Coping with and Managing Stress

Coping with Stress

Coping with stress is the process by which a person consciously attempts to master, minimize, or tolerate stressors and problems in life.

Learning Objectives

Give examples of adaptive and maladaptive strategies for coping with stress

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Coping is the process of spending mental, conscious energy on dealing with problems in life. Mechanisms used to cope with stress attempt to overcome or diminish the amount of stress experienced.
  • Coping mechanisms can be categorized into three broad types: appraisal -focused, which affects thought associated with the stressor; problem-focused, which affects the stressor itself; and emotion -focused, which affects the feelings associated with the stressor.
  • Coping strategies can be either positive or negative. Positive or adaptive strategies decrease the amount of stress perceived and experienced, while negative or maladaptive strategies diminish symptoms of stress without addressing the real problem or disorder.
  • Coping ability varies to the extent that a person perceives a situation as stressful (primary appraisal) and decides he/she has the necessary resources to deal with what has been labeled stressful (secondary appraisal).
  • Coping-strategy selection varies among people and populations based on situational, sexual, personal, and cultural differences.

Key Terms

  • dissociation: A defense mechanism through which certain thoughts or mental processes are compartmentalized in order to avoid emotional stress to the conscious mind.
  • sensitization: The increase in behavioral response following repeated applications of a particular stimulus.

Coping with Stress

Coping is the process of spending conscious effort and energy to solve personal and interpersonal problems. In the case of stress, coping mechanisms seek to master, minimize, or tolerate stress and stressors that occur in everyday life. These mechanisms are commonly called coping skills or coping strategies. All coping strategies have the adaptive goal of reducing or dealing with stress, but some strategies can actually be maladaptive (unhealthy) or merely ineffective. Maladaptive behaviors are those that inhibit a person’s ability to adjust to particular situations. This type of behavior is often used to reduce one’s anxiety, but the result is dysfunctional and non-productive. The term "coping" usually refers to dealing with the stress that comes after a stressor is presented, but many people also use proactive coping strategies to eliminate or avoid stressors before they occur. Personal choice in coping strategies is determined by personality traits and type, social context, and the nature of the stressor involved.

Coping Strategies

While psychologists disagree on the specific classification of the hundreds of coping strategies available today, distinctions are often made among various contrasting strategies. The three most common distinctions are appraisal-focused, problem-focused, and emotion-focused coping strategies.

Appraisal-Focused Strategies

Appraisal-focused strategies attempt to modify thought processes associated with stress. People alter the way they think about a problem by approaching it differently or altering their goals and values.

Problem-Focused Strategies

Problem-focused strategies aim to deal with the cause of the problem or stressor. People try to change or eliminate the source of stress by researching the problem and learning management skills to solve it.

Emotion-Focused Strategies

Emotion-focused strategies address the feelings associated with the stressor. People modify the emotions that accompany stress perception by releasing, distracting, or managing their mental state.

A typical person will employ a mixture of all of these strategies when attempting to cope with stress. Skill or prowess at employing these strategies changes over time.

Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Strategies

Coping strategies can also be positive (adaptive) or negative (maladaptive). Positive coping strategies successfully diminish the amount of stress being experienced and provide constructive feedback for the user. Examples of adaptive coping include seeking social support from others (social coping) and attempting to learn from the stressful experience (meaning-focused coping). Maintaining good physical and mental health, practicing relaxation techniques, and employing humor in difficult situations are other types of positive coping strategies. Proactive coping is a specific type of adaptive strategy that attempts to anticipate a problem before it begins and prepare a person to cope with the coming challenge.

Negative coping strategies might be successful at managing or abating stress, but the result is dysfunctional and non-productive. They provide a quick fix that interferes with the person's ability to break apart the association between the stressor and the symptoms of anxiety. Therefore, while these strategies provide short-term relief, they actually serve to maintain disorder. Maladaptive strategies include dissociation, sensitization, numbing out, anxious avoidance of a problem, and escape.

Coping Abilities

The capacity to tolerate or cope with stress varies among people. The root of stress is the cognitive appraisal of an event as stressful or stress-inducing. Primary appraisal is the extent to which a person perceives an event as benign or threatening and harmful. Secondary appraisal is the estimation of whether a person has the resources or abilities necessary to deal with what has already been deemed stressful. An individual can effectively cope with stressors by appraising stressful situations and having confidence in their ability handle situations that are stressful.


Brain regions associated with stress: The brain is a vital element in the experience of stress, because the mind must both perceive an event as a stressor and judge the ability to deal with that stress.

