Strategies for coping with stress
Many of us are facing challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as physical distancing, can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.
After a traumatic event, people may have strong and lingering reactions. Learning healthy ways to cope and getting the right care and support can help reduce stressful feelings and symptoms.
The symptoms may be physical or emotional. Common reactions to a stressful event can include:
- Feelings of fear, shock, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration
- Changes in appetite, energy, desires, and interests
- Difficulty sleeping or nightmares, concentrating, and making decisions
- Physical reactions, such as headaches, body pains, stomach problems, and skin rashes
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health conditions
- Increased use of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances
It is natural to feel stress, anxiety, grief, and worry during traumatic events such as mass shootings, natural disasters, or pandemics. Below are ways that you can help yourself, others, and your community manage stress.
Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress
Feeling emotional and nervous or having trouble sleeping and eating can all be normal reactions to stress. Here are some healthy ways you can deal with stress:
- Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including those on social media. It’s good to be informed but hearing about the traumatic event constantly can be upsetting. Consider limiting news to just a couple of times a day and disconnecting from phone, tv, and computer screens for a while.
- Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and give yourself a break if you feel stressed out.
- Take care of your body.
- Take deep breaths, stretch, or meditate.
- Try to eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
- Exercise regularly.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Avoid excessive alcohol, tobacco, and substance use.
- Continue with routine preventive measures (such as vaccinations, cancer screenings, etc.) as recommended by your healthcare provider.
- Get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible; get a booster shot if you are age 18 or older.
- Make time to unwind. Try to do some other activities you enjoy.
- Talk to others. Talk with people you trust about your concerns and how you are feeling. Share your problems and how you are feeling and coping with a parent, friend, counselor, doctor, or pastor.
- Connect with your community- or faith-based organizations.
- Avoid drugs and alcohol. These may seem to help, but they can create additional problems and increase the stress you are already feeling.
- Recognize when you need more help. If problems continue or you are thinking about suicide, talk to a psychologist, social worker, or professional counselor.
Check out Taking Care of Your Emotional Health for more information and resources.
Helping Others Cope
Taking care of yourself can better equip you to take care of others. Helping others cope with stress through phone calls or video chats can help you and your loved ones feel less lonely or isolated.
Helping Children and Youth Cope with Stress
Children and youth often struggle with how to cope with stress. Youth can be particularly overwhelmed when their stress is connected to a traumatic event—like a natural disaster, family loss, school shootings, or community violence. Parents, caregivers, and educators can take steps to provide stability and support that help young people feel better.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
It is natural for children to worry when scary or stressful events happen in their lives. Talking to your children about these events can help put frightening information into a more balanced setting. Monitor what children see and hear about stressful events happening in their lives. Here are some suggestions to help children cope:
- Maintain a normal routine. Helping children wake up, go to sleep, and eat meals at regular times provide them a sense of stability.
- Talk, listen, and encourage expression. Listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings and share some of yours. After a traumatic event, it is important for children to feel they can share their feelings and that you understand their fears and worries.
- Watch and listen. Be alert for any change in behavior. Any changes in behavior may be signs that your child is having trouble and may need support.
- Stressful events can challenge a child’s sense of safety and security. Reassure your child about his or her safety and well-being. Discuss ways that you, the school, and the community are taking steps to keep them safe.
- Connect with others. Talk to other parents and your child’s teachers about ways to help your child cope. It is often helpful for parents, schools, and health professionals to work together for the well-being of all children in stressful times.
Tips for Kids and Teens
After a traumatic event, it is normal to feel anxious about your safety and security. Even if you were not directly involved, you may worry about whether this type of event may someday affect you. Check out the tips below for some ideas to help deal with these fears.
- Talk to and stay connected to others. Talking with someone you trust can help you make sense out of your experience. If you are not sure where to turn, call your local crisis intervention center or a national hotline.
- Take care of yourself. Try to get plenty of sleep, eat right, exercise, and keep a normal routine.
- Take information breaks. Pictures and stories about a disaster can increase worry and other stressful feelings. Taking breaks from the news, Internet, and conversations about the disaster can help calm you down.
Tips for School Personnel
School personnel can help their students restore their sense of safety by talking with the children about their fears. Other tips for school personnel include:
- Reach out and talk. Create opportunities to have students talk, but do not force them. You can be a model by sharing some of your own thoughts as well as correct misinformation.
