When something is bothering me, there is almost nothing that can detract me from my obsessive contemplation of it. I’m a ruminator, plain and simple. I look at the problem like Sherlock Holmes looks at a crime scene, angle by angle, analyzing every grisly detail over and over. My head feels like that popcorn my grandmother used to buy – the one that comes in its own frying pan. You heat it up, and a little dome builds, getting bigger and bigger. I often find myself wishing that my head came equipped with a safety release valve, like pressure cookers have. One twist, and then *pffffffffffffffffffffttt* all the stress is gone.
Distraction has never been my modus operandi when it comes to dealing with the problems that crop up in my life. Nope, I’m a glutton for punishment. I build mental shrines to my problems and make it a point to visit them at least once a day. But distraction has become the coping strategy du jour for many Millennials like me, and to an even greater and more worrisome extent, to Centennials. The world is filled with a variety of distractions that can arguably be divided into “good” and “bad,” but they all serve the same purpose: To offer us a pleasurable diversion from the pressures of life. Too much distraction, however, may not be a good thing.
Analyzing data from our Coping & Stress Management Skills Test, we divided participants in our study into four generational groups:
- Generation Z, iGen, or Centennials: Born after 1996, which would make them 21 and younger in 2017.
- Generation Y or Millennials: Born between 1977 and 1995, with an age range of 22 to 40.
- Generation X: Born between 1965 and 1976, ranging from age 41 to 52.
- Baby Boomers: Born between 1945 and 1964: aged between 72 and 92.
We then examined how each group scored on 12 methods of coping , six of which are considered healthy, adaptive strategies, the other six being generally unhealthy. The coping strategies include the following:
- Problem-solving: This involves taking a direct approach to a problem or stressor, by actively looking for possible solutions to either resolve the issue or diminish its impact on your state of mind.
- Information-seeking: Like the problem-solving strategy, adopting this method means taking an active rather than passive approach by seeking out information to help you understand your problem, and how to deal with it.
- Social Support: This strategy involves seeking advice, insight, or support from friends, loved ones, a doctor, therapist, pastor, or a community of individuals who are dealing with or have dealt with the same problem.
- Positive Cognitive Restructuring: This approach involves changing the way you view a stressful stress situation to something more positive – finding the silver lining, so to speak. For example, after an acquaintance of mind was diagnosed with colon cancer, I asked her how she felt about it. She said, “All my life, when my clients would tell me they had cancer, I could only sympathize with them because I never had their experience…so I felt I couldn’t really help. Now that I’m going through it, now that I know it can be beat, I can offer better support and advice.”
- Negotiation: This approach consists of changing yours goals or behavior in order to better fit within the constraints of the stressful situation. So for example, let’s say you’re going through a really difficult time at home, and it’s distracting you from the project you are working on. Negotiation could involve asking your teachers/boss for an extension on your deadline.
- Emotional Regulation: This method focuses on dealing with the negative feelings surrounding the problem by engaging in tactics like meditation, mindfulness, exercise, etc., or finding outlets to express these emotions. Emotional regulation is one of the best tactics to use if you’re dealing with a problem/stressor that can’t be changed (e.g. you’ve be partnered on a project with someone you really hate).
- Distraction: This approach to stress involves engaging in fun diversions to temporarily get your mind off the problem…emphasis on temporarily. Granted, some problems will resolve themselves if you leave them alone (I love those problems), but you can’t deal with the blinking “Fix Engine” light on your dashboard by putting a smiley sticker over it.
- Rumination: When dealing with a stressful problem, people who use this strategy (like yours truly) give the issue endless thought in the effort to come up with a solution. However, while all problems deserve their due consideration, ruminators do this excessively, which is counterproductive because it actually increases the amount of stress and pressure they feel.
- Avoidance: People who use this tactic hesitate to take any action to resolve the issue. They ignore the problem and may even go as far as to pretend it doesn’t exist.
- Helplessness: When someone resorts to this strategy when dealing with stress, they simply give up the fight. They make no attempt to resolve or change the situation. Now, giving up isn’t always a bad thing. Oftentimes, the worst part of a problem is all the nervous, negative energy that gets stirred up as we try desperately to battle against it. Giving up can relieve that pressure…and in the process, open your mind up to the perfect solution.
- Social Withdrawal: I will admit that I’m guilty of this sometimes. I’m one of those stubborn, “I-will-carry-the-burden-alone” kind of people. Rather than seeking help from others, people who use this strategy take the opposite approach: They withdraw from the people who would be willing to help. Withdrawers may even become recluses, refusing to leave the house, let alone get out of bed.
- Opposition: Know someone who always seems to get angry over everything all the time? Anger can mask a lot of other emotions: Sadness, fear, hurt, and stress. Individuals who adopt this tactic tend to deal with pressure by lashing out at other people. Rather than take responsibility for the problem, they blame others. And regularly readers of my blog will know that I don’t advocate blame: It robs you of your power to take responsibility and change your life.
According to our study, here are the top 5 coping strategies adopted by each generation:
What you’ll notice is that both Baby Boomers and Gen Xers use healthy strategies as their top 5 go-to stress management tactics. Much to our surprise, however, seeking out social support from loved ones was the least common coping strategy among the healthy ones. This was the case for all four generations. Among the negative stress management tactics, Avoidance was the least common, indicating that while most people may struggle to cope with a stressful problem, they will force themselves to face it eventually.
I view these results with mixed feelings. The use of healthy distractions – exercising, doing something fun, watching a comedy – isn’t a problem per se. When a problem is occupying your mind to the point where it’s making it difficult for you to function, then getting your mind off the issue is a good idea. As an over-analytical ruminator, I can say with compunction that obsessively over-thinking an issue is unhealthy, and can make it exceedingly difficult for a person to concentrate or to sleep, and may lead to anxiety and depression if it becomes excessive. The added benefit of distraction is that a lot of solutions to problems come to us when our brain isn’t overloaded and when we are in a calmer state of mind. However, at some point, you will need to face the reality of your situation. Consistently dealing with stressful situations by resorting to distraction can lead to escapism, where the individual completely loses touch with reality through books, movies, or video games and, on the more extreme side, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other forms of reckless risk-taking. Temporary distraction is fine, but you can’t avoid your problems forever.
This is where I feel the current education system misses the boat. I was taught how to read and write, write an essay, do long division, and calculate the circumference of a circle. I was never taught how to regulate my emotions and deal with stress. I’ve said this before and will say it again: We need to include emotional intelligence training in the curriculum, because school teaches us little about how to navigate through life on a personal level. Young people need the resources to learn better ways to cope with life’s ups and downs.