Variations in Coping Abilities

Coping ability and strategy selection vary depending on personality, gender, and culture. A person with a positive demeanor and outlook on life will perceive less stress and be better equipped to handle stress when it does arise. Those people who employ a static view of the world will perceive more stress and be less adept at addressing the stressor in their lives. Men and women also assess stress differently but tend to cope with stress similarly. Evidence shows that men more often develop career- or work-related stress, while women are more prone to stress about interpersonal relationships. The small amount of variation in coping-strategy selection shows that women will engage in more emotion-focused coping while men tend to use problem-focused strategies.

Culture and Coping Strategies

Culture and surroundings also affect what coping strategies are practically available and socially acceptable. Some cultures promote a head-on approach to stress and provide comforting environments for managing stressful situations, while others encourage independence and self-sufficiency when it comes to coping with stress. A person's perception of stress and ability to cope with that stress are products of many different influences in life.

Managing Stress Through Conventional and Alternative Medicine

Stress management resources aim to control or diminish a person's level of stress through both conventional and alternative methods.

Learning Objectives

Contrast conventional and alternative approaches to stress management

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Resources in stress management aim to control or abate a person's level of perceived and experienced stress.
  • Current approaches to stress management are based on the transactional model, which states that a person must perceive an event as a stressor and doubt their ability to cope with that event in order to experience stress.
  • Conventional methods focus on the stressor itself, using evidence-based approaches to either removing or coming to terms with the stressful situation.
  • Alternative methods focus on the ability of the person to cope, and they use non-evidence-based approaches to help a person reframe or redesign their concept of stress.

Key Terms

  • stressor: An environmental condition or influence that stresses (i.e., causes stress for) an organism.
  • transactional model: A model of stress management that states that an imbalance between perceived stress and the ability to cope determines the level of stress a person experiences.

Stress Management Resources

Stress management resources aim to control a person's level of stress, whether chronic and recurring or acute and unique. Stressors are constantly present throughout life, so one of the major keys to overall wellness and happiness is the effective management of stress. The symptoms of stress can affect both the body and the mind. They range in severity depending on the person and the circumstances involved. Stress management techniques provide a way to cope with stress and its symptoms to promote and maintain general well-being. There are several different approaches to the management of stress including conventional medicine, alternative medicine, and self-help therapies. The effectiveness of each of these strategies remains difficult to fully assess as the field still requires additional research in this area.

Approaches to Stress Management

Studies of stress have shown that it is caused by distinct, measurable life events deemed stressors. Life stressors can be ranked by the median degree of stress they produce. This finding led to the belief that stress was somehow outside of or beyond the control of the person experiencing stress. Further study into this belief yielded a slightly different result. While external stressors can produce valid and measurable stress in the body, this reaction is entirely dependent on the appraisal formed by the stressed person. Not only does an event need to be perceived as stressful, but the individual must also believe that the pressure of the event outweighs his/her ability to cope. This theory of imbalance between demands and resources is now called the transactional model of stress. Modern stress-management techniques were modeled from this idea that stress is not a predetermined, direct response to a stressor but rather an changeable perception of deficiency on behalf the individual. This precept allows stress to be controlled by the person and provides the basis for most stress management techniques.

Conventional Methods

Conventional methods of stress management are most popular in the Western world. These methods are called conventional because most people are familiar with them and their effects on stress. Some conventional methods of reducing stress include psychiatric therapy and anxiety-reducing medications. As with traditional medicine, conventional methods of stress management tend to focus on evidence-based approaches to both the stressor and the experience of stress. While some conventional methods embrace the power and effectiveness of counseling and therapy in stress management, they often rely on medication to reduce stress. Sometimes, the social support factor of therapy alone can be enough to lift a person out of a debilitating state of stress. Conventional methods tend to face the stressor head-on and adapt a person's life to either avoid or abate a particular type of stress.

Alternative Methods

Alternative methods of stress management have traditionally been popular in regions of the world outside of the United States, but they continue to gain influence in the Western world. As with alternative medicine, alternative stress therapies are not rooted in the scientific method, but rather have non-evidence-based healing effects. These methods tend to focus on the person experiencing stress, providing methods for mental reframing or management. Alternative methods such as yoga, meditation, and visualization embrace the transactional model of stress by empowering the stressed person to either view the situation differently or believe in their capability to cope. The transactional model of stress is a framework that emphasizes one's ability to evaluate harm, threats, and challenges, and results in an enhanced ability to cope with stressful events. Individuals focus on the nature of thought and stress, and are encouraged to develop heightened security and positive thinking when it comes to stressful situations. Alternative methods are gaining prevalence as personal anecdotes and research continue to reinforce their effectiveness. Other alternative methods to stress management include meditation, deep breathing, relaxation techniques, spending time in nature, humor, spas, and social activity, among many others.


