Life is all about stress. Distress or Eustress, it’s all stress. Some people are in more distress than others. Regardless of our level of stress, we all have our ways of coping with the stressors of our lives. But not all coping strategies are good.
I have been thinking a lot about this idea of how we cope with life’s struggles. I talked about it a bit in my conversation with Bonnie Simon of Maestro Classics that if we could turn to creativity rather than consumption to cope, the world would be a different place!
Over the course of the last decade I’ve endured many struggles.
It started back in 2008 when Michael and I moved to Northern Virginia for school. Michael struggled to find employment while he got his graduate degree, and I was expecting our first baby. It went downhill from there.
At first, we thought the struggles would be temporary.
Michael would finish his degree, and find a good job. But then, the recession happened. The student debt, postpartum stress, new parenthood, and underemployment living in the most expensive area in the nation took its toll on us. We were far from home, with no family nearby. We also felt abandoned by our community.
Some of our coping strategies were productive, but most weren’t.
The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines “constructive coping” as “any instrumental approach to stress management that is generally considered to be adaptive or otherwise positive” and goes on to describe two kinds of constructive coping:
- Problem-Focused Coping – “a stress-management strategy in which a person directly confronts a stressor in an attempt to decrease or eliminate it…Problem-focused coping is used primarily when a person appraises a stressor as within his or her capacity to change.” Similar to “active coping,” this is about knowing our responsibility and capacity for conscientiously working on our situation to affect change.
- Emotion-Focused Coping – “in which a person focuses on regulating his or her negative emotional reactions to a stressor. Rather than taking actions to change the stressor itself, the individual tries to control feelings using a variety of cognitive and behavioral tools.”
This perspective is so important. Some conflicts are simply shaped by our perceptions. Some are just bad habits, or beliefs about a situation. We don’t always need to change a situation, and some things are still outside of our control.
I am currently in the process of creating a course outlining what real coping looks like, and challenging our ideas around coping. The coping strategies I will be suggesting in the course are different from “defense mechanisms” or “escape mechanisms” defined as “an unconscious reaction pattern employed by the ego to protect itself from the anxiety that arises from psychic conflict.” While some of the strategies I suggest may be a form of channeling emotional energy, I want to suggest ways to avoid escaping or denying the stressor altogether. In my experience, denial and escape can only gratify for a moment, and might even create more problems, while the initial conflict continues to go unsolved! I want to help more people realize that when we remain conscious to our reaction patterns, then we have more power over our situations than we might think.
I also want to give you more tools than simple “passive coping” that involves wishful thinking, like I talked about in a blog post back in May 2018. When we give in to this idea that we simply cannot change our situation, then we give up. We give up our capacity to change anything, and leave it up to external forces, chance, or hope. Hope is not a bad thing in its proper form, but hope plus action equals faith. Faith requires action.
For example, when you want a garden, you don’t just sit and hope you can have one. You plant seeds, you nourish the soil, and give it sunlight. These actions are based on faith that the garden will grow.
Family culture is like this garden. You have a vision of what kind of garden you’ll grow, and you cultivate good soil. You plant seeds, and pull out weeds. Good coping strategies are like pulling out weeds, and putting in fertilizer. You hold on to that vision that keeps you grounded to why you are doing all of this. That’s the foundation of hope. Hope is your “why” for doing what you do. Hope is the reason for resilience and the ability to cope, but it is only the beginning.
Coping is all about recovery. Recovery is the ability to bounce back after an encounter with a stressor. The duration of the recover will depend on the stressor, the impact or intensity, or the amount of trauma you experience. The better you are at coping with an encounter, the quicker and easier your recovery may be. Still, there are some things in life that cannot be anticipated no matter how much you think you have studied and prepared. That’s when more long-term coping strategies are needed. In my course, I discuss more of the care and patience that goes in to perhaps a lifetime of coping.
Sometimes, I feel like Michael and I have endured a lifetime of coping after ten years of depression and anxiety! Ten years is a long time to endure when I used to believe that life’s always have a solution. I was not prepared to cope with this trial. But I want you to know what I have learned over the course of these experiences. I have studied and prayed so often about what I can do to impact the course of my life, and my family.
