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Dealing with Stress

Dealing with Stress

Coping resources can broadly be divided into cognitive coping strategies and physical coping strategies.  Some of these coping strategies will suit some people, others will not. The key is to have a range of resources that can be applied, depending upon the situation and the individual.  Furthermore, it is important to have strategies one is comfortable using.

Cognitive coping strategies

These refer to ways of dealing with stress using our minds.  Cognitive coping strategies are a good way to combat stress-producing thoughts.  As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “. . . for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. . .”  Examples of these strategies are:

  • Reframing – focus on the good not the bad; think in terms of wants instead of shoulds.  It’s best if our thinking is related to our goals.  For example, “I want to read and understand this chapter in Chemistry so I do well in my lab practical” instead of “I have to read this difficult chapter in Chemistry”.
  • Challenging negative thinking – stopping the negative thoughts we may have about a situation or ourselves.  Examples of negative thoughts include expecting failure, putting yourself down, feelings of inadequacy - a thought such as “Everyone else seems to understand this except me.”

In order to gain control of negative thoughts or worries, you must first become aware of them.  Next, yell “Stop!” to yourself when they occur.  Try replacing with positive affirmations or at least challenge or question any irrationality of the thoughts.

  • Positive self-talk – using positive language and statements to ourselves.  These are sometimes referred to as positive affirmations; they are useful for building confidence and challenging negative thoughts. For example,  “I can do this or understand this” or “I’ll try my best”.  These work best when they are realistic and tailored to your needs and goals. 
  • Count to ten – this allows you time to gain control and perhaps rethink the situation or come up with a better coping strategy.
  • Cost-benefit analysis – Is it helping me to get things done when I think this way?
  • Keeping perspective – when under stress it is easy to lose perspective; things can seem insurmountable.  Some questions to ask yourself:  Is this really a problem?  Is this a problem anyone else has had?  Can I prioritise the problems?  Does it really matter?  “Look on the bright side of life!” - Cultivate optimism.
  • Reducing uncertainty – seek any information or clarification you may require to reduce the uncertainty.  It helps to ask in a positive way.  Situations that are difficult to classify, are obscure or have multiple meanings can create stress.
  • Using imagery/visualisation –imagining yourself in a pleasant or a successful situation to help reduce stress.  One way to use imagery is as a relaxation tool; try to remember the pleasure of an experience you’ve had or a place you’ve been.  The more senses you involve in the image the more realistic, therefore the more powerful.  This strategy is often combined with deep breathing or relaxation exercises.

Visualisation can also be used as a rehearsal strategy for an anticipated stressful event.  For example, if you have a presentation to give, practice it in the mind a few times, picturing the audience’s reaction and even visualising yourself overcoming any potential pitfalls. 

  • Smell the roses“Experiencing life as fully as possible requires conscious effort, since we become habituated to things which are repeated.  Varying our experiences (such as taking different routes to school or work) can help in this process” (Greenberg, 1987, p. 129).

Behavioural coping strategies

These refer to ways of dealing with stress by doing something or taking action to reduce the stress experienced.  Examples of these strategies are:

  • Physical exercise – aerobic exercise is the most beneficial for reducing stress.  It releases neurochemicals in the brain that aid concentration.  For some people, even a short walk is sufficient to relieve stress.
  • Relaxation – from simple relaxation such as dropping the head forward and rolling it gently from side to side or simply stretching, to more complex progressive relaxation exercises.  Progressive relaxation involves tensing and releasing isolated muscle groups until muscles are relaxed.  There are also tapes and books available on this topic.Try the Student Counselling Service's Mindfulness podcast.
  • Breathing – from simple deep breaths to more complex breathing exercises related to relaxation and meditation. 
  • Smile and Laugh - gives us energy and helps to lighten the load; relaxes muscles in the face.
  • Time management – specific strategies such as clarifying priorities, setting goals, evaluating how time is spent, developing an action plan, overcoming procrastination and organising time.  These help us to cope with the numerous demands placed upon us, often a source of stress.
  • Social Support/Friends – encourage the development and nurturing of relationships. 
  • Seek Help – to help us cope with unmanageable stress.  Supports in college include the Student Health Centre, Student Counselling Service, College Tutors and Chaplains.

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Last updated 16 December 2015 by Student Learning Development (Email) .