Alternative stress management: Yoga is a popular alternative stress-management resource. In yoga teaching, the seven chakras are believed to be the source and manifestation of all stress and disease in the body.

The Value of Social Support in Managing Stress

Social support, the perception or reality of care or assistance from others, is vital to successful stress management.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the roles of different kinds of social support in stress management

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social support is the perception or actualization of care or assistance from a social network. Social coping refers to the seeking of social support in the presence of stressful situations.
  • Social support can be emotional, tangible, informational, or can come from companionship that is either subjectively perceived or objectively received. Structural support is the size of the social network available, while functional support is the type of support the network can provide.
  • Social support provides for the successful management of stress and stressful events. It has positive effects on both the mind and body.
  • The two main theories of social support and stress management are the buffering hypothesis, which is supported by the social and coping theory, and the direct-effects hypothesis, which is supported by the relational regulation theory.

Key Terms

  • tangible: Real or concrete.
  • sociability: The skill, tendency, or property of being sociable or social, of interacting well with others.

The innate sociability of humans plays a role in every moment of a person's life. Accordingly, social support is the key to many human accomplishments, including the successful management of stress. Social support is the perception or reality that one is cared for, has assistance from others, and is a member of a supportive social network. Social support is so important that social isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, and other negative emotions. In fact, feelings of social isolation are one of the primary triggers of suicidality. Supportive resources can be emotional, tangible, intangible, informational, and companion-based.

The term "social coping" refers to a person seeking social support while under stress. The two main models of social support are the buffering hypothesis and the direct-effects hypothesis, both of which describe a positive relationship between social support and stress management.

Types and Sources of Social Support

Social support can be categorized in several different ways. Emotional support is the presence, warmth, and nurturance that provides the individual with a sense of value, esteem, acceptance, or affection. Tangible support is the offering of a material service, such as financial support, that provides concrete assistance to another person. Informational support is the provision of advice, guidance, or suggestion that enables individual problem-solving. Companionship support is the presence of another person who provides a sense of belonging and engagement.


Social support: The presence of a social network that can either be expected to provide or actually provides social support can have extremely positive effects on the experience of stress and successful stress management.

In any instance, a type of support can be either perceived or received. Perceived support is a subjective, personal experience or judgment that support will be offered when needed and that such support will be effective. Received support is the objective, specific help that is offered in a time of need.

Social support can also be measured in terms of structural or function support. "Structural support" refers to the size of a person's social network, while "functional support" refers to the types of support that network can provide. Social networks encompass sources of support including families, friends, romantic partners, counselors, and organizations.

Social Support and Stress Management

Social support plays a major role in successful stress management. Social support reduces psychological distress and promotes adjustments that counteract high stress levels. People with low amounts of social support report higher instances of depression, anxiety, and mental disorders. For these people, stressful situations create higher amounts of panic, phobia, and disorder than for those with high social support. Social support also bolsters physical health, which can counteract many negative effects of stress.

The two dominant models of social support are the direct-effects hypothesis and the buffering hypothesis.

According to the direct-effects hypothesis, social support provides better health and wellness benefits all the time, regardless of whether the person being supported is currently experiencing stress

According to the buffering hypothesis, in contrast, social support provides such benefits most strongly when someone is supported while experiencing stress. Proponents of this hypothesis theorize that support serves as a protective layer, creating psychological distance between a person and stressful events.

Both of these hypotheses promote the theory that social support aids in successful stress management. The stress and coping theory aligns with the buffering hypothesis; it states that social support protects people from the bad health effects of stressful events by influencing thought and coping ability. This is based on the transactional theory, which argues that stressors are only stressful when perceived as such. Social support works by promoting adaptive appraisal that in turn leads to increased coping ability.

The relational regulation theory focuses on the relational aspect of perceived social support (not necessarily the same as actually provided social support). The relational aspect is that an individual's perception of social support is based on additional factors such as their own emotions, feelings about the other person, and interpretations of their conversations.

