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10 Strategies for Coping with Stress

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During a 20-year relationship, Frank complained every single summer about allergies, and George recommended a visit to an allergist—every single summer. Yet, Frank never followed through. One day, George lost his temper and walked out. During the walk, George thought, “What if I refuse to give advice and simply ask Frank, in a neutral tone, ‘What do you plan to do about that?’” The new strategy removed George from a stressful role and placed the responsibility for finding a solution on Frank, where it belonged. George stopped stress before it started. He coped.

Cathy and her husband were retiring to a continuing care community where Cathy could eventually receive help for her Alzheimer’s. Her husband felt not only the stress of the move but the stress of confronting Cathy’s worsening condition and his own mortality. He couldn’t do anything more about the move or Cathy, but he could consult a lawyer about a will, with special emphasis on taking care of Cathy if he should die first by addressing a healthcare directive and a power of attorney. That action allowed him to de-stress one area of his life and cope effectively.

Coping with stress—using various strategies, including SMaRT techniques, to solve the problems overwhelming you—has two main approaches: stopping stress from happening (proactive) and dealing with it when it happens (reactive). Strategies can also be categorized as follows:

  • Appraisal strategy: George modified the way he thought about a situation
  • Adaptive behavioral strategy: Cathy’s husband took control and sought help in one stressful area.
  • Emotion-focused strategy: George distanced himself and then exercised self-control; Cathy’s husband accepted responsibility for managing his own feelings.

Proactive Strategies: Stopping Stress from Happening

The more carefully you listen to your body, the more you will be able to detect when it is stressed. Muscles tighten, your breathing may become shallow, your thoughts are racing. Understanding your body’s stress response helps you identify sources of stress and take appropriate proactive (and reactive) strategies. Here are a few strategies for coping with stress before it happens:

  • Pay attention. Train yourself to focus on what you are doing right now—whether washing the dishes or clearing the garage or building a bookshelf. The more you are able to concentrate at the moment, the better you will be able to avoid cycling through thoughts that distract and stress you.
  • Wind down before sleeping. When you sleep, cerebrospinal fluid flushes out toxic waste, improving brain health, whereas poor sleep increases the cortisol levels, raising heart rate, blood pressure, and vigilance. To wind down before sleep, keep a notepad by your bed where you can write down thoughts that occur to your (an addition to your to-do list, for example), practice meditation or engage in another calming activity (not involving electronics), and spend a few minutes being grateful for something during the day. Good sleep will ready you to handle whatever problems come up the next day.
  • Exercise. The benefits of exercise are so numerous that it is probably the single most important strategy for healthy living. However, strenuous exercise isn’t necessary. Walk 1,000 steps a day to start (a pedometer can help you measure) and gradually work up. A brisk daily walk of 2,000 steps (approximately a mile) should allow you to meet the recommendation of the US Centers for Disease Control for 150 minutes of moderate activity a week or just 21 minutes daily. 
  • Limit toxic people and situations in your life. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.” The same definition works for stress. If you know that interacting with certain people or attending certain events increases your stress—stop. You cannot change other people, only your reaction to them. If you cannot avoid an event, then look for ways to minimize its effect, perhaps by leaving early, meditating beforehand, or rewarding yourself afterward. 
  • Seek out and give support. Support from friends, family, a mentor, your primary physician, or a professional counselor has two main benefits: it connects you to other human beings, which in itself reduces stress, and it opens up another viewpoint offering new strategies, such as biofeedback, light therapy (used to treat seasonal affective depression), and meditation. You may also want to support others through volunteering; by concentrating on the needs of other people you broaden your social network, add purpose to your life, and keep active—all ways of coping with stress.


TIP: When you tolerate stress, you give it a chance to grow. The sooner you find a strategy for dealing with stress, the faster you can return to a positive, optimistic, and growth mindset. 

Reactive Strategies: Dealing with Stress when it Happens

Whether you focus your coping skills on problem-solving or on the emotions that the problem evokes, you are still coping. Here are a few strategies for coping with the stress you may be feeling right now:

  • Take time for yourself. Play soothing music or read a book. Exercise. Enjoy a cup of coffee or tea with a friend. Put work and responsibilities aside for one day. Say “no” to anything that interferes with your time. You will come back better able to deal with and prioritize problems.
  • Turn off your phone and other electronic devices, especially avoiding social media or the news. These major sources of outside stress interfere with your ability to think of something else or your ability to build relationships one-on-one. 
  • Find something to laugh at—a pet, a funny show, a shared joke with a friend—because laughter relaxes you and changes your perspective. Shared laughter increases relationship bonds, which are also important for coping with stress. The Mayo Clinic has several recommendations for increasing opportunities to laugh, including posting comic strips that make you laugh and keeping comedy videos on hand. Simply smiling, no matter how difficult, will improve your mood and relax your body.
  • Meditate. This five-minute meditation is a quick way to lower stress: You will be breathing on a count to five. Five a comfortable position. On count one to four, slowly inhale, feeling the breath move from your belly to your ribs to your chest and on up to the crown of your head; on count five, hold the breath. Exhale on a five-count and then repeat on five counts for a total of five minutes of breathing. Focus on experiencing breathing for five minutes.
  • Challenge yourself to five minutes of positive thinking. For those five minutes, refuse to judge or criticize anyone, including yourself. Dampen the need for perfection. Tell yourself, “This too shall pass.” Create space for gratitude, enjoyment of the moment, and visualization of happier times—all SMaRT mindfulness strategies for coping with stress.


TIP: Having a plan for the future is a great way to control stress. You may plan for your future when the cause of stress ends, or you may plan actions that will help resolve the stress. Either way, hope takes over despair, and stress reigned before.

Free and Confidential Sources for Help with Unhealthy Coping

Unhealthy coping includes; self-harm, self-medication with alcohol or drugs, repetitive rituals (such as nail-biting or hair stroking), creating excuses for or blaming others, and experiencing physical symptoms (such as laryngitis to avoid speaking about a topic or sleeplessness). Suppose you throw things, yell, kick at things, drive fast in a car, or indulge in risky behaviors. In that case, you are also using unhealthy coping skills as acting out in these ways usually leads to even more stressful situations. 

Some healthy coping strategies for coping with stress, such as avoiding stressful situations, become unhealthy once they begin to prevent daily functioning, maintain positive relationships, and solve problems. Similarly, suppose you deal with stress by lowering your expectations, refusing to think negative thoughts, or visualizing yourself in a stress-free place. In that case, you may turn those coping strategies into major drawbacks if you always give up on every challenge, can no longer recognize bad situations, or constantly live in fantasy.

If you or a loved one is using unhealthy methods for coping with stress, you may want to consult one of these free and confidential services:

  • National helpline for substance abuse and mental health: 1-800-662-4357 (Help)
  • National suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (beginning in July 2022, call 988)
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMHI) hotline: 1-800-950-6264 (NAMI)
  • National Domestic Violence hotline: 1-800-799-7233

Key Takeaways

SMaRT strategies will help you avoid, lessen, and cope with stress, including building resilience and practicing mindfulness. Among the best strategies for coping with stress are exercise, laughing, and meditation, as well as reliance on your social and family network and professional help.

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