Four Ways to Cope With Stress You Likely Haven't Thought Of

How to cope with stress when your usual strategies aren't working.

Posted Jun 04, 2019

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When we're under stress, our thinking tends to narrow, and we don't consider all the options and resources we have available for handling it. Here are four ideas to consider.

1. Talk it over with someone you don't know well.

In general, our loose connections are a resource we tend to underestimate. If you're having a problem, consider talking it over with someone you don't know very well. Depending on the type of problem, this could be people like a colleague in another department, a neighbor, someone you knew a little bit in college, a friend of your sibling or partner, or an extended family member. You might get advice that you don't expect, build a stronger relationship with the person you've confided in, and (since most issues are universal at their core) feel less alone in dealing with whatever you're facing. 

When you reach out to a loose connection, be aware that folks who've gone through the exact same situation and come out the other side may be a better source of practical information than emotional support. Paradoxically, people who've overcome an issue are sometimes less compassionate toward those who are in the midst of that journey. Pick other people if emotional support is what you're after.

2. Make a less well-thought-out decision.

Coping with stress often involves making decisions. Conscientious folks often think the more options and factors we consider for longer, the better decision we'll make. However, this isn't necessarily true. There's a bunch of research about when considering fewer variables can actually improve decision-making quality. Thinking about something for longer won't necessarily help you make a better decision. If you're interested in how simpler or more intuitive decision-making processes can result in better decisions, try watching YouTube videos of Gerd Gigerenzer talking about his work, or read the book Algorithms to Live By (particularly the chapter on "Overfitting.")

3. Consider not doing something you think you have to do.

Stress often arises when we think, "I have to do X, and I don't want to," or "I have to do X, and I can't cope with it." A mental trick you can use is to think about not doing it at all. For instance, you might think: "I could not write this presentation I'm scheduled to give. I could just cancel." When you consider this option, your brain will likely jump in with reasons you actually want to do it, even if you're feeling unsure, overloaded, or frustrated by your own lack of perfection. For instance, you might think: "Actually I do want to do this presentation of my research. I worked hard on it, and I want to explain my ideas." 

Another example: If you're stressed out about organizing a family event and considering just not doing it, your brain might pipe up with, "Actually I do want to organize my family getting together, even though people can be high maintenance and a pain in the butt. They're still my family, and they're important to me." If your brain doesn't reactively generate some compelling reason you actually want to do whatever it is, consider really dropping it.

4. Try advice that seems too basic to be helpful.

It's easy to be dismissive of simple advice. When you're under stress, you might think, "Going for a walk or doing a fun activity for the afternoon isn't going to take my problem away. It'll still be right here when I get back." Or, "How is sleeping on this decision going to help?" In The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I wrote about how people tend to be dismissive of solutions that seem too simple, and those that might help a problem, but not solve it completely. 

Increasingly, there's science that helps explain why seemingly basic strategies work (e.g., why shifting your focus away from a problem and letting your brain work on it in the background can be very helpful). Even if you don't entirely trust that attempting to enjoy yourself for a few hours could help you cope with your stress, be willing to give it a try. Accept that it won't help every time and won't completely take your anguish away, but there is still enough of a chance it may help that it's worth a try. 

On a personal level, I know virtually every "advanced" psychological trick under the sun for coping with stress, and while I do use a variety of those, I also use a lot of simple strategies too. I particularly like activities that help me feel grounded (like doing crafts or making pizza with my child), and novel activities that get me out of the house (like going to a new museum exhibit.)

Wrapping Up

It's easy to overuse your favorite methods for coping with stress, even if they're actually compounding the problem. For instance, when overthinking is making you even more confused about what to do. If your go-to methods aren't working, consider stepping outside your defaults and trying one of the alternatives mentioned.

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