7 Emotion-Focused Strategies to Reduce Stress
People deal with stress in various ways, depending on their personality, their current circumstances, the stressor or cause of their stress, and a multitude of other factors. However, it does not escape our notice that there are people who seem to be better than others at coping with stress and, again, this can be attributed to several factors, the most important of which is their chosen method of stress management.
If you are asked to create a list of your stress-coping mechanisms, there is no doubt that you’d be able to come up with a substantial list. If all of them actually work, count yourself lucky, because there are others who, no matter what they do, are unable to deal with their stress levels – or even reduce it.
Nonetheless, that is no reason to give up and just let stress overwhelm you. With so many techniques for stress reduction and management, there is bound to be at least one or two that will work for you. It’s just a matter of finding out what they are.
STRESSING ABOUT STRESS
Stress has, to put it mildly, become a staple in our daily lives. It comes in practically all forms, shapes and sizes, and we are bound to be exposed to it. It could be in the form of a highly demanding job, a difficult boss, or hostile co-workers. Shortage in finances or other resources is another while, for some, it arises from having too much of things. Too much idle time makes them restless, for example. Too many responsibilities also almost always means that the person has to be prepared for stressful times ahead.
Stress has pretty much become a negative element in our lives – unavoidable and, all too often, difficult to handle. When we feel worried or anxious, or when we are beset with feelings of discomfort, we claim to be stressed.
Despite contrary belief, stress is not always bad or negative. In fact, stress can be a great motivator for some people that helps improve performance. That is why we have to clarify this issue by talking about the two types of stress: good stress and bad stress. Basically, stress is categorized according to how they affect the individual subjected to it.
This is the stress that most people are familiar with, associating it with exhaustion and anxiety, resulting to poor performance and even health problems. It is considered bad stress if you start experiencing issues with your health, such as chronic pains and aches in various parts – even all over! – your body and, in some cases, the appearance of autoimmune diseases.
It is a sign of bad stress when you notice that you are more irritable than usual, and it doesn’t take a lot to make you flare up in anger. Even seeing drastic changes in appetite is a warning sign that stress is getting to you in a bad way. You may also find it difficult to stay awake because your body is telling you to just sleep or, in contrast, you may have trouble falling asleep AND staying asleep. Your concentration will be shot, and this has an impact on your productivity and in your daily tasks.
Stress can also be beneficial, seen as a spark or small spurt of energy which can drive you to action. This is when stress becomes a motivating factor for you to accomplish your tasks and achieve the goals you’ve set out for yourself.
Stress can keep you sharp and alert since it spurs a fight-or-flight response, enabling you to react to situations quickly and properly. Your reflexes will become faster and your reaction time shorter. You may even be able to think clearly, and it helps that your memory will also get a boost. That is because your body is responding to the stress by producing chemicals such as adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol.
What differentiates these two is how the person experiencing stress deals with it. It is entirely up to him whether to allow stress to be a good one, or to let its bad effects overwhelm him instead.
TYPES OF STRESS MANAGEMENT RESPONSES
Our goal here is to see how we could cope with bad stress and reduce it to a negligible degree, where we do not have to worry about how it will affect our daily lives. Common sense would dictate that, in order to keep stress from wreaking havoc in our lives, we can start by having a control on our emotions. But that is not the only coping technique that can be used.
In Lazarus and Folkman’s Theory of Cognitive Appraisal, they introduced two approaches in coping with stress and managing it.
#1. Problem-focused Approach
In this approach, the person generally feels that he can control the situation causing the stress, and that it is something that he ought to do in order for him to be able to get to the root of the problem. If he can manage the root of the problem, then he can manage stress.
In this coping strategy, it acknowledges that the feelings of stress being experienced by an individual are not caused by an event or situation per se. Instead, there is an underlying reason, which is the real problem and, therefore, the real cause of stress.
For example, a jobseeker failed to get a job he’s applying for, even after reaching up to the final interview, where the employer finally decided that he is not a good match for the job. Obviously, the jobseeker felt stressed out and, in response, lashed out at the company he applied to by taking to Twitter, Facebook and his other social media accounts and writing negative things about them, painting the company in a bad light.
In that situation, the response was not entirely because he was not selected by that company. It stemmed from accumulated frustration brewing within him, after having spent the past year going to countless interviews and still not getting a job. That interview with the last company simply served as the catalyst for his frustration to brim over, and for him to react negatively. The stress he is feeling is based on his dwindling self-confidence and fear of not getting anywhere in his professional life.
