. What you say to yourself during stressful times is incredibly powerful. I am not suggesting that you feed yourself over-optimistic half-truths that facilitate denial of the reality of the challenging event. However, having overwhelmingly negative thoughts about the event can intensify a negative emotional response and can adversely affect your ability to cope with the event. In short, interpretation matters because thoughts cause feelings. Unhelpful self-talk can take on many forms. Here are some examples to help you recognise whether you are engaging in negative self-talk and to identify which forms your negative self-talk typically take:

  • Overgeneralising – generalising from a single event or piece of information to most or all similar events: ‘My boss was so grumpy with me this morning, see I knew people just don’t like me’.
  • Catastrophising – always expecting that the worst will happen: ‘I am so nervous to do this presentation because I know that I am probably going to forget what I want to say and the whole thing will be a disaster’.
  • Blaming – attributing responsibility to someone else even when you should be taking responsibility: ‘I really messed up in that presentation because Jill insisted on visiting me when I was preparing the night before’.
  • Polarising – this is also known as black and white thinking, no grey exists: ‘If I don’t get full marks on my test tomorrow, I will know that I am not cut out to be an engineer’.
  • Magnifying/over-exaggerating – blowing things out of proportion: ‘Failing this exam is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, I am useless’.
  • Personalising – attributing others’ behaviour and feelings to the self: ‘Jill didn’t greet me this morning when I walked into the office. I must have done something to upset her’.

The good news is that you can control your interpretations:

  1. Create awareness of your unhelpful self-talk. Remember the exercise you did earlier to evaluate your typical cognitive and emotional responses to stressors? Do you recognise any of the unhelpful self-talk listed above in your own approach to dealing with stress?
  2. Engage in reality testing. Check your facts and ask yourself what is the evidence for and against your thinking? Check whether you are automatically jumping to negative conclusions without having all the facts available or because this is your default way of interpreting potential stressors.
  3. Actively seek out alternative explanations and challenge your thinking process. Ask yourself if there are any other ways that you could be viewing the stressor?
  4. Put the stressor into perspective. Once you have your facts straight and you have your alternatives in place, further challenge your self-talk by asking yourself what the worst and best-case scenario could be as well as what is most likely to happen.
  5. Get into a problem-solving mindset and focus on what you can do to manage the stressor. Challenge yourself to learn something from being in the stressful situation that can enhance your coping for the next time stress crosses your path.
  6. Adopt a coper view of yourself and develop self-statements that affirm this view. Challenge yourself to set this view as your default and to resign from the automatic negative self-talk that you may have identified in yourself. My favourite coping self-statement is: ‘You have done this before, you can do it again’. When I am faced with something unfamiliar I tend to tell myself that, ‘I don’t know what to do but I know I am going to figure this out.’

Wishing you well as you start your stock take. Stock takes are not often enjoyable but always worthwhile in the end. They usually lead to throwing out what is not needed and making space for the new!

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3 people have commented this blog.

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Chris says:

4 months 1 day ago
Great read!
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

4 months 1 day ago
Thank you Chris!
Jumeirah Jane

Jumeirah Jane says:

4 months 6 days ago
Yes, appreciate your detailed response-thankyou. JJ
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

4 months 5 days ago
You are welcome JJ!
Jumeirah Jane

Jumeirah Jane says:

4 months 1 week ago
Wonderful information, thank you. I've always been curious as to whether people such as yourself who are trained to help others suffering from mental and emotional conditions, whether you also have to put your own advice into practice when going on the inevitable human journey which includes dealing with such challenges and stress and anxiety and maybe also depression. It can't be easy listening to everyone's problems 40 hours a week without it affecting your own life in some way? Interested JJ
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

4 months 1 week ago
Dear JJ thank you for your positive feedback. Regarding your query, it tends to come down to the proverbial practice what you preach. Congruence is a very important part of being an effective therapist. For me this not only means being congruent with a client in the therapy session by ensuring genuineness in the interaction, but it also means not asking a client to challenge themselves in ways that I am not willing to challenge myself. We are also trained to prevent burnout and self-care is a very important part of ensuring that we maintain our efficacy. Most training programs encourage psychologists to enter a therapy process during training and to maintain this practice from time to time throughout life. We also consult with supervisors regardless of how experienced we may be to ensure ethical and sound practice and effective self-management. I hope this answers your question. Wishing you well, Ottilia

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