Well + wise: Coping with stress
July 1, 2021
by Juliet Lam Kuehnle
This past year has been stressful for most of us because of so many new challenges. Now we may also be experiencing “re-entry” stress as pandemic restrictions loosen, so let’s talk about how to deal with all of this change. Coping skills are strategies used to reduce stress and help us tolerate the discomfort that comes with stressors. Since we can’t make worries and hardships disappear, the best gift we can give ourselves is to learn to trust that we can handle uneasiness and bounce back. Coping skills aren’t one size fits all. What “works” for one person may not “work” for you. Even day to day, your own needs will change. Here are three styles of coping skills:
These deal with the specific cause of a problem. If it is something within our control, we can gather information and make a pros and cons list or a to-do list, ask for help from an expert, or manage our time differently.
Maladaptive, or harmful, coping strategies tend to fall in this category and provide only short-term “relief.” There is definitely a time and place for healthy distraction! The problem comes, though, when avoidance is used reflexively rather than intentionally and infrequently. This causes problems to grow and gives more power to the stressor, making you think you can’t handle the discomfort. Try to increase awareness and recognize when you might be avoiding whatever is causing your stress, and give yourself the chance to come back and process it.
These are the skills you learn in therapy. They can be used to process through stressful times in a healthy and productive way. They include relaxation techniques, deep breathing, grounding skills, journaling, meditation, exercise and intentional self-care.
Ideally, how we cope with stress perfectly aligns with our partners’ coping strategies, creating a calm and well-functioning environment to address problems as they arise. Solving problems as a team promotes a healthier partnership. What do we do when our style of coping creates an additional level of stress for our partner? Deryle Hunter, a local therapist who has been helping individuals and couples for more than 30 years, offers the following suggestions to help us regulate internal feelings of discomfort to communicate better, build resilience, and offer more compassion and understanding.
- Re-frame your interpretation of your partner’s behavior and struggles by practicing empathy.
- If you need to talk in order to feel comforted or understood, it is restorative to be truly heard by your partner. Until your partner is available to be present and listen, practice comforting and soothing yourself.
- When you feel your partner is ready, share your concerns. If you prefer to process things by yourself, there is a chance that your partner may feel disconnected or unimportant to you. By sharing your feelings, you may find that they can understand and love you while you find ways to cope.
- Lashing out may feel better in the moment as a way to discharge built-up emotion, but those exchanges are toxic to the relationship. Think before you speak. Negotiate ways to apologize or accept an apology and find ways to repair the damage if you hurt them.
- Realize that you can’t control people or events. Increasing your acceptance and getting better at tolerating things you can’t control will promote a better sense of agency.
- Remember that anxiety is contagious, but so are kindness and patience.
Kuehnle recently spoke with Charlotte artist Heather Cole of Heather Opal Art. Cole is best-known for her heart-themed canvases, prints and door charms. Below are excerpts from the interview, lightly edited.
Talk to us a bit about your journey with mental health and learning coping skills.
The main reason I paint hearts is because I had heart surgery when I was 17. I’ve always been very aware of how my emotions affect my body, and vice versa. After the procedure, I had to relearn when my body was telling me to chill out. Even before this interview, I was so nervous, I was using my elevator breathing.
Listening to your body is so important — it’s our first line of defense and our alarm system — your physical symptoms are trying to tell you something. So you’ve gotten better at this?
Yes, better at listening and owning it. Because it’s okay to feel that way. And if you have the tools or some act of self-care, you’ll get through it. I don’t have to pretend that I’m okay or hide. I don’t have to make this look good. I can say, “I need a minute.” And I’ve learned that if someone says, “I’m fine,” that is code for: “I am not OK.” Fine is not OK.
We’re conditioned to respond that way, which isn’t always authentic — some of that is so it won’t take on a life of its own and some is our not wanting to burden others. You’ve given yourself permission to own it, and you trust that you’ll get through the temporary discomfort.
Yes, because it gives other people permission to own it, too, and to set boundaries, have more self-respect, and expect respect from other people. Especially during this past year — being a small-business owner, an artist, a stay-at-home mom — I developed a lot of unhealthy coping skills. I had to recognize that my family had taken a back seat to being a working artist and to my love of sparking joy in the community. So, I made a lot of changes. It’s a work in progress from the bad habits that had set in and understanding basic needs.
Juliet Kuehnle is the owner and a therapist at Sun Counseling and Wellness. The full version of Kuehnle’s “Who You Callin’ Crazy?!” interview featuring Heather Cole can be found on Instagram @suncounselingandwellness, @whoyoucallincrazypodcast or wherever you stream podcasts.