This approach follows an almost systematic order of things, as one would solve a scientific problem. The four-step approach involves:
Step 1. Identify and define the problem. After all, one cannot solve a problem unless he knows what it is.
Step 2. Generate a solution, and other possible alternatives. This often requires looking at the problem objectively and brainstorming on alternative solutions in case the primary one does not work.
Step 3. Acquire new skills that will directly address and deal with the stressors brought out by the problem. This may be quite lengthy since it involves engaging in learning processes.
Step 4. Evaluate and reappraise if you have to, and find new standards of behavior that will be followed in order to eliminate the problem and, consequently, the stress it brings.
#2. Emotion-focused Approach
This coping strategy is preferred by people who feel that the situation is not something they have a control over, and they do not have the ability to manage or control the cause or root of the problem. The goal is to handle the feelings of distress being experienced by the person, and not really what causes these emotions.
Needless to say, this is also the approach that most people resort or turn to whenever they are facing a lot of stress. They come up with various strategies and techniques that are meant to reduce or manage stress, and these can either be positive or negative responses – or both.
In the previous example, instead of immediately going online to post his tirades against the company, the jobseeker packs up his bags and goes on an impromptu trip out of town, deciding to spend a couple of weeks in a secluded cove where he can be left alone, away from everyone else who may laugh at, or criticize, him for his ‘failure’ to get the job.
Or he can call his friends and meet up with them for an all-night party, with a lot of booze. He will simply drown himself in alcohol so he can forget his frustrations, even if only for a night or two.
THE ROLE OF EMOTIONS
Between the two approaches, which is better or more effective?
Ideally, the problem-focused strategy is better, since it attacks or deals with the cause of the problem, and seeks a solution that will not only put an end to that problem, but also eliminate the possibility of the stressors even presenting themselves in the future. The solutions it provides are for the long term, which cannot be said for emotion-focused coping strategies, which are mostly just delaying tactics.
However, when people are stressed, it is often because they do not have control over the situation or the factor that is causing the stress in the first place. If there is a problem, a rational person may not even think that stress has entered the equation, because he will be so focused on finding a solution to the problem to actually be affected by the resulting stressors. People are losing their grip on the whole situation, and so they react using their emotions in order to cope with it.
Further, realistically speaking, humans are more predisposed to putting their emotions first. It does not help that stress seems to hit them right at the very heart of their emotions. Thus, the almost automatic response is to also use emotions. Granted, this coping approach is not going to address the underlying issue or main problem, but it will, at least, reduce the negative responses elicited from them.
We can identify several “default” emotion-focused responses to stress. Later on, we will find these responses incorporated in the various emotion-focused strategies for stress management.
- Brooding: He will become resigned to his fate, and he will go along with the flow of events, saying he has no choice. However, he will be especially and visibly gloomy and unhappy about it, sulking when he has the chance, and even complaining about the unfairness of it all.
- Denial: Avoidance or denial can take many forms. He may decide to take the “flight” option and run away so he won’t have to deal with things directly, or he may seek other forms of escape that will give him oblivion and even momentary forgetfulness, anything to delay having to deal with the problem.
- Imagination: Some people hide in their fantasy worlds, making up stories of better times and better situations, just so they can make themselves feel better. In several cases, this may even lead to the truly fantastical and even magical scenarios that are completely unrealistic, but will still manage to make them smile and feel more hopeful or positive.
- Blaming: He needs something – or someone – to vent his frustrations on. If he cannot or will not blame himself, he will turn to others. For some people, pinning the blame on someone else somehow eases the load off their shoulders. In a way, it allows them to have control – no matter that it is very flimsy or tenuous – over the situation, because they have someone to hold accountable for its fallout.
- Relying on Social Support: Talking can be therapeutic, serving as an outlet for him to air out his thoughts on whatever is stressing him out. He may turn to his friends or family members, and they may provide him the boost of spirit that he needs to be able to handle the situation better, without letting the stress get to him too much.
Here is a great teaching on psychological kinesiology and how you can use it to reduce stress levels.
EMOTION-FOCUSED STRATEGIES FOR STRESS MANAGEMENT
Now let us take a look at some of the most commonly used stress reduction and management strategies that focus on emotions.
#1. REDIRECTION, DISCOVERY AND REDISCOVERY
This involves purposely looking for distractions, which will take your mind or attention off the issue that is causing you an immense amount of stress.
Keep yourself busy with your work or school.