Maintaining Motivation

Maintaining motivation is one of the keys to successful stress management and the promotion of overall well-being.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the relationship between stress and motivation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Stress produces numerous symptoms, which vary according to persons, situations, and severity. These can include a decline in physical or mental health. Research has found that maintaining good health has a positive influence on reducing and coping with stress.
  • Small amounts of stress may be desirable, beneficial, and even healthy: positive stress plays a role in motivation, adaptation, and reaction to the environment. Excessive amounts of stress, however, will hinder performance and decrease motivation.
  • When an individual becomes overstressed, energy that would otherwise be used for motivational management is shifted to manage stress. The focus of the stress takes an immediate precedence and the motivational energy is focused on the stressor.
  • Perhaps the most effective strategy, though one that is often difficult to put into practice, is shifting from a pessimistic to an optimistic point of view. Research has found that maintaining a positive outlook on life is one of the most effective ways to manage stress.

Key Terms

  • motivation: An incentive or reason for doing something.
  • stress: An emotional or mental feeling of strain and/or pressure.

Effects of Stress on Health

In psychology, stress is a feeling of strain and pressure. Stress produces numerous symptoms, which vary according to person, situation, and severity. Problems resulting from stress include decline in physical health or mental health, a sense of being overwhelmed, feelings of anxiety, overall irritability, insecurity, nervousness, social withdrawal, loss of appetite, depression, panic attacks, exhaustion, high or low blood pressure, skin eruptions or rashes, insomnia, lack of sexual desire (sexual dysfunction), migraine, gastrointestinal difficulties (constipation or diarrhea), heart problems, and menstrual symptoms. Research indicates that stress may also play a role in the development of tumors.

Research has found that maintaining good health has a positive influence on reducing and coping with stress. Behaviors such as exercise, meditation, deep breathing, good eating habits, and getting enough sleep can help individuals better handle stress. Unfortunately, stress can have a negative impact on the motivation to maintain these healthy behaviors.

Stress and Motivation

A person's motivation to do or accomplish anything changes over time. Motivation tends to wane as initial excitement dissipates. Discouragement and setbacks can chip away at otherwise high levels of motivation, leaving a person feeling defenseless against life's stressors. This stress can be either external (coming from the environment) or internal (coming from personal anxiety). Small amounts of stress may be desirable, beneficial, and even healthy. Positive stress plays a role in motivation, adaptation, and reaction to the environment. Excessive amounts of stress, however, may hinder performance and decrease motivation.

Theories of Motivation

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow attempted to formulate a needs-based framework of human motivation, which he termed the hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, people are motivated by unsatisfied needs. The lower-level needs such as physiological and safety needs have to be satisfied before higher-level needs can be addressed. When an individual becomes overstressed, energy that would otherwise be used for motivational management is shifted to managing stress. The individual no longer feels able to deal with basic physiological needs, because the focus of the stress takes an immediate precedence and the motivational energy is focused on the stressor.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs: According to Maslow, one must satisfy lower-level basic needs before progressing on to meet higher-level growth needs. Once these needs have been reasonably satisfied, one may be able to reach the highest level, called self-actualization.

Protection Motivation Theory

The protection-motivation theory (PMT), proposed by Dr. R. W. Rogers, suggests that we protect ourselves based on four factors: (1) the perceived severity of a threatening event, (2) the perceived probability of the occurrence or vulnerability, (3) the efficacy of the recommended preventive behavior, and (4) the perceived self-efficacy. Rogers's theory was based on the work of Richard Lazarus, who looked at how individuals cope with stress. According to PMT, individuals assess a situation or a stressor, and then determine their ability to deal with that situation. Threat evaluation focuses on the actual threat or the stressor, rather than on the impact of that stressor. This demonstrates how the motivational energy is diverted away from management and onto the actual stressor that is threatening the individual. When dealing with a stressor, an individual determines if carrying out recommended actions will remove the threat. Self-efficacy, the final factor in PMT, is the belief in one's ability to carry out the recommended course of action successfully. PMT is one model that explains why people engage in unhealthy practices, and it offers suggestions for changing those behaviors. If an individual feels unable to engage in or maintain healthy behaviors, then the individual is not likely to be motivated to pursue those behaviors.

Managing Stress and Maintaining Motivation

In addition to the benefits of maintaining good health, there are other strategies that help in maintaining motivation and handling stress. Most of these strategies are simple ones that promote personal responsibility and a positive life outlook. Perhaps the most effective strategy, though one that is often difficult to put into practice, is shifting from a pessimistic to an optimistic point of view.

Positive Thinking

Research has found that maintaining a positive outlook on life is one of the most effective ways to manage stress. If a person is living with hope and staying personally accountable, he/she will be able to maintain higher levels of motivation through tough times. Positive thinking and hope help a person maintain high levels of motivation, even when stressful events occur. Elevated excitement and anticipation can also lower the perception of stressors through increases in mental strength and resilience. By focusing on the good and working toward positive goals, a person can become more impervious to life's little problems.

