Practical Cognitive Strategies For Coping with Stress
Stress management is a learned behavior, and it’s never too late to learn. Often, stress can be effectively managed through a series of small steps that gradually change unhealthy stress reactions and enhance our long-term emotional resilience.
To understand stress management, you first must understand how the mind evaluates stressors and chooses a coping path…
Getting Two Appraisals
When we’re confronted by a stressor that threatens our stability or well-being, we immediately perform — either deliberately or unconsciously — a cognitive appraisal of the situation to determine whether we can manage the stressor or whether it’s beyond our coping resources. That appraisal will determine whether we experience the stressor as eustress (positive stress that we perceive to be within our coping ability) or distress (negative stress that we perceive to fall outside our coping ability). This appraisal happens on two levels — primary appraisal and secondary appraisal.
In the primary appraisal, we evaluate whether we have anything at stake; i.e., whether the stressor will impact us.
Stressors that we perceive to be important or relevant to us are more likely to trigger negative stress reactions than those we don’t see as important.
In the secondary appraisal, we assess our options for managing the situation and evaluate whether we have the necessary coping resources to rise to the challenge.
For example, whether we have enough energy, money, tools or other needed resources; whether we’re healthy enough and fit enough; and whether we have people who will support us if necessary. The secondary appraisal includes our thoughts and beliefs (self-talk), an evaluation of the stressor’s specific characteristics (for example, how taxing this new demand will be on us and how long it will last), and our self-concept or assessment of our own ability to deal with it.
If we believe that we have the necessary coping resources, the stressor won’t overwhelm us and will be experienced as eustress. But if we believe that we lack the necessary coping resources, we experience the stressor as negative stress or distress. Distress is the condition we’re referring to when we say we feel “stressed.”
What Does Coping Really Mean?
Coping, in a nutshell, is any strategy that you use to deal with a situation that strains or overwhelms your emotional and/or physical resources. Different stressors require different coping strategies. And strategies that work for some don’t necessarily work for all. Grieving the loss of a loved one, for example, requires different coping strategies from handling a chronically nagging boss.
The most common coping styles are: Problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping aims to change the problem. Emotion-focused coping aims to change our emotional reaction to the problem.
In problem-focused coping, you attempt to change the stressor directly or eliminate it; for example, you confront your spouse directly about the long hours he or she has been working and the toll it’s taking on your marriage. Problem-focused coping is most effective when the stressor is controllable; in other words, when you can actually do something to change the situation — either change or eliminate the stressor. Often, stressors have both controllable and uncontrollable aspects, so it’s helpful to first dissect the problem and identify what you can and can’t control. For example, if you develop a serious illness, you can’t change the diagnosis, but you can immediately begin seeking out the best possible medical care.
Emotion-focused coping involves trying to change the way you feel about the stressor. For example, if your boss is overly critical, you might not tell him what you think of his critiquing skills if you want to keep your job. But you might take a minute to realize that his hypercritical nature is the result of his own insecurity and fears, that it’s his problem, not yours, and that odds are, you cannot singlehandedly “fix” him. You might also seek emotional support from empathetic friends and co-workers. Emotion-focused coping tends to work better for stressors that you truly can’t control; in fact, sometimes, it’s the only choice. You may not be able to eliminate the source of the stress, but you can gain an emotional edge over the stressor by changing how it impacts your life.
Avoidance coping is a coping approach that might be thought of as a form of emotion-focused coping, and is, in fact, one reason that emotion-focused coping sometimes gets a bad rap. Common avoidance tactics include the use of defense mechanisms, strategies that we adopt to cope with reality and maintain our sense of self-worth. Our defenses step in to mediate our reaction to emotional conflicts and stressors (both internal and external). Denial, for example, is a perennial favorite because it may allow us to simply pretend that the stressor doesn’t exist. (For a complete guide to defense mechanisms, see How Sahaja Meditation Breaks Down Defenses: Playing Defense: Where Defense Mechanisms Come From and The Defense Mechanism Guide.
Other examples of avoidance coping include distraction, venting, and sedation or numbing (e.g., through drugs, alcohol, overeating). But as you’ve probably already figured out, the avoidance approach has a pretty low success rate and, is, in fact, likely to only exacerbate distress. Handling stress in unhealthy ways (e.g., overeating or substance abuse) may alleviate symptoms of stress in the short term, but it invariably ends up creating significant health problems over time, and, with a cruel twist of irony, more stress.
Technically, there’s a third — but unfortunately, less commonly used — coping style: meaning-focused coping. In meaning-focused coping, we look for the silver lining in the cloud. We learn lessons from our painful experiences by looking for the enriching elements. We may come to appreciate the little things, increase awareness of and focus on what really matters most in our lives, re-prioritize, and let go of goals that are unrealistic goals or aren’t serving us well.
