The decision to accept and carry on turns the worst failure into success.
Claire Weekes (Australian doctor and health writer)
Coping is defined as an attempt to overcome or come to terms with difficulties or occurred losses. We will focus here mainly on coping strategies, but let’s have a look at stress and distress first.
Stress and distress
Two broad groups of situations require coping: losing situations that cause stress (e.g. running late for work), and situations in which a loss has already occurred, that cause distress (e.g. losing your job for being late). Stress relates to setbacks, distress to loss. Distress typically has a more profound effect because a loss cannot be prevented anymore, but stress is far more common.
What triggers stress
Stress is usually instigated by your perception of a discrepancy between demands on you and your ability to deal with them. In other words, stress arises when there is a conflict between what you want or would like and what is actually happening. This means, for example, that you don’t get stressed when you are in a hurry but when you have to force yourself to stop despite being in a hurry. Such situations are common in modern society (waiting for a bus or lift, queuing, traffic jams, crowds, etc.). So, taking into account that something may go wrong, stop you or slow you down can go a long way – although it cannot eradicate stress completely, as things are not always predictable. Accumulated stress can affect our body (e.g. the immune and cardiovascular systems), mind (e.g. sleep, concentration), as well as relationships. Sometimes we use food, alcohol or drugs to deal with stress and distress, but the trouble is that they make us feel even worse after their effect is gone. Prescribed medication can be useful in providing a respite so that we can gather energy to deal with the situation, but they do not provide answers, they are not a solution. This is why we need coping strategies (to deal with both stress and distress).
These are organised into categories that reflect the stages of coping: the first two relate to stress (still dealing with the situation) and the last two to distress (after the loss has occurred).
Strategies while you are dealing with the situation
- You can take an unfavourable event either as a misfortune or a challenge, a chance for a change or growth; any problem can be turned into an opportunity or a learning experience. The former prepares you to lose, the latter to win.
- Don’t take what is happening personally (‘why me?’), it is not just you: difficulties and unpleasant experiences happen to everybody. Try to recognise and confront defeatist thoughts (e.g. thinking how unlucky you are) before they start negatively affecting your decisions and coping ability.
- To keep calm and maintain a sense of control, close down and temporarily block your emotions or distance yourself (as, for example, paramedics often do to cope with their daily job).
- Do something, try to find a solution, seek advice. Success is the best remedy for stress.
Strategies for a temporary pause
Whether imposed or chosen, a pause needs to be used wisely:
- If things don’t go well or you made a wrong move, it is only natural to get upset. Don’t let it last though. Breathe your emotion out and use a break to practise relaxation, meditation or other exercises that can help you calm down.
- If you can, try to see the funny side of the situation (humour reduces tension and the importance of a difficulty).
- Think forward rather than backward. Losing a battle doesn’t mean losing the war! Make sure that you know what the score is, and set a plan how to move on.
- Prepare for what will come, but if nothing can be done distract yourself with activities (sports, hobbies), entertainment (TV, music), rest (sleeping), nice company, or something pleasant and engaging (reading, fantasy, making art).
These are some additional interventions that you can practise when you need to or when you are forced to pause, respectively:
Time-out: If you feel that you do not have the strength to face the problems that surround you, you can withdraw and let them lie for a while. In other words, create a break to recuperate (it may need only a couple of minutes). Redirecting attention can help you to let go of worries and other obsessive thoughts in these moments and refresh yourself. You can use something that is always at hand for this purpose. It could be anything pleasant that you can focus on, hold onto, or lose yourself in: an object (e.g. a ring, stone, photograph), a pet, a nice view.
Dealing with impatience: if having to wait makes you stressed out, use the situation as a chance for a mini break, a cue to relax (e.g. do some breathing or muscle relaxation exercises while you are waiting). This will not only help you reduce stress, but will also make the time pass quicker since you are doing something else while you are waiting.
Am I going mad?
If we are having an intense bad experience we may not feel completely ourselves. This is to be expected and is not a sign that we are losing our marbles. After all, if a situation is extraordinary, it is not surprising that your reactions are too. The best thing to do is to accept your reactions (as long as they are not harmful to you or others) as a part of a spontaneous coping process; this will at least reduce worrying that you are going mad. You should be concerned only if your state of mind ceases to be a process and after some time you are still stuck in the same rut. In this case, it may be a good idea to seek help. There is no shame in asking for help. We all need it from time to time. Otherwise, let’s look at strategies that can assist us to deal with distress and move on.
Short term strategies when the loss has occurred:
Acceptance is the key, as not accepting what you cannot change leads to internal conflicts and distress. This is what can help:
- Releasing emotions can bring some relief (you can cry, engage in a physical activity or just sit quietly and let them come out).
- Talk to somebody about how you feel – sharing with others and being open to receiving comfort and support can really help.
- Expressing yourself through writing, painting, or playing music can also make coming to terms with what has happened easier.
- Be kind to yourself – take responsibility for your part in the situation, but try to avoid self-blame and self-torture.
- Get serious instead of unhappy: rather than wallowing in a distressing situation, you can be matter-of-fact about it.
- ‘It could’ve been worse’: avoid self-pity, compare the situation with other possible troubles or with those even less fortunate.
- Put things into perspective (e.g. ‘it doesn’t matter that much.’).
- ‘Every cloud has a silver lining’: try to find something positive in the situation – this can be a bridge to moving on.
Long term strategies to help you move on
- Try to put the pieces together – reconstructing your life after a loss can help you cope with anxiety.
- Try to find meaning in what has happened. Making sense of the situation (e.g. learning something from it) can help.
- Socialise: after a tough time you may want to be on your own, but nothing is more soothing than love and care from others.
- Physical activities (gardening, sports), being in nature, spiritual practices, and helping others can all contribute to the recovery.
- Work, immerse yourself in doing something, or at least set a goal or make plans – this is a good antidote to ruminating.
- Count your blessings: focus on what is still positive in your life, don’t let the past ruin your future.
- Bring some good experiences to your life (e.g. listen to your favourite music or re-read your favourite book).
- Try to re-ignite hope; find something you will strive for or look forward to, but be patient. A full recovery may take time.