Behavioral Strategies for Coping with Stress

June 13, 2017

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to change a behavior? Maybe you really want to quit smoking, or drinking, or overeating and you have a long list of reasons why changing feels like an important thing to do (“I’ll be healthier”, “my wife won’t be angry at me when I come home”, “I’ll be more productive in the mornings”). And then, in spite of your best intentions, you find yourself turning back to the old behavior.

There are many complex reasons why changing a long-standing behavior pattern can be hard to do. And if you are trying to change a behavioral pattern that involves drugs or alcohol, it becomes even more complicated as psychoactive substances (like nicotine, caffeine, alcohol, opiates), as well as many behaviors (sex, gambling, shopping, texting) all directly impact the reward centers of the brain. Engaging in these behaviors typically “feels good” in some way, so they are even harder to give up!

If you find yourself wanting to change but constantly returning to an old pattern that includes using substances, it might be a good idea to evaluate your overall level of “stress.” Stress, which can result in both physical and emotional symptoms, can make the already difficult process of change even harder. When we are in a state of high stress, we tend to look for things that will make us feel “better.” The effect of substances (like alcohol, pot, nicotine, opiates) is that they feel good in some way (e.g., they reduce tension, anxiety, or they pick up mood). So, when stress is high, giving up something that feels good is going to be harder than it may usually be. If your stress is chronic, then the thought of making any changes to your behaviors can seem monumental in the moment. That extra perceived effort can also derail your behavior change goals.

So…how can you reduce the impact stress has on your ability to make changes? Start by learning to identify the signs that your are stressed and then try to listen to your body and enact some of the coping skills mentioned below.

Physical Signs of Stress:

Stress can make your body hurt and make you feel sluggish and tired. In fact, sleep disruptions are one of the hallmark symptoms of being overly stressed. Some of the most common physical signs of stress include stiff neck and back pain, headaches, and decreased libido. If you notice any of these symptoms, it is possible that you’re dealing with stress! The following are important coping strategies to address the physical symptoms of stress.

  1. Practice good sleep hygiene. Yes, there IS such a thing as sleep hygiene, which includes techniques having a consistent sleep and wake up time (if you don’t, you wind up functioning in a state of “jet lag”), avoiding caffeinated and alcoholic drinks close to bedtime, practicing getting into a relaxed state when you go to bed, and shutting off electronic devices.
  2. Give yourself regular breaks. Take a walk, stop working and eat a good dinner (not from the vending machine!) or talk with a friend. Give your mind a moment to rest and reorganize. Contrary to many people’s first instincts when they are stressed, taking breaks actually makes you more efficient, more energetic, and better able to tackle the challenges in front of you.
  3. Regularly practice self-soothing techniques. Think about the 5 senses, and this will give you clues as to how you can give yourself comfort. What works for you? Listening to music, taking a bath, watching a movie, getting a massage, relaxation, yoga are all on the long list of possible ways to self-soothe. Make efforts to include these strategies in your daily routine as they will help you cope with stress and prevent becoming more stressed.
  4. Exercise regularly. Ironically, exercise is one of the first things to fall by the wayside yet is one of the most important coping techniques in terms of reducing tension and increasing energy! No matter how stressed and frantic you are feeling, remember that a brisk 20 minute walk will likely help.
  5. Maintain a healthy diet. When your mind is full of worries and pressures, many people find that they slip into “mindless eating” (eating whatever is immediately available…”the vending machine phenomena” or cravings carbs and sweets for a quick, but unsustainable, burst of energy). Maintaining a balanced diet of foods that provide a more constant source of energy (instead of that sugar spike) can be a great first line of defense against the adverse effects of stress. Even more importantly it will help you maintain a connection to your long term goals.
  6. Limit your consumption of alcohol and other mood altering substances (including sleeping aids). While a couple of glasses of wine at night can take the tension out of your shoulders for the moment, it can cause sleep disruptions and an increase in depressed mood, which, in turn, keeps your stress levels high, and increases your tension for the next day.

Behavioral Signs of Stress:

Sometimes when you’re stressed, the first noticeable signs are how you are acting (your behaviors). These can include increased clutter in your personal or work space, forgetting what you’re doing or having trouble organizing yourself, and moving around very quickly or very slowly. The following suggestions are coping skills that can mitigate the signs of stress that show up in your behavior.

  1. Routine, routine, routine… the best way to manage the disorganization and impulsiveness that come along with high levels of stress is to stick to a routine. It can be helpful to take 10 minutes every morning and plan out your day, setting aside time for the things that are causing your stress (work, household responsibilities) and the things that will help you manage it (exercise, contact with friends, pleasurable activities).
  2. Write things down. If ideas are running around in your head as you try to go to sleep at night, set aside 10 minutes about an hour before you go to bed to write down all the things you are worried that you haven’t done or will forget to do. Don’t go beyond 10 minutes as this technique is not about ruminating and obsessing! It is about teaching your brain that you have all your worries recorded and that you will get to them the next day. Think of it like packing all your worries in a suitcase, and then putting it away, not to be opened until tomorrow. Then spend the hour before you go to bed engaged in some routine, soothing activities like reading a book or taking a bath.

Mental and emotional signs of stress:

Finally, stress can show up in your emotions or in your internal world. This can look like feeling very emotional and having your emotions change wildly with little notice, or feeling disconnected from everything around you. There are several techniques that can help you manage the negative effects stress has on your thoughts and feelings, here’s one:

  1. Be mindful of your attitude and approach to your life. The way we see ourselves in the world can have a big impact on how we experience stress. For example, feeling like you need to be perfect can make you a thorough and precise person who is counted on by others to do a good job. Great!..BUT… that way of thinking can also cause an enormous amount of internal stress since no one is perfect and no one can function at 100% in all areas of their life. Changing your thoughts from “I have to work on this project until I get it done perfectly”…to “I’ll do the best that I can in the time that I have” can take your stress levels down to something much more manageable. Similarly, many people feel that they should be able to manage everything without asking for help. While this attitude in life can make you a very independent person, it can also cause you to be more burdened and less efficient that you need be…realizing that everyone needs help sometimes can act to reduce stress.

Understanding and recognizing when you’re stressed and how you’re expressing your stress are important in helping you find which skills you need to help cope with your stress. Remember, stress is an important and inevitable part of life, it will show up for you at some point. Practicing these skills can help you cope with your stress so you can continue with your life and stay true to your larger goals and values.

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