Psychology Can Help

Sometimes you need someone to talk to...

How can I cope with stress effectively?

The way that we respond to stressors – physically, emotionally, cognitively, or behaviorally ­– can help us solve problems or create additional ones.


There are a number of things that we can do to cope more effectively with a stressor. We can change the way that we look at the situation, develop or access resources that will help us respond to the situation more effectively, obtain social support, and learn how to manage emotions well.


  1. Challenge your perceptions of the stressor. As noted elsewhere at this site, people tend to engage in more negative thought patterns when stressed. When you notice yourself engaging in extreme thought patterns, take a breath and ask yourself whether there are other, more helpful ways of perceiving the stressor – as it's difficult to solve problems and persist in attacking a stressor when feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. "Is this really the end of the world?" "What really matters?" "Is it true that there's no way out?"


2. Build and access your resources. There are a number of resources that you already have that might help you handle a stressor well. These might include your problem solving skills, empathy, patience, curiosity, leadership skills, or study habits. What resources do you already have? Use them. What resources do you need? Find places to build them.


For example, if you are having difficulty at work, which of your strengths or other resources might help you handle the problem more effectively? What skills do you need (e.g., better computer skills)? How can you build them?


3. Gather social support. One important resource – so important that it needs its own category – is social support. Social support is one of the best predictors of positive outcomes in a variety of settings. These supports include your partner, friends, family, coworkers, church or temple, and your Higher Power. They may help you brainstorm responses to the stressor, remind you that you have people who believe in you, or help you handle a situation. Don't underestimate the importance of just being listened to and understood, however, as this can be one of the most powerful ways in which others support us.


4. Learn how to manage emotions well. Managing your emotions well can also be an important way of reducing your stress. When people are stressed, they tend to breathe rapidly or hold their breath. Try breathing more slowly when you're stressed, perhaps to a count of three or four on the in-breath and the out-breath. Remain present in the here-and-now rather than avoiding the situation. Find ways to relieve your muscle tension – many people find things like running or doing yoga are helpful. Listen to calming music or talk to people who will calm you down and help you feel more hopeful rather than create further worry, anxiety, or pessimism.


One especially important way to cope more effectively is proactively – by eating well, sleeping and exercising regularly, maintaining a good support system, preventing problems when possible, and engaging in a regular spiritual practice (e.g., attending church, praying, meditating, doing yoga, or walking in the woods). It is important to slow down and reflect. Doing these things can build your psychological resources and help you respond more effectively when you do experience a stressor.


While many people have a go-to coping strategy – talking to friends, running, cleaning, listening to music – most people need a variety of coping strategies that are well-suited for particular situations; for example, cleaning when they need to organize their surroundings and mind. Solving problems – when they can be solved – is often the most effective way of handling stress.