If work or school is the very thing that stresses you out, look for other tasks or work. An employee that is feeling dissatisfaction with the way the current project he is working on is being handled by the rest of the team may look for other tasks or side projects that he can take on. Take on more workload, but make sure that it is still within your capacity. Otherwise, you will be dealing with another type of stress brought on by overworking.
You may have even come across people who, when stressed out, end up cleaning the whole house, from top to bottom. That is how they dispense with the extra energy that is flowing through them caused by stress.
Seek a new experience to occupy your time.
Sometimes, you may feel that you are sick and tired of your work, and that is bringing you stress. Then look for a distraction that is entirely separate from the nature of your work. Find a new hobby. Learn a new sport. Sign up for cooking lessons. Or, be more ambitious. Write a book. Start painting. Build a house. The more ambitious it is, the more of your attention it will require, and the more effective the distraction will be.
Think back on when you were younger and there was something you’ve always wanted to do, but circumstances at that time kept you from being able to do it. Well, now is the time to give that another chance. You can also try picking up old hobbies that you had to give up in the past. Maybe it’s time to start playing the piano again. You might even want to consider going back to playing basketball with the old gang.
Make new memories to edge out the old, stressful ones, and what could be better than traveling and seeing the world? You can start slow, by going on a weekend getaway in neighboring towns or cities. Or, if you are more adventurous, travel to other countries. You can choose to do this alone, or go with a travel buddy. The goal is to find yourself in a new environment and be exposed to new cultures and new people. The learning experience is sure to reduce your stress.
Maybe you need a change of environment. Go on a getaway or, if you want something more permanent, move to a new home. If this is not feasible, you can effect smaller changes. Rearrange your home and change your living environment. Change your routine in the morning when you wake up. Maybe you can take a different route to and from work. Even the slightest change or shift may have a positive effect on your stress levels.
#2. EMOTIONAL DISCLOSURE
This is the “letting it out” strategy. Stress may make you feel suffocated, and overflowing with strong emotions that are begging to be released. Those bottled up thoughts and feelings seem to be bubbling over, asking to be let out? Then do it.
The disciplines of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis promote this strategy and even use it as one of its most effective methods. The person under a lot of stress will be asked to express all those emotions, and will be guided through the process as he talks about the events, issues or other stimuli that caused them.
Expression of these emotions can be done through:
- Heart to heart conversations with trusted people. This is where the “support system” comes in. You may turn to your parents, your siblings, or your best friend for a listening ear or a shoulder to lean and cry on. They may even provide good advice. The reminder that they are with you and that they will always be there whenever you need them may be all that you’ll need to perk you right up.
- Journaling. Some people are better at expressing themselves in writing than in speaking. You can maintain a diary or journal where you will write down everything that you are feeling about a particular person, event or issue. Feel free to pour your heart out on the page. Instead of a personal diary, others opt to write specialized journals. In a study conducted by clinical psychologists Cheng, Tsui and Lam on the use of gratitude intervention in improving mental health, they touched on how keeping a gratitude journal is very effective. By writing events to be thankful for on that diary or journal, you will be reminded of these events, which will, in turn, aid in reducing stress.
- Psychotherapy sessions with a professional. Set up regular appointments with a licensed professional for psychotherapy sessions. Counseling is often sought by people who feel the need to unburden to someone solid and objective. For some, this method may seem impersonal. Clinical, even. But it works for many people. In some cases, group therapy may also help, where you will be talking about your emotions with other people who are going through similar situations. That feeling of kinship obtained in these group sessions can go a long way in making you feel better, since you will know that you are not the only one having a hard time.
#3. COMMUNICATION AND CONNECTION
Sometimes, when you are stressed, the last thing you want to do is to be left alone with your thoughts and emotions. You need to make connections, or even experience communicating and interacting with others.
Your personal system is there for you to open up to emotionally. But you may also find comfort and relief from other people, without confiding your troubles to them. Just their company will make you feel better.
They may gravitate toward crowded places and strike up conversations with complete strangers even if they are idle chit-chat.
(On a side note, this is an excellent way to expand your network. Some of them may even end up becoming good friends in the future.)
Here is an interesting presentation on the importance of stress management at work.
#4. REFLECTION & INTROSPECTION
While there are people who crave the chaos of a crowd and even the company of complete strangers, there are those who prefer silence and their own company.
Meditative exercises have been helping many people get in touch with their emotions and achieve a certain level of peace and calm. That’s why it is perfect for those who are suffering from various types of stress. It is seen as an exercise for both the mind and the body, because it also helps ease the tension and fatigue that plague your body and, most likely, adding to your stress levels.
