What Everyone Needs to Know About Coping with Stress

How to find the optimal approach for handling stress and anxiety.

Posted Sep 11, 2019

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This post is about the stress of coping with situations that involve uncertain outcomes, which could be anything from dating to medical treatments to sitting a test. 

When you understand these principles, you’ll be able to design an approach to coping that works best for you. Spoiler alert: A coping strategy that works well for one person might not suit someone else. It all depends on your wiring, which I’ll help you better understand. 

1. If you’re prone to feeling hopeless or depressed, try defensive pessimism instead.

When you're going through a stressful situation, there will be objective data you can use to estimate how likely it is you'll experience a good outcome. For example, if you're applying to college, you'll likely know the percentage of applicants who are accepted at a particular college with SAT scores similar to yours. If you're having breast cancer treatment, you'll know what percentage of people with similar cancers have good outcomes. If you're having IVF, you'll likely know the success rates for people in your age group. If you're sitting your driving test, you'll likely know the percentage of people who pass on the first try or within the first three tries. If you don't know these stats and think you’d find them helpful, you can seek them out from authoritative sources.

These types of base rates give you a realistic sense of how much hopefulness is warranted. Knowing these rates can be particularly helpful if your preferred coping style is defensive pessimism. This is when you’re aware of the objective possibility of a poor outcome but you’re hopeful that a good outcome is possible, to the extent warranted by the base rates. This balance can motivate you to be diligent in your approach and help you keep going in moments when you feel depressed or hopeless. If you’re prone to feelings of hopelessness, then moving toward defensive pessimism will likely help you more than generic advice to “be positive.” 

2. Understand that subjective feelings don’t change objective reality.

Your odds of success often remain quite static, but how hopeful you feel might swing around wildly. When you can accept this, it can help you feel calmer. You can stop reading too much into fluctuations in your subjective level of hopefulness or hopelessness on any given day or in reaction to any small sign or event. Feeling extra hopeful in a particular moment doesn't make success more likely, but nor does feeling hopeless make it less likely. While this might sound harsh, it can help smooth the emotional ups and downs of dealing with stress.

3. Whether it's best to approach the situation through a lens of optimism or pessimism will depend on your wiring. And you might clash with people who have a different cognitive style.

I have an anxious, hypervigilant coping style. I like to anticipate many different scenarios and give myself plenty of mental space to think through how I'd cope if those things happened. On the other hand, my Mom is a firm believer in never worrying about anything until it happens. My approach seems like a huge waste of time and energy to someone with my Mom's cognitive style. It's true that it does "waste" a lot of emotional energy to think through all sorts of scenarios that don't end up happening, but my approach helps me limit surprises and makes it easier for me to cope. It works for me, and I feel capable of taking on stressful situations because I have a coping mechanism that suits me, even if it is labor-intensive. You have to know what works for you. When other people's cognitive styles differ from your own, it's important to recognize that they're approaching a situation based on what works best for them. We don't all need to be the same. With acceptance, you can learn to enjoy people who have different styles than your own. Even if your natural style is one way, you might find yourself wanting the support of people who have a different style in particular moments that you need that.

4. You need to figure out how much attention to give the situation.

If you're going through a stressful situation and don't have enough available attention, you can end up not having the space to process what's going on, make the best decisions, and give yourself the self-care you need. On the other hand, if you shelve everything else in your life while you're going through a stressful situation, you're making yourself a sitting duck for rumination. If you're prone to overthinking or over-researching (as I am), it can be helpful to put some limits on yourself. If I feel the urge to over-research, I do it at the gym. I slow walk on the treadmill and look stuff up on my phone, but once I'm done with my gym time, I stop and get on with other things. You need to know yourself well enough to find the right balance between attention and distraction for you, and to find ways of limiting yourself if you tend to overthink. 

There are many strategies for curbing overthinking, worry, and rumination that come from science-backed therapies. You can learn about these in books but you can also empower yourself to find your own, like my treadmill strategy. Notice what helps you shift away from thinking about your worries, and turn those observations into personalized strategies. Techniques you discover yourself, even the seemingly simple ones, can be just as valuable as those from science.

Wrapping Up

When you know yourself well, you can find strategies that work for coping with stress and uncertainty that suit your cognitive style. Your approach will depend on your natural wiring, but you can shift it a little, too, when that seems more optimal.