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What is stress and how can you cope with it?

14 June 2013

Learn to manage and build resilience to workplace stress. Identify stressors, adapt or alter them, and develop healthy coping strategies for a happier life.

It is not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

Hans Selye

We all experience stress; from the traffic jam in the morning, being late for a meeting, to having a fight with your spouse or your children etc. Unfortunately, stress is an inevitable part of life, and there is a lot of scientific evidence that too much stress is bad for our health. The term stress was coined by Hans Selye (1936), who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. According to Selye, stress can be positive (eustress) or negative (distress). In other words, a certain amount of stress is deemed to be healthy, can motivate people, and can lead to increased productivity, whereas too much stress can lead to mental or emotional strain or tension.

The majority of scientific research focuses on distress and much research has centered on how we cope with stress. Coping can be defined as adaptive thinking or behaviour intended to reduce or relieve stress that arises from harmful, threatening or challenging conditions (Papalia, Sterns, Feldman & Camp, 2002). One of the most widely used models of studying stress is the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Within this model, stress is seen as a “particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being” (Lazarus & Folkman 1984, p 19). For example, imagine you are driving to work and you are stuck in a traffic jam. Your assessment of the situation (whether you are late for a meeting or whether you still have plenty of time), will affect if you feel stressed or not. In other words, what matters is your reaction to the event but not the event itself.

Different ways of coping

In general, one can distinguish between two ways of coping; problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping is concerned with measures to address the problem directly, e.g. spending more time studying for an exam, or taking medication to treat a disease. Emotion-focused coping involves dealing with one’s feelings about the stressful event. Allowing oneself to get frustrated or angry about becoming ill or failing an exam is an example of emotion-focused coping. In contrast to problem-focused coping, which focuses on doing something about the situation directly, the goal of emotion-focused coping is not necessarily to eliminate the problem but to help oneself deal with situations that are difficult or impossible to address directly. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) see coping as a dynamic process of dealing with stress that is learned. This is one of the reasons why we often do not cope well with stressful experiences that we face for the first time (e.g. starting our first job, moving to a new city). It then also follows that “practice makes perfect”. In other words, we apply different coping mechanisms to recurring stressors until we have found the coping mechanism that deals successfully with the stressor.

So what can you do to manage your stress better and become more resilient to stress?

Management of stress

There are a number of techniques that can help you deal with stress more constructively. However, it is important that you first become aware of what your sources of stress are. To help you identify your regular stressors in your life, it may be a good idea to start a stress journal. Keep a daily log of when and what stressors occur. Use these questions as guidelines:

  • What caused the stress?

  • How did you feel, both physically and emotionally?

  • How did you act in response to the stressor?

  • What did you do to make yourself feel better?

Once you have identified your sources of stress write down your current coping mechanisms. Your stress journal can help you identify whether your coping strategies are healthy and helpful or unhealthy and unproductive. If your coping strategies do not contribute to your well-being it could be time to replace them.

There are two ways of dealing constructively with stressful situations; either change the situation (problem-focused coping) or change your reaction to the situation (emotion-focused coping):

Change the situation (avoid or alter the stressor):

  • Learn to say no and mean it. (Don’t overload yourself).

  • Manage your time better (e.g. create a daily plan, use a calendar, prioritize, track your time spent)

  • Avoid people who stress you out (Limit or terminate your interaction with people who consistently cause stress in your life)

  • Take control of your environment (e.g. watch less TV if it makes you anxious)

  • Do less (reduce your to-do list)

  • Express your feelings (communicate your concerns in an open and constructive way to avoid resentment)

  • Be willing to compromise (in your professional and personal life)

Change your reaction to the stressor (adapt to or accept the stressor):

  • Look at the big picture (ask yourself how important will it be in the long run?)

  • Adjust your standards (let go of your perfectionism)

  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable (you cannot control everything, but you can control how you react)

  • See the stressor as an opportunity (focus on the positive)

  • Share your feelings (talk to a trusted friend, or see a therapist)

  • Learn to forgive and move on (we all make mistakes)

Developing resilience to stress

In addition to managing your stress, it is important to nurture yourself to increase your resilience to stress. Make time to relax and recharge regularly by incorporating some or all of the suggestions below into your life:

  • Include some personal time into each day (e.g. meditate, do yoga, listen to music)

  • Connect with others (spend time with people, who have a positive effect on you, and who enhance your life)

  • Do something you enjoy every day (get or re-activate a hobby)

  • Keep your sense of humour (laugh every day, e.g. watch a comedy, play with children)

  • Exercise regularly (with a partner or alone – whatever works for you. For best results, do a blend of cardiovascular and anaerobic exercises for 30 minutes, three to five times a week).

  • Eat healthily. Well-nourished bodies are better prepared to cope with stress. Consult with a nutritionist to obtain a sustainable well-balanced eating plan.

  • Get enough sleep (sleep allows the brain and the body to repair, rebuild, and regenerate itself)


Stress is an experience that we cannot avoid. Nevertheless, the good news is that not all stress is bad. A certain amount of stress is necessary to function optimally. Based on the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping, how we react to stress depends on our appraisal and our coping strategies. A quick search on found more than 1300 books on ‘how to reduce stress’. I am sure there will be one that appeals to you. So, sit back, reflect on and analyse your personal stress situation, and then go out and improve your life.


Cavanaugh, J. G., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (2006). Adult development and aging. (5th ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson. Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer. Selye, H. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2013, from Web site: /quotes/quotes/h/hansselye381380.html Selye, H. (1936). A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents. Nature, 138, 32. Papalia, D. E., Sterns, H. L., Feldman, R. D., & Camp, C. J.(2002) Adult development and aging (2nd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Stress Management. How to reduce, prevent, and cope with stress. Retrieved from: /mental/stress_management_relief_coping.htm Thompson, H. L. (2010). The stress effect. Why smart leaders make dumb decisions – and what to do about it. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


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