Through meditation, you will be able to sort your thoughts and take a more objective stance as you assess your current situation. Along with the calm and peace, you will be able to carefully choose how to respond to the situations you are faced with, while keeping panic, fear and uncertainties at bay.
To make the most of meditation as a stress reliever, make it a regular habit, not just something to do when you are feeling particularly frazzled. It could be something as simple as taking a break from work, closing your eyes and shutting everything out, or you can actually set a specific time of the day – probably right after you wake up or before going to bed – to meditate.
Yoga is another form of meditation, which also incorporates health and wellness. Considering the many types of yoga available today, it will be easier to find one that suits you best.
Before you react out of fear or panic, you might want to take a step back and force yourself to think objectively. Think about it: maybe you are looking at it all wrong. Maybe it is not really something that you should stress about or, even if it is, it is not something that will require a drastic response from you.
Learn how to find a silver lining in this situation. Try to look at the situation from a different perspective. You may even find something good or beneficial coming out of that stressful situation. Again, in the example of the rejected job applicant, reframing may involve him looking at the situation from the point of view of the recruiter that interviewed him, and made the final decision NOT to select him for the position. Then maybe he will end up acknowledging that, indeed, the other candidate chosen for the job was a better fit for the position.
He could also take the experience as another learning experience. He will go over his performance during the final interview, and resolve not to repeat them in future job interviews. He can even use the fact that he was able to reach that far in the selection process as a tool to increase his marketability as a job hire in the future.
This may be quite tricky for some, but it is definitely better than wallowing in self-pity and giving up altogether.
Praying and religious or spiritual activities
Religion and faith is still a very strong influence among many people, and many of these people take refuge during hard times in their faith. They feel significantly better when they talk to God, or any divine being that their faith points to. Some also become more active in activities at Church, finding relief in preaching and reaching out to the poor and needy.
Zeidner & Hammer (1982) explained pointed out that spirituality provides “meaning and a larger context in which the situation can be understood and thus more accepted”. When they see the bigger picture and realize there is a meaning behind it, what they used to think of as a problem and a stressor may now appear tiny and worthless in comparison. By enhancing their spirituality, they are easing stress out of their lives.
#5. GET PHYSICAL AND MIND YOUR HEALTH & WELLNESS
Physical exertion is seen as one of the best ways to regain focus and, in the process, get a handle on your emotions.
Engage in sports and other physical activities.
Some people use sports and other physical activities as a form of distraction, and there is nothing wrong with that, but engaging in physical activities can also address the issue on stress on a physical level.
Hikers go on day-hikes and longer hiking activities because they find comfort in nature. But they can also get the benefit of breathing in the cool, fresh and clean mountain air, which will clear their minds and give them a new perception on things. A career woman experiencing stress from being in a competitive male-dominated field uses swimming as a way to release the pent-up tension and anger she has bottled up inside her. With every stroke and kick, she’ll feel those stresses melting away.
Book an appointment at the spa and go all out. Get a full body scrub and a relaxing massage. Get a facial. Have your hair done. Change your look. Maybe you can even shop for new clothes.
Your objective is to make yourself feel good. The boost in confidence after your pampering session will considerably reduce your stress. If you feel beautiful and confident, you may even feel that you can take on whatever stressful situation will be presented to you.
#6. POSITIVE THINKING
This entails suppression or inhibition of negative thoughts and emotions. Basically, you will have to force yourself to think positive, soothing thoughts only, and quash down any negativity that comes to mind. Being an “eternal optimist” is done mostly through sheer force of will, which can be detrimental in the long run, and does not really solve anything, considering that it’s just one way of avoiding the issues or problems.
Positive thinking forces you to reassess the way you look at situations and perceive problems. You will feel more empowered, so that stressful situations can arise and you will be able to take them in stride, instead of having the overwhelm you.
This also involves making the obvious decision of NOT reacting – or overreacting – to stressors.
#7. DRUG THERAPY
Now you might be wondering why this technique is included here, since it makes use of drugs. The focus of drug therapy, or using medication and drugs to keep the person’s emotions under control, is still the emotional upheavals, and not what caused it or the problem behind it.
When regulated, drug therapy can help you reduce stress. It can calm you down, regulate your breathing, and help you regain your focus. It becomes destructive when this method is abused, and this could lead to another problem altogether, which is addiction.
Alcohol also falls under this category. People take refuge in the numbing effects of alcohol, allowing them to forget the stress they are subjected to momentarily. Again, control is very important, so as to prevent alcohol addiction.