How are you coping with your stressors these days? A question like that often brings answers like: “I’m too anxious about [a coming event].” “I yelled at a friend the other day and now I’m feeling guilty.” “My boss is driving me crazy. Every time I have a new idea, he shoots it down. It’s so frustrating.” “I’m afraid some of my so-called friends are trying to stab me in the back.”
Notice how all these responses refer to some emotion: anxiety, guilt, frustration, fear. Let’s face it, those who have trouble coping with stress spend too much time focusing on their emotions that occur in response to stress. “I’m so anxious! I’m going to lose control!” Well, take a deep breath and focus on this reality: stress – and the emotions it produces – is a normal, unavoidable aspect of life. Feeling stressed does not make you unstable or inferior to others, nor does experiencing emotions like fear, frustration, anger, shame, guilt, and anxiety make you abnormal.
Do you feel threatened by your emotions? Do you think good mental health means keeping troublesome emotions in check, at a low level, and seldom having to deal with them? The truth is, feeling emotions is completely natural, and working to deny or eliminate them is counterproductive. Instead, you need to confront the situations and events that bring on the emotions, and take realistic action to deal with those events. You must become an active action-taker in your life, not a passive reactor. The goal is to bring purpose and satisfaction to your life, not by suppressing your natural emotions, but by assessing your behavior choices, and developing action plans.
Here are some introspective questions designed to help you focus on you as an actor. Note that none of them refer to emotions. These questions might help you look at your coping efforts with a broader perspective than just worrying about your emotions.
Do you feel threatened by events outside your control? Can you focus on actions more under your control?
How reliable is your memory?… your judgment?… your reasoning?… your perception of events? Can you develop these abilities to help you use critical thinking to distinguish reality from fantasy?
What to Look for: The futility of trying to control events and others beyond your control is generally well-known. Still, you may get careless and seek an easy way to lower your stress by trying to expand your control inappropriately. A periodic self-check can help you avoid the control trap, and save you a lot of emotional turmoil.
Assessment of your cognitive skills can be difficult. Fact-checking your beliefs with a variety of other people and reliable media sources can help you avoid falling prey to things like false conspiracy theories and misleading information from those who would try to make you doubt your reality.
Does attachment to others intimidate you? Can you reach out to trusted others to help you realistically assess motives of others through honest conversation?
Is your communication with others consistent, logical, and coherent? Can you learn how to speak softly and slowly, with clarity and sincerity?
Do you feel compassion and understanding for others who say they are in distress? Can you learn to ask yourself, “How would I feel in their situation? How would I want others to treat me?”
What to Look for: Assess your attitudes and behavior for telltale signs of poor coping: not trusting others; being unable to experience empathy for others; generally having your words and actions misunderstood by others.
Are you resistant to change? Can you be flexible when faced with changing coping demands? Are you willing to experiment with new courses of action? Can you accept the consequences of your actions, and modify them if necessary?
Do you consider yourself the center of it all, and indulge yourself in self-absorption? Do you engage in activities focused on serving others?
What to look for: Effectively coping with stress requires flexibility. It’s kind of ironic because people who have difficulty in dealing with conflict and stress usually adopt a strategy of keeping things orderly, methodical, systematic, and predictable. Change is threatening because flexibility means organization must give way to some frustration and turmoil. The way out of the threat is to serve others more often. The focus must move away from self-needs to other-needs. Put the latter in your life and many difficult coping puzzle pieces will fall into place.