Approach coping part 2: Learning how to respond to stressful events.

Jason brien.

In part one of this two-part approach coping series, we learnt that stress and stressors are inevitable and that in order to survive and become resilient in life, it is better for our mental health if we approach stress and stressors rather than avoid them. We also learnt that only arbitrary stressors which are imbued with NEGATIVE significance have the ability to be transformed into stressful events (stress). Arbitrary stressors imbued with positive significance and neutral significance lack this power. We also learnt about factors which influence how we perceive arbitrary stressors and whether those factors increase or decrease the frequency with which we will then imbue the arbitrary stressor with negative significance and thus cause ourselves stress (faulty vs healthy belief systems/schemas, not learning from past mistakes, not rushing to add significance, etc).

Part one also showed us that there are two main goals of approach coping. The first goal is to proactively reduce the frequency in which arbitrary stressors are imbued with negative significance so that the frequency in which we create stressful events is reduced. The second goal of approach coping is understanding that there are going to be times when we cannot stop or prevent stressful events and stress from occurring and, when those times occur, we must ensure that we have healthy and adaptive strategies in place to help us to manage our stress responses and the impact the stress has upon our mind, bodies and emotions. Since part one was focused on the first goal, part two, this article, will focus on the second goal.

So, you have imbued an arbitrary stressor with negative significance and you are now suffering from stress? Whilst there is no ‘do over’ switch per se (you can’t go back in time and prevent yourself from imbuing the arbitrary stressor with negative significance), you can use strategies to help you to minimise the effect the stressful event is having on your mind, body and emotions. For example, let’s say that you discovered that you did not pass an exam (an arbitrary stressor). Upon discovering that you did not pass the exam you used the thought “I am such a loser”. This thought of “I am such a loser”, due to its negativity, created a stressful event which subsequently caused you stress. The ensuing stress causes you to feel a range of negative emotions (anger, shame, disappointment), it increases the negative thoughts you are having about yourself and to top it all off, you go on a two-day drinking binge.

After a couple of days of suffering like this, you are filled with a mixture of rage, disappointment and shame and you feel like going and beating someone up just so that you can feel better about yourself. Rather than taking this drastic step, which will obviously result in you getting into trouble (assuming you get caught), what else can you do to manage your stress? You could potentially use cognitive reappraisal to reframe the stressful event (failed exam led to thoughts of “I am a such a loser”) to reduce the impact the stress and distress is having upon you. Through the power of cognitive reframing, you may choose to reframe the stressful event as “I am not a loser. I was too busy with work and I didn’t study enough which is why I failed”. Let us pretend that this reframed thought was effective and it led to a reduction in your distress (you felt better about yourself, you stopped with the negative thoughts, you stopped feeling so ashamed of yourself, etc).

Although the stressful event remains, because you cannot undo what has already been done, you have minimised how much of an effect the stressful event is having on you. So, whilst the original thought of “I’m a such a loser” led you to treat yourself unkindly and unfairly, the reframed thought “I am not a loser. I was too busy with work and I didn’t study enough which is why I failed” leads you to treat yourself with compassion and understanding. One must be cautious with cognitive reframing though because it has the power to distort reality. For example, reframing the failed exam stress with “It’s not my fault. My professor hates me and he failed me on purpose” may exacerbate your stress and distress and may increase your chances of hurting someone. Similarly, you can use cognitive reframing to completely deny that you even failed the exam (“I didn’t fail. They made a mistake. I know I passed”). This reframed thought may alleviate your stress and distress but does it match reality?

This is why cognitive reframing is not always appropriate or even necessary. Consider this scenario. Someone you cared about has passed away. If you relied upon cognitive reframing to prevent  yourself from imbuing the arbitrary stressor (death) with negative significance (“This is a great loss”), you may well rob yourself of the grieving process which will probably end up causing you more harm than good. This is why toxic positivity can be so dangerous. So, if we must allow ourselves (at certain times) to experience stress, we obviously don’t want it rampaging through our bodies, minds and emotions for days or weeks or months on end like in the failed exam example. Ideally, we want to get on top of the stress as soon as possible. This is where the next few strategies can really help.

How we respond to expected stress vs unexpected stress differs. For example, your loved one has a terminal disease. In this scenario, you have some warning that the death is going to occur at some point which makes it an expected stress. Expected stress can be somewhat easier to than an unexpected stress but I will discuss stress management strategies in relation to both scenarios separately. If you have any kind of warning about the death (or stress in general), you have time to prepare yourself for the impending stress. This is why we gather family and friends around before the death occurs. So that we have support. We may also choose to visit a therapist leading up to the death to help us release our feelings and emotions. We may inform our employer that when the time comes, we will need to take x-number of days off work. The warning about the impending stress has enabled us to prepare ourselves in a number of ways and these preparations will ultimately influence the intensity and duration of the stress.

Unexpected stress, and how we prepare and respond, is different but not necessarily harder. Let us jump back to the exam example we used earlier. Although the exam itself is expected stress, the results are unexpected stress. We often prepare ourselves for the ‘good’ but not so much for the ‘bad’ things. What I mean is, we may say to ourselves “I am going to have dinner with my friends to celebrate passing my exam”. What about if you don’t pass? What is your plan then? If we know that something has the potential to cause us stress, even if we don’t know when exactly it will cause stress, we can still make a plan. Stress safety plans are just this. Stress safety plans are ‘How will I respond if this particular type of stress occurs” plans. For example, a stress safety plan for a failed exam might involve stipulations such as “I need to go and speak to my professor about my results”. Or it might be “I will need to make sure that I don’t start drinking and taking drugs because that will make my stress worse”.

I personally encourage everyone to develop stress safety plans at some point. This is how incredibly useful they are. You can cover almost any type of stress and include any number of stipulations to help you to respond to that stress. The safety plans are also highly individualised. You can direct your response strategies specifically towards certain stress outcomes. If for example you are having intimate body parts related stress, you would plan to speak to a doctor rather than a sibling. Makes sense, right? Stress safety plans are also incredibly useful because as we know, we when are stressed, it is hard to think and rationalise properly. Stress safety plans takes all of the hassle and guesswork out of it. When you are stressed, and not thinking straight, you pull out your safety plan, follow it and BAM… you are on top of your stress.