Life is full of so many ups and downs!
As parents, we were thrust into parenthood during the most vulnerable times of our lives! We were dealing with becoming adults, and learning about ourselves. We were learning about our relationships and figuring out a new marriage. We were barely figuring out our careers, and finances, among so many other things! Then, we bring these kids into our lives when our hormones are crazy, we are naive, and we just want to figure all of this out! There is no way to ever be fully prepared for parenthood and all that it throws at you. But with everything else going on, and all the baggage we bring with us, sometimes our kids get caught in the crossfire of our poor abilities to cope with it all. Sure, they often feel like the problem, but if we step back and evaluate the situation and allow ourselves to cope constructively, we are all just working through life together.
But so often, we go between the stressor and escaping, or consoling ourselves with our addictions: with media, food, and other, more destructive forms of consolation.
I want to end the cycle of stress and consolation, and get into real coping!
Coping has come to mean three main things for me:
1) Being constructive. When we choose to produce rather than consume as a coping mechanism, we will truly appreciate our ability to cope — truly cope, not just console ourselves with our addictions, or escape for a moment, only to return to the problem more frazzled, and with more problems our escape created for us! Choose to do something constructive with the stress. Play an instrument. Get outside and go for a walk. Meditate. Face the problem head-on!
2) Balance and Recovery. Coping is about resilience, and resilience is the ability to spring back or recover. Some things will take longer to recover from, depending on the level of trauma we experience. When we are clear about our boundaries, we can learn how to create space to nourish ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially. In the book “The Power of Full Engagement” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, I learned that each of these areas of our recovery are important for balancing our energy to cope with the ebb and flow of stress in each of these areas. Often, we get too much stress mentally and emotionally, and not enough stress physically and spiritually. We need to be able to recharge our minds and hearts, and we need to push ourselves to move our bodies and spirits more.
3) Self-Care. Some things will never be resolved. Some things are just part of life. We find balance when we take the time to do the things that establish boundaries, and nourish our bodies, minds, and spirits. Develop a talent or skill. Devote yourself to a cause. Perform a service for someone who cannot do that thing for themselves. Get a coach, a mentor, or a therapist. Do those things that will meet your own needs. Find that balance I talked about in number 2. Learn to say NO to things that stress you out, too.
Basically, life is meant to be endured, sure. But endurance doesn’t have to mean pushing through and allowing life to crush us. In this article, “Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure“, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan help us understand what resilience is really about:
We often take a militaristic, “tough” approach to resilience and grit. We imagine a Marine slogging through the mud, a boxer going one more round, or a football player picking himself up off the turf for one more play. We believe that the longer we tough it out, the tougher we are, and therefore the more successful we will be. However, this entire conception is scientifically inaccurate.
The very lack of a recovery period is dramatically holding back our collective ability to be resilient and successful. Research has found that there is a direct correlation between lack of recovery and increased incidence of health and safety problems. And lack of recovery — whether by disrupting sleep with thoughts of work or having continuous cognitive arousal by watching our phones — is costing our companies $62 billion a year (that’s billion, not million) in lost productivity.
The idea that we are supposed to just endure, slog through, react, escape, or toughen up is making us more stressed, more sick, and more depressed. When I think of coping, I want to think about being proactive, productive, and in control. I’m trying to catch myself feeling stress or anxiety, and fall into a habit of using a constructive coping strategy.
For example, waiting in a long line for something necessary, or feeling rushed at a red light. Instead of getting impatient, I can read a book on my phone, listen to a book or podcast in my car. I can look around at all the other people surrounding me, maybe talk to them, or imagine where they are going. I can sing in my car, too!
If it’s a long-term stressor, I would rather work toward something unrelated to the issue than focus on a problem I cannot solve. Or, become proactive to figuring out how I can recover daily and perhaps finding some solution that I wouldn’t have expected. Don’t just endure. Be proactive, but also take time to care for ourselves.