- Watch and listen. Be alert for any change in behavior. Are students withdrawing from friends? Acting out? These changes may be early signs that a student is struggling and needs extra support from the school and family.
- Maintain normal routines. A regular classroom and school schedule can provide a sense of stability and safety. Encourage students to keep up with their schoolwork and extracurricular activities but do not push them if they seem overwhelmed.
- Take care of yourself. You are better able to support your students if you are healthy, coping and taking care of yourself first. Eat healthy, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and give yourself a break if you feel stressed out.
Mental Health and Crisis
Resources and Social Support Services
- If you are struggling to cope, there are many ways to get help. Call your healthcare provider if stress gets in the way of your daily activities for several days in a row.
- During times of extreme stress, people may have thoughts of suicide. Suicide is preventable and help is available. More about the risk of suicide, signs to watch for, and how to respond if you notice these signs in yourself or a friend or a loved one, can be found here.
- Free and confidential crisis resources can also help you or a loved one connect with a skilled, trained counselor in your area.
Why is it important to learn to cope with stress?
Coping usually involves adjusting to or tolerating negative events or realities while you try to keep your positive self-image and emotional equilibrium. Coping occurs in the context of life changes that are perceived to be stressful. Psychological stress is usually associated with negative life changes, such as losing a job or loved one. However, all changes require some sort of adaptation. Even positive changes — such as getting married or having a child — can be stressful.
Changes are stressful because changes require us to adjust and to adapt. Experiencing too many changes within a brief time period often creates the idea that we aren’t in control of events. This perception contributes to low self-esteem and may even contribute to the development of anxiety or depression. In some cases, physical illnesses may develop or get worse when a person’s capacity to adapt to change is overwhelmed by too much change.
Coping involves adjusting to unusual demands, or stressors. This requires giving a greater effort and using greater energy than what’s needed in the daily routines of life. Prolonged mobilization of effort can contribute to elevated levels of stress-related hormones and to eventual physical breakdown and illness.
Stressors that require coping may be acute, like moving to a new home or experiencing the onset of marriage problems. Stressors also occur that are of longer duration, such as chronic pain, chronic illness or long-lasting financial problems.
The effect of many acute stressors that come within a relatively brief period of time may be cumulative and profound. Those who experience a marital separation, the death of an aging parent and a change in job within a brief period of time may struggle to maintain their physical and emotional health.
What are some common coping strategies?
Some common coping mechanisms may challenge you to:
- Lower your expectations.
- Ask others to help or assist you.
- Take responsibility for the situation.
- Engage in problem solving.
- Maintain emotionally supportive relationships.
- Maintain emotional composure or, alternatively, expressing distressing emotions.
- Challenge previously held beliefs that are no longer adaptive.
- Directly attempt to change the source of stress.
- Distance yourself from the source of stress.
- View the problem through a religious perspective.
Experts agree that coping is a process rather than an event. You may alternate between several of the above coping strategies in order to cope with a stressful event.
People differ in particular styles of coping or prefer to use certain coping strategies over others. These differences in coping styles usually reflect differences in personality. Rigidity in coping is less likely to help than is flexibility in coping — being able to fit the most appropriate coping strategy to the demands of different situations.
However, some situations that require coping are likely to elicit (bring out) similar coping responses from most people. For example, work-related stressors are more likely to elicit problem-solving strategies. Stressors that are perceived to be changeable are more likely to elicit problem-solving strategies while stressors perceived to be unchangeable are more likely to elicit social support seeking and emotion-focused strategies.
What can we do to protect ourselves against stress and enhance our prospects for successful coping? Perhaps the most important strategy is to maintain emotionally supportive relationships with others. A vast field of research demonstrates that emotional support buffers individuals against the negative impact of stress.
It’s especially important to evaluate your overall lifestyle when encountering significant stress. Engage in stress-reducing activities to help your overall approach to coping with stressors. Try to:
- Get enough good quality sleep.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Exercise on a regular basis.
- Take brief rest periods during the day to relax.
- Take vacations away from home and work.
- Engage in pleasurable or fun activities every day.
- Practice relaxation exercises such as yoga, prayer, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Avoid use of caffeine and alcohol.