How to Cope with Stress and Anxiety

In addition to work, bills, family responsibilities, the ongoing pandemic and the news of the day, there’s one more thing many of us stress about: stress itself, and for good reason. Many health problems are caused or exacerbated by stress.

“Stress can increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression, Alzheimer's disease and many other health conditions,” said Kevin R. Patterson, MD, Medical Director of Penn Highlands Healthcare Behavioral Health Services. “And if you’re already suffering from health problems, stress often makes those conditions even worse.”

Learning to cope with stress will not only improve your mood and mental health, it will also improve your physical health and can even extend your life. Fortunately, there are a variety of coping skills that you can implement in your daily life so that stress is one less thing to stress about.

Problem-based coping vs. emotion-based coping.

There are two ways to think about coping with stress. The first is called problem-based coping, in which you change the situation that is causing stress. For example, if finding time to get the reading done for a book club is stressing you out, you can practice problem-based coping by leaving the book club or talking with the other members about reducing the number of pages you read each week.

Emotion-based coping, on the other hand, is when you take steps to manage your feelings and emotions in circumstances when you can’t change the situation, such as the loss of a family member. While you can’t change the situation, you can manage your feelings in a healthier way by giving yourself permission to feel your feelings without judgment, joining a support group or talking with a spiritual advisor.

“In many cases, there isn’t one approach that is the right one,” said Dr. Patterson. “Every situation is different, as is everyone’s response to that situation. If you try one approach and it doesn’t help, try the other approach.”

How to use problem-based coping skills.

While significant, life-altering decisions, such as leaving a job or ending a marriage, are examples of problem-based coping, so are less drastic measures, such as changing your behavior or creating a plan of action.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, quitting isn’t the only way to change the situation. You can create a to-do list that helps you better manage your time, or you can ask a co-worker for some help.

Likewise, when you’re dealing with stressful relationships that you don’t want to, or can’t, remove from your life, you can practice problem-based coping skills by establishing healthy boundaries.

Other problem-based coping skills include working on managing your time, walking away from a stressful situation, engaging in problem solving, finding someone to help and confronting the person or situation directly.

How to use emotion-based coping skills.

Emotion-based coping skills help you deal with loneliness, sadness, nervousness or other stressors in a healthy way by soothing you, temporarily distracting you, changing your mood or helping you tolerate the stress.

Back to our work example, instead of changing the situation by using problem-based skills, you can manage your stress by doing something soothing when you get home, such as taking a long bath or going for a walk. Or, you can change your mood by watching a funny TV show or playing with your kids or dog.

When dealing with stressful relationships, you can practice breathing exercises to help regulate your emotions or mindfulness to help remind you of the things in the relationship that you’re grateful for.

Other emotion-based coping skills include self-care, exercise, journaling, aromatherapy, hobbies or relaxation apps.

“While emotion-based coping skills can be a great tool, they shouldn’t be a substitute for dealing with the situation at hand,” said Dr. Patterson. “Constantly distracting yourself from reality is not a sustainable solution. If you’re having trouble dealing with stress in healthy ways, a mental health care provider can help you develop productive strategies.”

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers a variety of inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services to treat the unique mental health concerns of patients of all ages, including children ages 5 and up, adolescents, teens, adults and seniors. Learn more at