The best way to cope with stress

What is the best way to cope with stress?

At Unmind, we help people look after their minds and improve their mental health. Knowing that stress plays a role in the development of mental health problems, and makes existing problems worse, we want to be able to empower people to respond well to stress. With this goal in mind, we’ve just released a new series called Combatting Stress, which helps the user to understand the causes of their stress, assess their strategies for dealing with it, and learn how to apply effective ways of coping in their lives. So, having just spent some time researching this, what do I think is the best way to cope with stress? First, let’s see what a few rather more accomplished minds had to say on the matter.

William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, believed that our greatest weapon against stress was our ability to choose one thought over another.

The French judge and philosopher, Montesquieu, felt that there was no distress that an hour’s reading would not relieve.

Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, believed in having to fight a battle more than once to win it.

And then there’s Jane Wagner, the American comedy writer, who felt that reality was the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it. Now that’s witty. 

So what does this tell us?

Along with the rich and famous, it would seem that we all choose to understand and deal with our stress in different ways. You may like to identify what is causing your stress and solve that problem directly? Maybe you prefer to lean on your friends for emotional support, or cultivate acceptance of your stress through meditation? Or, perhaps you prefer to ignore your stress altogether and do something fun or distracting instead? However you choose to respond to your stress, it will fit into one or more different coping categories. Some key ones include the following: 

Active vs Passive

Problem-focused vs Emotion-focused

Cognitive vs Behavioural

Approach vs Avoidant

In fact, within these broader categories, psychologists have defined over four-hundred specific coping strategies! Putting aside whether or not researchers should perhaps look to simplify the classification of coping styles, let’s go back to our initial question:

What is the best way to cope with stress?

While some researchers have focused on identifying the most effective coping strategy in the face of stress, the truth is that different approaches are more useful in certain situations and less so in others. Still, of all the different strategies available to us, depending on what type of person we are, we tend to favour and depend on one. This tendency is known as our Coping Style. Because life is always changing, would it not be better for us to be able to choose the most effective strategy for a challenge or trigger we might face, rather than what we’re predisposed to by our coping style? The research, it turns out, says yes.

This capacity is known as coping flexibility – the ability to identify and replace an ineffective coping strategy with a more effective one. Being more flexible with how we choose to cope when faced with problems or difficulties helps us better combat stress and improve our mental health [1]. Not only this, but recent research has shown that the more types of positive coping strategies we use, the better [2]. This finding makes intuitive sense and brings to mind Heraclitus’ quote.

“You cannot step into the same river twice… “  

Life is not a fixed thing. It is ever-changing, and so are the situations we encounter each day. There will always be differences in the difficulties we face too – circumstances will vary, our moods will change from day to day and so will those of other people. To become stuck in habitual ways of behaving, thinking and coping means we are limited in our capacity to respond to ourselves, others and the world around us in fresh ways.

So, what is the alternative? How can we unhook from our automatic tendencies and respond more flexibly to our difficulties, our stress and our lives? I have a few thoughts.

  1. Increase our understanding of mental health. Learning about common problems, including stress, and the different coping strategies available to us empowers us with more tools and strategies to help look after our minds.
  2. Track our mental health. Regularly checking in with how we’re feeling and noting any contributing factors that may be involved, helps us to reflect on what may be causing our stress and uncover unhelpful coping strategies we may habitually be using.
  3. Practise being present. Defaulting to automatic behaviours, or in this instance, default coping styles when we feel stressed is often a case of being triggered and reacting out of habit. Knowing what we know, this will not always be the most helpful response. By improving our capacity to stay present and aware when we feel stressed, we can create a little more space between ourselves and our reactions, allowing more freedom to choose a more appropriate coping strategy when we need to.  

At Unmind we empower people towards all three of the above through our learning and development programmes, our clinically-valid mood tracker and journal, and our array of mindfulness practices and other mental wellbeing tools.

In a nutshell, this helps us to become more informed, self-aware and versatile in our response to stress, which the research says is a good thing.

So, let’s finish off by coming back to our initial question one last time. This time I’ll answer it.

So, what is the best way to cope with stress?

Be more flexible.

(By the way, I’m not talking about daily stretching, but if that’s your thing, Unmind can help you with that too.)

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[1] Kato, T. (2015). The Impact of Coping Flexibility on the Risk of Depressive Symptoms. PLoS ONE, 10(5), e0128307. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0128307

[2] Heffer, T., & Willoughby, T. (2017). A count of coping strategies: A longitudinal study investigating an alternative method to understanding coping and adjustment. PLoS ONE, 12(10), e0186057. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0186057

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