Home | Psychology of Wellness | Healthy Coping Skills
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | January 18, 2019 (edited October 17, 2022)
The flourishing life is not stress free. It is stress resilient. The flourishing life manages stress with healthy coping skills.
A shocking realization for many is that life, at every stage, is stressful. We keep soothing our fears by imagining that around the next corner we will finally be able to relax. Hoping for better while gritting our teeth in the present doesn't appeal to me. Stress seems to be ever present as we move through life. We won't escape stress. We must learn effectively coping skills to happily with our ever-present house guest—stress.
Life is Stressful
We move through life, experiencing age and stage specific worries as we age. The anxieties of the teen age years wane and morph into the worries of an emerging adult, those anxieties give way to the stress of raising a family, only to subside when worries over retirement, aging parents, and troubled adult children take center stage. Eventually, we hit those golden years where are cognitive powers and physical strength decline. Friends and loved ones proceed us into the grave and we must process these sorrows along with our own fears of death.
Health, relationships, and finances accompany us on the tremendous journey of life, giving great joys and heavy hearts with each glorious step. By mustering the strength and skills to resiliently manage stress, we enhance the joys and temper the pain.
Varying Intensities of Stress
Stress comes in varying intensities. At lower levels, we process the annoyances without skipping a step, moving through the strain. At higher arousals, the stress isn’t so easily ignored. The unplanned interference knocks us from our plan, requiring a energy draining march towards recovery.
Possessing and utilizing effective coping skills for stress increases our ability to manage the setbacks and rebalance. Unfortunately, many stress coping strategies are maladaptive, momentarily relieving the weight without creating an enduring solution.
"An effective stress response increases our ability to enjoy life."
Primary and Secondary Adaptations
Our coping strategies fall within two general groupings: primary and secondary adaptations. Amy Morin at Verywellmind refers to the different adaptations as emotion-focused and problem focused (2020). Neither primary nor secondary adaptations are inherently wrong. Each has a proper place and purpose.
The strategies are not mutually exclusive. Most problems require both. We regulate the emotion and address the cause.
See Three Emotional Regulation Techniques for more on this topic
A primary adaptation is a behavioral response to resolve the source of stress. We find different employment away from the narcissistic boss, we learn relationship skills to improve our marriage.
When there is an obvious thorn causing discomfort, the best response is to remove the thorn. We don't need robust emotional regulation techniques that distract and deny an irritation that can and should be fixed.
A secondary adaptation provides relief from the stress, preventing overwhelm without address some underlying cause. We dream of a better future, lose ourselves in an addiction, distract with a hobby or practice mindfulness.
Some stressors will continually revisit our lives, pushing and pulling, knocking us off balance. Many of these stressors have no clear resolutions; they are inherent problems of mortality. Constantly searching for answers that don’t exist exhausts our systems and depresses our souls. These battles, fraught with uncertainty, often lead to depression and helplessness, leaving the victim beaten and alone.
We see this pattern expressed in hopeless charges for perfection. A person shaken in confidence, seeks to address the internal stress through detailed and unwavering goals intended to solve the unseen sense of not being enough. The achievements only provide momentary relief and new, more demanding goals are set.
Eventually, this stress response to an internal condition will fail in exhaustion and depression. Success must be found in addressing the confidence in more direct ways, understanding that, in this case, the lack of confidence is more likely caused by faulty psychological processes than limited achievements.
See Self Determination Theory for more on this topic
Secondary adaptation coping skill is to change our perception of the stressful problem. Perceptions can enhance or lessen stress.
A reoccurring stress gains power—not because the problem has intensified but our relationship to it changes. Small warns that the stress is returning throws us into high arousal. Our perception and history of the problem changes, as does our physical reaction.
We remember the power and the consequence from the past. The stress is compounded by anxiety worrying about the approaching storm. Secondary adaptations may prove helpful to lessen the impact. We can confront the anxiety with mindful breathing techniques, distraction, or momentary pleasures.
Secondary adaptations have drawbacks as well. Distraction escapes can lead to addictions. Too many overwhelmed from life find relaxation through sneaking into our chemical pleasure systems, achieving momentary satisfaction through artificial means of altering the functioning of the mind.
Non-prescribed or poorly prescribed drug interventions wreak havoc on our futures. The changing pleasure threshold, and unaddressed stress combine to create a future destroying force of more problems and less satisfaction from the protecting intoxication.
While we will never have complete control over the cross winds blowing us off course, we can prepare, adjust, and cope with stressful events. We do this by placing many arrows in our quiver. Sometimes we move forward with proper action, other times, we dodge and recover. Sometimes we engage and sometimes we disengage.
We also prepare by strengthening our coping resources with other staples of healthy living. We build strong relationships, we eat healthy diets, we schedule proper rest into our days, and we exercise. The basics can’t be ignored in any discussion of well-being.
See Ego Depletion for more on this topic
Each stage of life can bring joys and sorrows. Our childhood curiosities, young adult discoveries, family connections, career development and restful retirements all bring thrilling and wondrous enjoyments—and challenges. Right living during the previous stages invites dreams to grow into realities as we progress to whatever life brings next. We flourish when we master the challenges, working through the sorrows by employing healthy coping techniques.
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Morin, A. (2020). Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions. Verywellmind. Published 4-3-2020. Accessed 3-11-2021.