According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), stress is a common and normal response to situational pressures. It is most common when the brain interprets these situations as threatening or dangerous.
“Stress is the result of brain chemicals surging through the body. These [are] hormones [that] make people sweat, breathe quicker, tense their muscles and prepare to take action. When this happens, a person’s built-in alarm system—their “fight-or-flight” response—becomes activated to protect them.”
Anxiety also has a lot to do with the body’s fight-or-flight response. It’s what happens when that alarm system goes off in situations that ordinarily wouldn’t warrant it, or when the responses become longer or stronger than in people without anxiety.
“Common physical symptoms of acute anxiety include: heart pounding; shortness of breath; sweating; shaking; nausea; dizziness; chest pain or tightness; numbness or tingling sensations. Anxiety can also affect our thinking, such that we might be fearful of losing control, or feel constant dread that something bad might happen.”
Humans are well-practiced in creating comforting environments when they’re in a heightened emotional state. We get ourselves through tough times by doing things that lessen the impact of stressful or anxiety-inducing situations. For some it looks like doing a few minutes of mindful breathing. Others might look to exercise, mantra meditation, or writing out a to-do list to help ground them.
Generally, coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety fall into two major categories: emotion-based and problem-based. Emotion-based coping mechanisms are focused on managing heightened emotional responses. They tend to help bring down the immediate effects of a stress response, like deep breathing exercises. Problem-based coping mechanisms, on the other hand, direct energy toward the stressor itself. They have more to do with solving the problem or changing the situation itself to put you back in control, like making a to-do list.
What it means for you
One helpful way to determine if you’re best served by an emotion-based coping mechanism or a problem-based one is to ask yourself a single question: “Do I need to manage my response to this situation, or can I change the situation itself?” Another way is to assess the level of control you have over the situation. From psychotherapist Amy Morin:
“Problem-based coping is helpful when you need to change your situation, perhaps by removing a stressful thing from your life. For example, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, your anxiety and sadness might be best resolved by ending the relationship (as opposed to soothing your emotions).
Emotion-based coping is helpful when you need to take care of your feelings when you either don’t want to change your situation or when circumstances are out of your control. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it’d be important to take care of your feelings in a healthy way (since you can’t change the circumstance).
There isn’t always one best way to proceed. Instead, it’s up to you to decide which type of coping skill is likely to work best for you in your particular circumstance.”
Working through an example
Imagine someone named Alex. They work as a phone-based customer service rep for a medium-sized business. Alex’s company has selected them to deliver a presentation on their role. It will be streamed live as part of a bigger virtual conference and many of the organization’s leaders will be in attendance. They have one week to prepare.
Right away, Alex is running through the worst-case scenarios. They’re worried about losing their train of thought in front of everyone and getting so flustered that they can’t continue. Then, they’re stressing even further what people will say at work when word gets around of how badly the presentation went. Alex fears they’ll lose their recent promotion and worries about being able to pay their bills when that happens. What kind of coping mechanisms will they need?
“Do I need to manage my response to this situation, or can I change the situation itself?”
Alex can’t necessarily change the larger situation, since the company has set the terms around the event. They don’t have control over the event being live, who’s in attendance, or how they’re perceived by others. Alex can, however, control their level of preparation and how they respond to anxiety.
- Let’s start with emotion-based coping mechanisms. Alex is experiencing anxiety around losing their promotion that’s spilling over into some catastrophic thinking about money. Some healthy coping mechanisms to manage those feelings are:
- Self-talk: “I worked hard for my promotion and I deserve it. My boss asked me to train the new staff member. They wouldn’t have chosen me for the presentation if they didn’t think I could do it. I’m great at my job. They have faith in me. No one will even notice if I’m nervous.”
- Consider the opposite: “I’ve thought about the worst-case scenario. What does the best-case scenario look like?”
- Physical strategies: Do breathing exercises, do a hobby, listen to a favourite album or comedy set, make a favourite meal, practice progressive muscle relaxation, watch a comfort movie or show.
Something important to remember here is that emotion-based coping is healthiest when it doesn’t just work as a way to ignore the issue. They are meant to be temporary ways to soothe distress, distract from physical manifestations of anxiety, and help you tolerate its effects over the short term. If you feel like you’re leaning on things like extra sleep, extra food, using more drugs or substances than usual, or putting off important tasks to avoid the stressor, it’s time to consider seeking further help. It may also be a reason to try a problem-based approach to address what’s causing distress more directly.
- Now let’s run through the problem-based coping mechanisms that Alex could use. Since much of their anxiety is around being underprepared and failing at the speaking portion, they can address that part of the situation. Alex can use preparation to quell some of those feelings, as well as a way to build confidence ahead of the event. Some examples of these strategies are:
- Brain dump: Write or type out all key talking points, some examples, and a list of possible questions and answers.
- Practice: Run through the situation alone or with a confidante as many times as necessary to get comfortable. Ask for feedback if desired.
- Hire a public speaking expert for a coaching session.
- Make to-do lists for the days leading up to the event.
Problem-focused strategies are incredibly varied. They really are tailored to the individual situation and what the person needs from their coping mechanisms. Overall, when you consider the problem, it’s helpful to ask yourself what’s under your own control versus what’s not. Sometimes the strategy can be as simple as setting a boundary (“I’m not comfortable with [doing/saying/participating in something]. Is it possible to [do something else] instead?”) or walking away from the situation (“I can’t be around you if you’re raising your voice, so I’m going to go now.”).
The key piece to remember with this approach is that problem-focused coping mechanisms are rooted in changing the circumstances to make them more bearable. They are the most direct method for affecting the stressors in your life. If you can identify any specific anxiety triggers in your life, this is a great way to limit how they impact your mental health.
So, Alex has lots of options to consider in the week leading up to the presentation. For those of us who aren’t hypothetical cases, having a robust toolbox of coping mechanisms can really make a difference. You probably have lots already! Next time you feel a wave of anxiety come on, consider the question: “Do I need to manage my response to this situation, or can I change the situation itself?” You might find some new approaches.
Regardless of your relationship to stress and anxiety, you have lots of options for managing their effects. One is to use an emotion-based approach that can help diffuse the intensity of the experience and temporarily relieve distress. This can be both a long-term and short-term coping mechanism. Another is to use a problem-based strategy that targets the stressor itself and opts to change it. Both are common ways to work through the body’s fight-or-flight responses.
How does this work?
If I had to wager a guess, you’re here to figure out whether I am a good fit to be your therapist. The fastest way to do that is to schedule a free consultation, and go from there!