Coping with stress

June 2, 2009

The next intentional activity from The How of Happiness is developing strategies for coping with stress. Recall from my earlier blog that it’s these intentional activities and habits that can account for as much as 40% of our happiness. The first intentional activity was expressing gratitude, the second was deliberate optimism, the third was to stop overthinking and comparing ourselves to others, the fourth was practicing acts of kindness, and the fifth was social support.

It is actually the negative response to demands at work, or distress, that we have to cope with. The positive response we can have to these same demands, or eustress, we don’t cope with but rather must learn to savor. The majority of my research has been focused on the concept of eustress.

My colleague and I use the “bathtub analogy” to illustrate how we conceptualize distress and eustress:

Two basic things are necessary to achieve a comfortable bath: the level of water in the tub, and the temperature of that water. Two things determine the level of the water in the tub – the flow of water into the bathtub, and the flow of water down the drain over time. Similarly, both hot water and cold water flow into the bathtub simultaneously to determine the water temperature. If we compare the way stress is commonly studied to the bathtub, the current approach is like studying a bathtub with only a cold water faucet (distress). We have identified the sources of this cold water (stressors) and we can tell individuals how to either decrease the incoming flow of cold water or increase the flow of cold water out of their bathtubs (distress prevention). We also know a great deal about the physiological, behavioral, and psychological consequences of sitting in a bath of cold water for long periods of time. Herein lies the problem: a more complete model of stress should acknowledge that there are two faucets (hot and cold) and that managing both are necessary if you want to get the water level and temperature just right for a comfortable bath. Few individuals take a totally cold bath (distress) or a totally hot bath (eustress). Similarly, few, if any stressors, are appraised as purely positive or purely negative. It’s usually some combination of the two. (Nelson & Simmons, 2009).

Coping, then, deals with stock and flow of the negative things in our lives. Problem focused coping and emotion focused coping are the two most basic approaches to responding to distress. In problem focused coping, we try to manage the stressor or cause of distress. In emotion focused coping, we hope to manage our response to the stressor.

For example, I personally find it very stressful to drive on interstate highways (yes, I am odd). I don’t mind driving, and I don’t mind driving fast, but there is something about the combination of driving fast in heavy traffic that sends me out of my skin. I’m not worried about my driving – I am a great driver – it is all the other morons on the road that worry the heck out of me!

So I practice problem focused coping by avoiding driving on the interstate as much as possible. I have lived in Reno, Nevada for the past 3 years. I moved here from Fargo, North Dakota. When I moved, I had no way to avoid driving on the interstate, and I did just fine. But since I have lived here, I have only been back on the interstate to get to places in town a handful of times. Fortunately, in Reno, they have two wonderful streets called Virginia and McCarren that can get me almost anywhere in town. When I selected where I was going to buy a home in Reno, I deliberately chose an area of town where I could access my workplace without ever having to drive on the interstate.

Yet when I have to drive my daughter to California for volleyball tournaments, I cannot avoid the interstate. As a problem focused strategy, I car pool with another parent and let him do most of the driving. But when it is my turn to drive, I have to practice emotion focused coping. I realize that this anxiety is all between my ears, so I do whatever I can to take my mind off driving – e.g. engage in conversation, listen to the radio, roll down the window and feel the breeze on my face.

At work, I try to avoid the things I know from experience distress me, and when I can’t avoid them, I make the best of it and focus very hard on controlling my emotions (e.g. keep my mouth shut).

And as much as possible, I try to expose myself to the things that provide me pleasure and challenge. Back to the bathtub analogy – I prefer mine warm and invigorating.

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