Studies have shown that meaning-focused coping is significantly more likely to result in better emotional well-being than problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping.
One study found that post-traumatic growth paved the path from meaning-focused coping to positive emotions and well-being, which resulted in better long-term health outcomes for people who engage in meaning-focused coping, compared to those who don’t. Finding the silver lining — post-traumatic growth — also helped mediate depression for those who used a problem-focused coping approach (Guo et al, 2011).
How Meditation Helps
Many of the beneficial effects of meditation revolve around the reduction of negative emotion and the increase of positive emotional attitude toward oneself and others. One plausible way to reach this state is by reducing the emotional significance of negative events during the evaluative stage or appraisal.
One 2014 study of long-term Sahaja practitioners found that through the practice of Sahaja meditation, the process of appraising an event’s motivational significance undergoes a change which allows us to control emerging emotions, and over time, this change can gradually become automatic (Reva et al, 2014). Emotional appraisal transforms into cognitive appraisal, thus allowing more flexible responses to emotional challenges; e.g., our rational, objective problem-solving skills kick in, rather than leaving us at the mercy of emotional overreaction.
Our beliefs, driven by our appraisal of a stressor, strongly influence our mood state. When we believe that we can cope with the stressor, our mood is generally positive. Conversely, if we believe that we can’t cope with the stressor, our mood tends to turn negative and pessimistic, which, over time, can lead to anxiety and depression. At the time, it may not feel like a good thing that thoughts can darken your mood, but it is, and here’s why…
It’s difficult to alter our feelings in any given moment, but it’s always possible (and much easier) to reappraise the situation and change our thoughts. Our cognitive appraisal of the stressor — the way we view the stressor — will influence both the emotions attached to it and the solutions we come up with to deal with it. When we can paint the situation in a more positive light, not only does mood improve, we can convert irrational beliefs into rational beliefs. This insight is the foundation of a technique called cognitive reframing (also referred to as cognitive restructuring).
Cognitive reframing or restructuring is an important aspect of modern Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings and behavior. What we think about (cognition), how we feel (emotion), and how we act (behavior) interact, thus our thoughts about a particular stressor influence our feelings and, ultimately, our behavior and sense of emotional well-being. We change self-damaging behaviors by changing the faulty thought process (e.g., beliefs and attitudes) behind behaviors that aren’t serving us us well.
The formula: A + B = C
Thoughts and beliefs that result from our cognitive appraisal of a stressor can cause our feelings to change. The relationship between thoughts and emotion can be represented by a simple formula that psychologist Albert Ellis called the ABC Technique of Irrational Beliefs: A + B = C (Activating Event + Beliefs = Consequences).
The Activating Event is the stressor that’s creating a potentially taxing demand on us.
Beliefs are our opinions, judgments or conclusions about everything and everyone around us. We come into the world with no preconceived beliefs or opinions, but we quickly start forming opinions and beliefs of our own, often conditioned by the opinions of others (parents, peers, etc.).
Our opinions tend to crystallize over time and we eventually internalize them into a consistent (though often biased) worldview, which becomes a yardstick against which we appraise ourselves, others and the world around us. The more rigid, irrational, negative or biased our beliefs, the more distressed we’re likely to feel. On the other hand, a belief system that’s rational, flexible and optimistic helps reduce the likelihood of experiencing negative stress.
Consequences are the feelings that result from our beliefs and self-talk about the activating event or stressor. Cognitive theories of emotion hold that our self-talk — our automatic thoughts and beliefs — will often influence whether we experience stressors as eustress (e.g., the birth of a baby or the excitement of competing in a race) or distress (e.g., anxiety, depression, anger, irritability, frustration or aggression).
Here’s an example of the ABC formula applied to a stressful situation…
Let’s say that the activating event is a gnarly traffic jam and we have two drivers who react very differently, based on their beliefs and expectations (e.g., how traffic should flow, how the problem should be fixed, why she doesn’t deserve this annoyance). The consequences are the stress reaction and emotions experienced by each driver.
Driver A fumes, sighs, slaps the steering wheel — aren’t they capable of clearing the road faster than this?! She grows increasingly agitated and frustrated as the minutes pass. Her negative stress (distress) response only upsets her more because, unless she simply abandons her car and walks off into the sunset, she can neither fight nor flee to relieve her tension. Driver B is mildly annoyed but understands that freaking out won’t make the traffic move any faster, so she inserts a favorite CD, pulls a few memos from her briefcase and catches up on some work, calls the friend she’s supposed to meet for dinner to say she may be late and ends up having an enjoyable chat.
While Driver B initially experienced a mild-to-neutral stress response, she made lemonade out of lemons, and as a result, experienced neutral or even positive consequences to the activating event. The less emotionally mature Driver A, on the other hand, is about to blow a gasket. She is now officially stressed, angry, frustrated and unconsciously looking for someone or something to project her anger onto. Her rigid beliefs and judgment of the situation triggered an unresolved fight-flight response that could take hours to dissipate, long after the traffic jam has cleared.
