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How should I cope with emotional stress?

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Updated April 23, 2011

How should I cope with emotional stress?

Emotional stress can be managed in several ways. Feeling your emotions and letting them go are among several effective strategies for coping with emotional stress.

Question: How should I cope with emotional stress?
"I'm facing a difficult emotional situation right now, and I find myself stressing about it almost constantly. I try to move through my life as usual, but the emotional stress of the situation seems to cast a shadow over everything--I am almost obsessing over what I should do, what I would say in various hypothetical situations, what's been said already. How can I better cope with emotional stress?"
Answer: Emotional stress can be particularly painful and challenging to deal with. Part of the reason is that thinking about a solution, or discussing solutions with a good friend--coping behaviors that are often useful and effective in solving problems--can easily deteriorate into rumination and co-rumination, which are not so useful and effective. (Read more about the negative effects of rumination.)

Relationship stress carries a heavy toll on our emotional lives and creates strong emotional responses because our relationships can greatly impact our lives--for better or for worse. Healthy relationships can not only bring good times, but resources in times of need, added resilience in times of stress, and even increased longevity (see this article for more on social support). However, conflicted relationships and 'frenemies' can make us worse off in our emotional lives, and can even take a toll physically.

Relationships aren't the only cause of emotional stress, however. A financial crises, an unpleasant work environment, or a host of other stressors can cause emotional stress, which sometimes tempts us toward unhealthy coping behaviors in order to escape the pain, especially when the situations seem hopeless.

Fortunately, while you can't always fix these situations overnight, you can lessen the emotional stress you feel, and the emotional toll this stress takes on you. Here are some exercises you can try to effectively cope with emotional stress:

  • Feel The Stress Physically.
    When we feel emotional stress, it's also often experienced as physical pain: a 'heavy' feeling in the chest, an unsettled feeling in the stomach, a dull headache. It's common to try to escape these feelings, but it can actually be helpful to go deeper into the experience and use mindfulness to really notice where these emotional responses are felt physically. Some people notice that the pain seems more intense before dissipating, but then they feel the emotional and physical pain is lessened. What happens when you try it?
  • Distract Yourself.
    It used to be believed that if we didn't express every emotion we felt (or at least the big ones), they would show themselves in other ways. In some ways, this is true--there are benefits to examining our emotional states to learn from what our emotions are trying to tell us, and 'stuffing our emotions' in unhealthy ways (like drinking alcohol for the purpose of muting emotional pain) can bring other problems. However, it's also been discovered that distracting oneself from emotional pain with emotionally healthy alternatives--a feel-good movie, fun activities with friends, or a satisfying mental challenge, for example--can lessen emotional pain and help us feel better.
  • Block Off Some Time.
    If you find that emotional stress and ruminations are creeping into your awareness quite a bit, and distraction doesn't work, try scheduling some time--an hour a day, perhaps--where you allow yourself to think about your situation fully and mull over solutions, concoct hypothetical possibilities, replay upsetting exchanges, or whatever you feel the emotional urge to do. (Journaling is a great technique to try here, especially if it's done as both an exploration of your inner emotional world and an exploration of potential solutions.) Talk to your friends about the problem, if you'd like. Fully immerse yourself. And then try some healthy distractions. This technique works well for two reasons:
    1. If you really have the urge to obsess, this allows you to satisfy that craving in a limited context.

    2. You may find yourself more relaxed the rest of the day because you know that there will be a time to focus on your emotional situation; that time is just later.
  • Practice Meditation.
    Meditation is very helpful for dealing with a variety of stressors, and emotional stress is definitely in the category of stressors that meditation helps with. Meditation allows you to take a break from rumination by actively redirecting your thoughts, and provides practice in choosing thoughts, which can help eliminate some emotional stress in the long term. Try a few meditation techniques today.

  • Talk To a Therapist.
    If you find your level of emotional stress interfering with your daily activities or threatening your wellbeing in other ways, you may consider seeing a therapist for help working through emotional issues. That's what they're there for.

Whatever the cause of your emotional stress, you can work toward lessening and managing it, and feeling better in the process, without losing the 'messages' that your emotions are bringing you. For more on coping with emotional stress, see this article on emotional resilience.

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