In general, you should think about seeing a mental health professional in the same way you think about seeing any other professional: when we feel sick for more than a couple of days and can’t shake it on our own, that’s when we pick up the phone and call our doctor. On the mental health side, when you’ve tried all the techniques of coping and stress management and still can’t shake it on your own, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek professional help.

But a lot of people have never been taught about all the possible ways of coping and managing stress on our own, so I have reviewed coping techniques and stress management strategies below, in an article I wrote a few years back for my company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I’d love for you to try some of the coping techniques cited below, and let me know how they work for you. If you’re still hurting after trying these strategies, then it’s probably time to see a professional. Good luck and be well,

Dr. P.

A General Approach to Stress Management

We are all individuals so we all have different life stresses at any given time. Even when coworkers are sitting next to each other at their cubicles, one person might be concerned about his daughter getting bullied at school, while another may be pre-occupied with financial or health problems. Nonetheless, there is a general approach to managing stress that everyone, individual as we are, may find helpful. The following 9 items are part of managing any stress or problem that arises, so as you read on, try to imagine how each concept might apply to your situation.

Information: our anxiety generally goes down when we can obtain information about the situation that’s worrying us. Example: John’s daughter complained of bullying at school. Before talking with the teacher, he went to Stop Bullying Now on the web to learn about how to approach the problem, so he felt informed when he emailed his daughter’s teacher about the problem. At other times, when facing a complicated challenge such as a medical diagnosis, too much information at once is a source of additional stress. At such times filtering or finding a good communicator to explain the circumstances in simpler and clearer terms is called for.

Direction: Every effort at managing stress and solving personal problems can be viewed as either an “approach-confront” effort or an “avoid-escape” effort. Calling a store manager about an episode of poor product quality or service would be an example of an “approach” effort. Telling a co-worker that his sarcastic remarks about women being poor drivers are inappropriate and unwelcome, would be another example of an “approach” effort. Listening to music to take your mind off your problems, or going for a run, would be examples of ‘escape’or ‘avoid’tactics. In general, when problems can be solved or at least mitigated, it is best to take an “approach-confront” direction to tackling your problems. When there’s nothing you can do at the moment to change the situation, an “avoid-escape” tactic is generally best because it lets you avoid worrying about things over which you have no control. The implication for your personal stress management is that you should think about whether there is anything you can do at this time to make your situation better; if so, then take an “approach” tactic to tackle the problem, if not, then adopt an “escapist-avoidant” approach to lessen your feelings of worry and distress over the situation (until such future time or circumstances allow for positive action, then switch to the approach-confront position).

An end-point: Very few stresses go on forever. Keeping the end-point in mind helps to put a cap on the level of stress associated with any life problem. Example: when Patricia’s long, drawn-out divorce proceedings led to a sharing of custody of the children, she knew it would only be a matter of time before her ex-husband would raise custody issues again. While not ignoring other coping strategies, she also took comfort from the fact that their youngest child was approaching 11 years old, and for all practical purposes any fighting over custody would end after five years or so. Another example: when Chauncey’s National Guard unit was called up for active duty, he knew it would be a difficult tour. While not ignoring other coping strategies, he also took comfort from the fact that the tour would end in approximately 11 months and his life could return to normal after that.

A plan: Until we form a plan in our minds for handling a stress, our anxiety builds up with almost no limit. A plan gives us direction and a way to channel our energy toward a productive outcome. A plan can be elaborate and long-term, such as planning to change career paths, or it can be simple as a single item that gets us to the next step. Example: when Ken felt a lump on his back while showering, his worry started to keep him up at night. Instead of staying up all night fretting and searching the internet, he made a simple plan to call his doctor in the morning and have it looked at. The plan gave him direction and allowed him to go to sleep that night.

Social support: The intensity of everyday life problems is multiplied when we try to keep it all bottled up inside. Seeking support can be informal, when we communicate our concerns to trusted friends and loved ones, or more formal, when we seek professional expertise or join a support group. Indeed, social isolation itself is a major stressor for many in today’s society. Research has shown that, for any given medical illness, individuals with the lowest levels of “social interaction” are 2.5 times more likely to die from that illness as compared to those with average levels of social interaction (it is thought that loneliness causes stress, which in turn worsens illness). Example: Carol didn’t know how to cope with the death of her father, an active man who died unexpectedly of a sudden heart attack. She joined a grief group through EAP and learned how to deal with a range of intense feelings about the loss. She felt less alone in her grief and loss by getting to know others going through the same life experience. She realized that she was capable of giving to others, even at her time of loss and pain, reminding her that even though something irreplaceable had been lost, something of value remained intact.

