Imagine two people working in the same job, same office, with the same degree of stress. One person handles the job and the pressure seemingly well, the other takes some personal time off as a result of burnout. What gives? “It is not stress that kills us,” said Hans Selye, endocrinologist and an icon of stress research, “It is our reaction to it.”
There are healthy and other not so healthy ways of dealing with stress. Laughter, exercise, and seeking support from others are all examples of healthy coping techniques. Curling up into a ball and crying in the corner or digging into your third helping of comfort food…not the best way to go. Some will argue at this point that when it comes to problems or issues that are lifelong (like an illness), it’s not so easy to laugh or exercise the stress off. True, some stressful circumstances cannot change…how we react to them, however, can.
Research generally divides stress coping mechanisms into three types:
1) Problem-Focused Coping: This refers to ways of handling stress that deal with taking action in order to improve the stressor. PF coping strategies are not particularly useful in situations that you can’t control (for example, a life-long illness), but they’re pretty handy when you’re dealing with a stressful situation that can be modified. An example of a Problem-Focused strategy is “Information Seeking”, in which you seek out knowledge and guidance on how to deal with the stressful situation (e.g. seeking the advice of a therapist to help deal with a divorce).
2) Emotion-Focused Coping: Methods of handling stressful situations that entail learning how to deal with the situation emotionally. In situations where Problem-Focused coping doesn’t work so well, emotion-focused coping is the way to go. Emotion-focused coping is a very useful strategy when dealing with stressors that you can’t change or control. Examples include seeking emotional support (from family, friends, an online community), and “Positive Cognitive Restructuring”, which involves putting the situation in perspective (“Things could be worse.” “There are people whose life is much difficult than mine.” “My experience can be useful to help and guide others.”)
3) “Empty” Coping Strategies: Ruminating and obsessing over a problem, or refusing to think about it at all…watching TV…eating comfort food, using alcohol or drugs. These may work in the short-term, but in most cases, they actually exacerbate the stressful situation. Essentially, you’ll be much worse for wear.
So what type of coping skills do most people use? Men have often been viewed as the strong, silent types, but women are not as fragile as they are often depicted. But who handles stress better? Queendom’s data reveals that while men did outscore women in that they used more positive than negative coping techniques, it was only by a very slight margin (score of 60 vs. 59 respectively). In terms of coping strategies, when faced with stress, women were more likely to seek out helpful information (score of 60 for women, 54 for men) and social support from others (score of 53 for women, 47 for men). Men, on the other hand, were more likely to find ways to calm down, such as taking time to relax or finding an outlet – blogging, listen to music – to vent their emotions (score of 58 for men, 55 for women). In terms of unhealthy methods of coping, men were more likely to distract themselves (score of 61 for men, 56 for women), which isn’t a problem per se as long as they face the stressor eventually, while women were more likely to ruminate excessively (54 for women, 47 for men), to feel helpless (40 for women, 33 for men), and to become unfriendly or argumentative (42 for women, 36 for men).
Age differences were also quite distinct and in some cases, surprising. The use of healthy stress management techniques, like information-seeking, seeking social support, negotiation (compromising goals, changing mindset, or behavior in order to better fit within the constraints of the stressful situation), and positive cognitive restructuring (adopting a more optimistic view) tended to increase with age. Younger age groups (29 and under) were more likely to turn to distractions when under stress. Interestingly, the 30-39 age group were the most likely to ruminate (score of 58), to feel helpless (score of 41), to withdraw from people and social situations (score of 43) and to take their stress out on others (score of 44).
Queendom’s data also reveal that, when faced with stress in their life:
- Only 50% of people indicated that they take time to relax.
- 45% indicated that they prefer to keep their problems to themselves.
- 15% of people indicated that they reject help from others.
- 16% admitted that they use drugs and alcohol more frequently.
- 36% said they turn to prayer or attend spiritual services.
- 31% said they hand their fate over to God or some external force.
- 30% joined a support group.
- 37% exercised.
How do you cope with stress? Share your comments below!
Join me for next week’s discussion on Type A Personality!