Emotional Health•Healing • 6 minutes to read
When life becomes stressful, we all have ways we respond or attempt to manage the situation. Our problem-solving thoughts and behaviors are often referred to as coping strategies: our individual way of dealing with stress and adversity.
Some of our coping strategies can be very effective and contribute to our ability to make adjustments and thrive, even in the midst of a stressful situation. This is often referred to as being resilient: having the skills and capacity to recover quickly when facing challenges. However, some of our coping strategies are not helpful and can perpetuate unhealthy behaviors, adding more stress to our lives.
We might think our coping strategies are fixed; when life goes sideways, we respond and react the same way to every form of stress. But this isn’t always the case. Our coping strategies have a tendency to morph and change over time, almost taking on a life of their own.
Here are a few things you might want to know about coping strategies. Coping strategies are:
- constantly changing.
- involved with both thoughts and behaviors.
- intentional and require effort.
- focused on managing specific stressors.
- evident when internal or external stressors exceed one’s ability to manage what’s happening.
And even when we think we are handling life’s stressors well—we think we are coping well—we can end up in a place where our coping strategies are becoming unhealthy.
How can we tell the difference?
Here are four questions to help us evaluate whether or not our coping strategies are healthy or unhealthy.
Are you seeking solitude or isolation?
When life becomes stressful and feels out of control, it is common for some people to want to take a step back to think and process the situation on their own.
I am very much this way. My independent, introverted temperament wants to take in all the information and process it in my head before sharing or discussing it with anyone else. For me, being “inside my head” for a while allows me to focus, problem-solve, and pray before re-engaging in my external world.
In this, my goal is not to isolate and avoid people but to gain some perspective by stepping out of the busyness, calming my mind, and listening to the Holy Spirit. This is solitude.
On many occasions, even Jesus sought solitude for several reasons:
- When preparing for a major task
- To rest and recharge
- When experiencing grief
- Before making important decisions
- During times of distress
- To focus on prayer
Solitude is all about taking intentional time away from others to refresh, refocus, and reinforce healthy behaviors. When we use it this way, it is a healthy coping strategy.
Does it move you toward or away from relationships?
This is especially telling when it comes to our coping strategies. Even after seeking solitude, are we re-engaging in our normal, healthy relationships or are we continuing to pull away from others?
Honestly, this can be a little tricky.
If the stress we’re experiencing is the result of a ruptured relationship, it might take some time to restore this relationship. But, even in the midst of this situation, we should be seeking support and wise counsel from our other relationships; the other key people who walk out life with us.
I have a couple core people in my life who I can connect with anytime, day or night, when I’m facing challenges. Even when I don’t want to talk about it, I can shoot them a quick text and say, “Will you please pray? I just found out…” Without giving them all the details right away, this initial step of trust and vulnerability keeps me moving toward relationship.
Like a magnet to metal, when life goes sideways and we feel stressed, our coping strategies need to move us toward relationship—toward relationship with God and others.
How does it impact your emotional health?
There is nothing wrong with feeling sad, overwhelmed, or angry when experiencing stress. We all respond and react with a variety of emotions. However, the key is recognizing how our coping strategies are affecting our emotional health.
Another way to think of this is to ask yourself, Does my coping strategy produce positive or negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors?
For example, if I take time in solitude to pray and process what’s happening (which has been a successful coping strategy in the past), but remain easily angered and lash out at the people around me, this might not be the best coping strategy for this situation. I may need a different, more specific approach to handling this level of stress. If coping strategies are constantly changing, require effort, and are focused on managing specific stressors, then I need to be adaptable and develop a new, better coping strategy. Perhaps processing out loud with my spouse or a trusted friend will have a more positive affect on my emotional health.
When implementing our coping strategies, assessing the impact it has on our emotional health is important. If our coping strategy is causing us to feel depressed, irritable, or lonely, we might need to try something different. If it’s causing us to feel calm, refreshed, and energized, it’s probably working well as a healthy coping strategy.
Does it bring balance to your life?
Some of our best coping strategies have a great way of bringing balance to our internal and external worlds. They strengthen the connections between our heart, soul, and mind. They produce feelings of peace and inspire personal growth. They contribute to our resiliency.
This sounds great! But how do we know if our coping strategies are doing all of this?
When faced with one of life’s many stressful situations, do you:
- turn off your phone and isolate yourself from the outside world?
- maintain your busy schedule, thinking it will be a good distraction from the situation?
- binge watch shows as a means of escape?
- lash out in anger at the people around you?
Or are you intentional and deliberate when you:
- take time in solitude for prayer and to mentally process the situation?
- reach out to trusted friends for support and encouragement?
- slow down and make more time for self-care?
There are so many other behaviors that could show up on this list, but the point is: how we react and respond when feeling stressed is a good indication of how well our coping strategies are working.
I know from personal experience, even when I think my coping strategies are working well, life can throw me something unexpected and my worst, most unhealthy coping strategies become my go-to. But I’m learning how important it is to continue to change and adapt my coping strategies, making sure they are healthy.
I don’t do all of this perfectly every time but when caught up in a stressful situation, I take time in solitude for prayer, to gain insight from the Holy Spirit. I invite others into my situation, so they can provide perspective and support. I’m intentional about self-care, getting good nutrition and sleep. I do my best to stay engaged in the reality of my situation, even when it’s difficult and painful. What can I say, I’m a work in progress.
The more I can analyze and recognize whether or not my coping strategies are healthy or unhealthy, and working well, the better I’m able to make changes when needed.
So, how are your coping strategies working for you?