Setting Incremental and Achievable Goals

Finding small ways to reignite the initial excitement of a plan or project, such as reading about or researching a goal, is also effective. Setting small goals and rewarding progress along the way can keep this spirit alive as well. Maintaining motivation through setting small goals and rewarding these accomplishments is an effective way to maintain a positive outlook and good health. The small goals may be related to engaging in healthy behaviors or positive outlook. Positive self-talk, smiling, or a daily ten-minute exercise routine are all things that can help reduce stress.

Maintaining Social Support Systems

Finally, having a good social support system is important in maintaining motivation and managing stress. Surrounding oneself with family and friends can provide encouragement and support through stressful times. A social support system provides encouragement and self-efficacy, helps maintain a positive outlook, and allows an individual to talk about and find ways to deal with the stressor.

The Value of Spirituality and Faith in Managing Stress

Spirituality and faith practices can improve skills for coping with stress and raise levels of happiness and general well-being.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the role of spirituality and faith in stress management

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Psychologists agree that spirituality and faith have powerful effects on stress management and general happiness.
  • Spirituality is the search for a higher, existential power, while faith is the belief that such a thing exists. Practices in both spirituality and faith can lead to greater skills for coping with stress.
  • People who practice spirituality and faith are able to validate their own existences, cultivate coping abilities, view stress as short-term and external, and generate social support for stress management.
  • All forms of spiritual and faithful practice, including meditation, contemplation, and prayer, allow for increases in stress management skills.

Key Terms

  • faith: A feeling, conviction, or belief that something is true or real; trust or confidence.
  • spirituality: Concern for that which is unseen and intangible, as opposed to physical or mundane.
  • existentialism: A twentieth-century philosophical movement emphasizing the uniqueness of each human existence in freely making its self-defining choices.

Research in psychology on stress management has demonstrated that spirituality and faith have meaningful effects on the ability to cope with stress and on overall happiness. Some spiritual practices reduce stress, while others have healing or restorative powers that help to manage or cope with certain stressors. Research has shown that religious people are generally happier than others, but not one particular religion or religious practice has been found to have a monopoly on this phenomenon.

All forms of prayer, meditation, and existential contemplation activate centers in the brain that are implicated in relaxation and peacefulness, which lowers levels of experienced stress. Overall, maintaining belief in something outside of the self can create meaning, peace, and a sense of purpose, all of which can sustain a person through stressful events in life.


The power of prayer: Prayer, no matter the religion or practice, can have restorative effects on the mind and body, allowing for a successful stress-management practice.


Spirituality can be thought of as the search for the sacred or that which is set apart from the ordinary. It can take the form of different religions or practices, but usually involves the exploration of personal existence and the meaning of life. The practice of spirituality involves veneration of something ethereal and outside of the self.


Faith is trust or confidence in a doctrine, or holding a specific personal or spiritual belief. Questions of faith cannot necessarily be settled by evidentiary support, but are also not entirely opposed to reason. The practice of faith involves belief in what one cannot actually see or prove to exist. Spirituality and faith work together to produce experiences of otherworldliness and existentialism in human life, allowing the individual to confront the unknown and unknowable in a personal way.

Effects on Well-Being

People who embrace both spiritual practices and faithful observances have been found to experience higher levels of happiness and more effective stress management throughout life's stressful events. The contemplation of life or power outside of conscious reality can provide some people with greater meaning and worthiness. In times of trouble, a person can rely on this sense of purpose to validate existence and cultivate the strength to cope with stress. Additionally, the reliance on a higher power places the burden, or the cause of stress, into the control of the higher power, thus relieving the person of that stressor. Faithfulness can also supplement feelings of hope for the future and acceptance of the past. In general, a person will dwell less on the negative aspects of life and will instead look back at the good and look forward to new possibilities.

Spirituality is often practiced in groups that allow for social support and reaffirming contact with others. As we explored earlier, the presence of social support has been found to be vital in stress management and coping ability. Some researchers argue that the social support function of spiritual groups serves a vital role in helping people cope with stress.

Forms of meditation, prayer, and contemplation can negate or abate present stress and provide resilience in the face of new stressors. Neuroscientists continue to study the effects of prayer and meditative states on the brain. A number of studies have demonstrated the positive effects of prayer, meditation, and contemplation on both mental and physical health. Decreasing levels of stress is one of the effects found across several studies. Through faith and spirituality, new levels of calm and happiness can be achieved, cultivating happiness, health, and wellness.

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