March 2, 2023

Coping with Stress: Healthy Coping Skills vs. Crutches

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Stress is an unavoidable part of life but finding healthy ways to cope can be challenging for many people. Stressors come in many forms and from various sources. Stress is also not experienced the same way for everyone so don’t be surprised or feel bad if what stresses you out might not bother your friend that much. Additionally, stressors may change from one season of life to the next. What stressed you out in college will likely be different than what stresses you out when you’re working in your career full-time. Examples of stressors include relationship issues, work, health concerns, parenting issues, money, and housing. These are just a few of the examples; what are some of your main stressors right now?

One way people try to cope with stress is by using what I’ll call, “crutches.” These are unhelpful and often unhealthy coping strategies that do not provide the relief and rest that people seek. Crutches are things, activities, or people/relationships that people rely excessively on to relieve stress. These things by themselves are not necessarily harmful; they might even be good things. The problem comes when an individual uses them exclusively and excessively to cope with challenges. Crutches could be used to avoid or escape stress. They can also be used to avoid facing the challenges and making changes that will be helpful in the long-term. Examples of crutches include alcohol, relationships, social media/phone use, binge-watching television shows, partying, shopping, books and magazines, and eating. There are many other examples. Do you have any crutches that might not be helping you cope well with stress?

The problem with crutches is that they only provide relief in the short-term. They can sometimes lead to unhealthy dependence that is difficult to break. Like I mentioned above, many of these are fine in moderation but if they are your only outlet or you’re finding that they aren’t helping your stress, then it’s time to cut back on those and start learning some healthy coping skills.

Healthy coping skills provide real relief from stress, provide the support you need to keep going, leave you feeling recharged, and help you find ways to address the problems brought on by the stressors.  Healthy coping skills are sustainable and do not compromise your wellness or boundaries. It’s important to be able to recognize when you’re stressed and to acknowledge it. Understand that stress is common no matter your life stage and that you can learn how to deal with it. How does stress affect you? Where do you feel it in your body? What does stress make you want to do? Then think about what you actually need. Do you need a break to clear your mind? Do you need to laugh or enjoy something light-hearted? Do you need comfort? Do you need encouragement? Do you need help problem solving? Taking time to think about what you really need, will make sure that the coping strategies you use will be helpful.

Just like stress can take many forms and can affect you in different ways, so can healthy coping strategies. It can be helpful to think in categories. You have physical, emotional, spiritual, relational, and intellectual components to your wellness and stress can affect all those areas. Think of coping strategies that fall under those different categories to make sure you are caring for yourself holistically. Examples of healthy coping strategies include talking with a trusted friend or partner, listening to music, journaling, making lists, exercise, crying, making a plan, challenging unhelpful thoughts, prayer, and counseling. These are just a few of the many ways you can cope with stress. What have you found to be helpful in dealing with stress?

Finally, use of these healthy coping strategies does not need to be limited to when you are under immediate stress. Use them in your daily life as a way to care for yourself and develop good habits that you can continue using when stress inevitably shows up again. If you’d like help developing coping strategies that work for you, call me today!

Written by therapist Ndunge Marquardt

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