In this scenario, problem-focused coping wasn’t really an option — both drivers were powerless to fix the problem, as anyone who’s ever been stuck in a traffic jam will attest. But emotion-focused coping could help bring about a constructive emotional response, and if they’re really lucky, perhaps even find meaning in the experience.
Practical Strategies For Boosting Your Coping Skills
Sahaja meditators naturally resort to meditation as the primary means of managing stress and for improving coping skills.
For an in-depth account of how Sahaja meditation helps manage stress see How Sahaja meditation relieves stress.
In addition, effective coping strategies tend to draw from a number of resources: external problem-solving skills, internal emotional skills, and social support. The following strategies will help you manage stress more effectively:
- Know thine enemy. Identify your primary stressors — write them down if you need to. What events or situations in your life trigger feelings of distress? Are they related to your spouse, children, friends family health, financial decisions, work, or an intensely personal psychological matter? Pinpointing your stressors helps you identify patterns. You may discover that much of your stress stems from issues that are actually easy to correct. Or you may find that, too often, you’re letting brief situational stress get the best of you (e.g., traffic jams or bumbling customer service reps) and you’ll learn to relax, take a deep breath and accept things that you can’t change. A number of Sahaja meditators report that their level of acceptance of things not under their control greatly increases with the long term practice of meditation.
- Be aware of how you experience stress. How do you know when you’re “stressed?” Recognize when your personal stress level needle hits the danger zone. We all experience stress differently. Notice how your thoughts and behaviors are different when you don’t feel stressed.
- Eliminate the stressor when you can. Identify what you can control and what you can’t. If you can pinpoint the stressor that’s creating most of your distress, you may need to simply remove the stressor. For example, if the stressor is your workplace, consider changing jobs. Granted, removing a stressor like this one is easier said than done, but if you’re living with chronic stress day in and day out that you know is damaging your health and well-being, is it worth it?
- Monitor your moods, thoughts and emotions. If stress is getting the best of you, jot notes about your moods along with the thoughts, feelings or events that triggered your stress. Keeping a record of the thoughts and events that trigger distress helps you spot patterns. Notice your self-talk patterns… your “automatic thoughts” and beliefs have a huge influence on whether you will experience stress as eustress or distress. In general, Sahaja greatly emphasizes introspection for all your problems and monitoring specific aspects relating to stress are no exception to this.
- Recognize how you deal with stress. Notice whether you’re using unhealthy behaviors to cope with stress. Is this behavior routine, or is it specific to certain events or situations? Do you make unhealthy choices when you feel rushed and overwhelmed (e.g., do you tend to end up in a liquor store or in the drive-through lane at a fast food restaurant)? Awareness will give you perspective. Prioritize — make time to do what’s really important, delegate what you can, and back-burner the rest. Monitor your own stress level daily. Unhealthy habits and behaviors tend to develop over time, which makes them easier to correct mid-course if you’re paying attention. Focus on resolving one stressor at a time, rather than tackling too many at once.
- Find healthy ways to manage stress. Insert healthy, stress-reducing activities into your life… meditation, aerobic exercise, a long walk, or discussing problems calmly and rationally with friends and family.
- Channel the energy of anticipatory stress into anticipatory coping. By its very nature, anticipatory stress always involves hypothetical thinking in that the event we anticipate (or dread) may never happen, or at least may not happen exactly like we anticipated it would. Instead of worrying about the future, use that energy in a proactive way. Review similar past experiences to remind yourself of mistakes to avoid repeating, results you can reasonably expect, and resources that help you cope (e.g., meditating or spending a day at the beach). Work out exactly how you will cope with this stressor. Worrying only increases your stress, but anticipatory coping helps you prepare for a stressful event.
- Use cognitive reframing to reduce distress. In addition to the leveraging Sahaja’s state of thoughtless awareness through regular meditation, you may also use occasionally use cognitive reframing as you need. To determine whether your thoughts are rational or irrational, evaluate your thoughts, feelings and fears about the stressor. Ask yourself a few simple questions to put the stressor in perspective and help you identify solutions:
- Realistically, what’s the worst possible outcome?
- Is there any proof that my fears are justified? Are my doubts unfounded — am I actually capable of handling the situation?
- Is there another way to view the situation? Am I missing some facts?
- What steps can I change right now to change or eliminate the problem situation?
Guo, M, Gan, Y, Tong, J. The role of meaning-focused coping in significant loss. Anxiety Stress Coping. 2011 Sep 29.
Reva NV, Pavlov SV, Loktev KV, Korenyok VV, Aftanas LI. Influence of Long-Term Sahaja Yoga Meditation Practice on Emotional Processing in the Brain: An ERP Study. Neuroscience. 2014; 281:195