Coping with Stress

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Coping with Stress

Remember: stress is a normal part of life - it is only a problem when it causes long-term disruption or illness. Normal stress levels can energise and motivate us, directing our behaviour in useful ways.

However, in most modern lifestyles, the pressures on people are immense and most people find themselves having to find ways of coping with stressful situations in their everyday lives.

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The two major components of stress shown in the diagram above, suggest two ways to reduce stress: a biological approach or a psychological approach.

A biological approach might involve drugs or biofeedback, for example.

A psychological approach involves psychotherapy to change cognitive and emotional responses to situations.

It has been found that women tend to use more emotional strategies - changing the way they think about a situation - to try to cope with stress, while men tend to focus more on changing the situation they see as a problem.

Coping with stress can be difficult. It takes time and effort to find new strategies and it can be very hard to overcome the effects of past experience - but a wide range of successful therapies for the treatment of stress is now open to people.

On top of this, the problems of being overloaded at work and stress-related illnesses are now far better understood.

These methods of dealing with stress focus on ways to minimize and control the body's alarm reactions by direct intervention in the body's chemistry.

These methods are appropriate for people in acute stress states or those who need rapid treatment because they may be vulnerable to heart attack, stroke or blood pressure problems.

Drug treatments may include the use of anti-anxiety drugs, such as benzodiazepines (BZs). Benzodiazepines are also known as 'tranquillizers'; examples are Valium, Librium and Mogadon. These drugs can reduce general arousal and anxiety levels and also help to treat insomnia. There is a danger that people may develop dependence on these drugs.

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Other drugs used to treat symptoms of stress include beta-blockers. These can reduce levels of physiological arousal, heart rate and blood pressure.

Another biological approach is biofeedback. The person holds a monitor to measure pulse and blood pressure - they then practice meditation and relaxation techniques to reduce their level of arousal. The results are fed back to them by computer so that they can see how well they are doing. In this way, a person can learn to control their level of physiological arousal, reducing the effects of stress.

The simplest psychological approaches to reducing the symptoms of stress are relaxation and meditation techniques.

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Progressive muscle relaxation can reduce physical tension and meditation can reduce anxieties. The effects of these techniques tend to be pretty short-lived though, so to be effective they need to become a regular part of a person's lifestyle.

Other psychological approaches - cognitive-behavioural approaches - focus on training a person in new ways of thinking and behaving.

For example: Kobasa's hardy personality theory has led to the development of training in 'hardiness'. This is about gaining a sense of control over a situation.

In this type of training, the person has to identify stressful situations then analyse them for specific sources of stress - they then work out ways of dealing with those stressors in different ways, seeing them as challenges rather than problems.

It might be that the challenges to an individual in a situation are too great and so they are encouraged to take control by only accepting challenges they are able to cope with. They may be encouraged to train in new skills so that they can meet more difficult challenges.

In the 1980s, Meichenbaum came up with the idea of 'stress inoculation training' (SIT).

The difference with this approach is that it is meant to be a preventative measure to reduce levels of stress in the first place.

In this type of training, people draw up a detailed analysis of all the sources of stress in their lives and think about their previous coping strategies. In the next stage, people are given 'skills training' and asked to practice these. Skills training might involve examination techniques, interpersonal skills or time-management.

People are encouraged to apply the new skills they have learned to real situations and follow-up sessions check progress.

SIT has been very popular with large businesses and corporations with large numbers of employees in stressful jobs.

The approaches outlined above aim to reduce stress by reducing the gap between the demands placed on a person and their perception of their ability to cope.

By closing that gap, a person's confidence increases and the stress they feel is reduced.

The diagram below gives a quick summary of the principles of the cognitive-behavioural approach to dealing with stress.

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In this type of therapy, the therapist helps the person to be objective about the sources of stress and to develop new ways of dealing with stressful situations.

Psychological approaches have also been applied in 'anger management' courses since anger has been found to increase vulnerability to heart disease. These courses challenge a person's views of themselves and others.

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