An outlet: Having an outlet for stress is vital to give our minds a rest from worries and problems and for living a well-rounded, interesting life. Exercise benefits the mind, body, and emotions and should be part of everyone’s routine. Hobbies, music, being in nature, and volunteering in the community are other fantastic outlets for stress. Example: Terri worked long days in accounting and finance. She discovered that learning the piano in the evenings awakened a different part of her brain that she didn’t get to use during her day job and energized and refreshed her. An outlet can be challenging and active, such as painting, playing music, or leading a scout troop, or it can be passive and vegetative, such as watching TV or coin collecting. Outlets that are too costly or time-consuming run the risk of becoming escapist and addictive.

Routine: Life’s problems and worries often go on for a long time before coming to a resolution so it’s important to maintain a health-promoting, life-sustaining, spiritually and emotionally-uplifting daily routine in the meantime. Even when you can’t control your major problems, you can make daily choices in your zone of control that generate positive results. These may include regular exercise, getting a good night’s sleep, eating lots of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, keeping your social connections alive, answering your mail and paying your bills, identifying positive and meaningful life goals, breaking away from dwelling on your own issues and making a commitment to being a positive force in the lives of others, and finding the right attitude (see next paragraph).

Attitude: Our immediate reaction to a setback is automatic, but after the initial reaction our attitude about the situation is surprisingly under our control, albeit with patience and effort. When you’re stuck on a setback or negative life event, consider whether it’s time for an attitude adjustment on your part. Think of it this way: there is absolutely no situation in life that is improved by having a negative attitude about it! Example: Tim, a private and somewhat introverted professional, took an assignment in a new city where he didn’t know anyone. He knew that with steady effort it was only a matter of time before he built up a new social network, and that the only obstacle that could prevent him from achieving that goal was his attitude. He learned not to let social anxiety, pessimism, or fear of failure determine his actions, and as a result he went on to make good friends while on assignment. Therefore, don’t let negativity take hold of you; instead, always challenge yourself to find a positive side, a silver lining, or a life lesson somewhere in your situation. Having an attitude where you love — or at least like — what you do each day is also important. We have all seen people who have incredibly stressful jobs, but their stress is manageable because they love the job and they get to do things that use innate personal strengths. There are a variety of successful coping attitudes in response to a variety of life challenges; some adjectives that describe winning attitudes include: Positive, Purposeful, Persevering, Opportunistic, Courageous, Joyful, Unruffled, Tranquil, Tenacious, etc. Distinguishing between what is not under your control (e.g., an aviation accident or our national debt) from what is under your control (i.e., personal Attitude, Effort, and Conduct) is an important distinction.

Acceptance: Some things cannot be changed or undone. When this is the case, the issue is no longer a problem to be ‘solved’, but a ‘fact of life’that can/must be acknowledged through the practice of acceptance. In psychology, ‘acceptance’means acknowledging the reality of a situation, not putting your entire life on hold until an unpleasant part of it disappears. It means starting from what is, and building —or rebuilding —from there. Paradoxically, acceptance is not incompatible with working to (eventually) change or improve a situation. In fact, the reverse is often true: accepting a that a rotten situation exists frees you from expending negative emotions fighting a painful reality, and frees you up to use your energies elsewhere, where you might be able to make a difference for yourself or those around you. Acceptance brings a calm that reduces frazzled nerves and makes life more tolerable. Common ‘facts of life’ that acceptance might help someone to cope with include: rush hour traffic, road-rage drivers, an ungrateful or difficult teenage child, your boyfriend or girlfriend breaking up with you, getting diagnosed with diabetes or another chronic medical problem, going to grad school that demands long hours of study and little time for socializing, or the problem of world hunger.

In sum, when you’re faced with any stress in life, think about getting the right information identifying an end-point, developing a plan, choosing a predominant direction of “approach” or “escape” from the stressor, maximizing social support, finding an outlet, maintaining a healthy routine improving your attitude, and/or practicing acceptance. You’ll be amazed at how much difference you can make in your stress levels.

©2015 by Larry H. Pastor, M.D.