Whether or not you follow a religion, it’s likely you’ll have come across the Serenity Prayer at some point in your life:
“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This oft-cited prayer perfectly summarizes the essence of research on stress and resilience: Knowing when to take control versus surrender to the uncontrollable is the difference between suffering through stress or handling it with poise.
When it comes to managing life’s upheavals, each of us grapples with control differently, but there are some common rules of thumb we can all benefit from learning. Here, we’ll give you two powerful exercises for getting the balance right and mastering adversity in your day-to-day life.
Different Ways of Coping
Stress and adversity are inevitable parts of life. But science suggests the degree to which life’s challenges hurt our wellbeing has less to do with what happens to us and more to do with how we choose to cope.
The term ‘coping’ refers to how we manage the demands of stressful events. Whether or not a particular way of coping is helpful depends on the situation and the person. In other words, there’s no best way to cope with stress, and different people may cope differently.
To illustrate, imagine two people are worried about a difficult exam one week away. Person ‘A’ may cope by blocking out their social calendar to preserve energy for their studies. In contrast, Person ‘B’ may cope by phoning up a friend to meet for coffee and talk through their worries.
Similarly, when we need to blow off steam after a challenging day at work, we might cope in any number of ways:
- Eating comfort food
- Working out
- Drinking alcohol
- Talking to your partner
- Watching television
Of course, some ways of dealing with stress are generally shown to be more effective than others. But even forms of coping we typically think of as positive may hurt us in the long run if not used wisely.
For example, research has shown that expressing your feelings to your partner after a challenging work day can help restore psychological wellbeing. However, too much time spent dwelling on a bad day can also hurt our wellbeing as we fail to psychologically detach and recover from our day. Therefore, limiting any complaints about your day to five or ten minutes tends to be best (and may have the added benefit of sparing your partner’s patience)!
When it comes to dealing with stress, the saying “everything in moderation” sums up researchers’ recommendations best. Likewise, the more coping strategies we practice, the larger our toolkit becomes, and the better prepared we are to survive stressful times gracefully.
Taking Control vs. Letting Go
As the stresses of life begin piling up, most of us will fall into one of two camps when we resort to unhelpful ways of coping. Psychologists refer to these two bundles of unhelpful coping strategies as over-control and under-control.
Over-control is the attempt to take as much control over events that are clearly beyond our control. It arises from a conviction that fully controlling a stressful situation will solve it.
People who tend toward over-control sometimes believe:
- They can dictate all their health outcomes if they just do the right things.
- If they say and do the right things, they can control the thoughts, emotions, and behaviours of the people around them.
- If they work hard enough, they can permanently eliminate stress and problems.
In reality, life is unpredictable. It’s full of surprises, accidents, and last-minute changes, meaning that nothing will ever be entirely within our control.
Despite this, those of us who tend toward over-control may feel trapped by obsessive thoughts about the future—trying to predict it, imagining worst-case scenarios, and attempting to solve non-existent problems. This can lead to a vicious cycle that drains us of the energy to address the things in life we can control.
On the other side of the spectrum are those of us who tend toward under-control, sometimes known as ‘passive coping.’ People who engage in under-control are likely to:
- Withdraw from taking action and give up
- Try to solve issues half-heartedly
- Numb their feelings about challenging situations, such as by using substances, food, or alcohol; or engaging in other unhealthy behaviours/addictions
Whereas people who tend toward over-control often feel a significant responsibility to improve their situation, people who engage in under-control tend to deny responsibility, sometimes preferring to relinquish control of stressful situations to others.
For example, imagine someone who suffers from back pain. This person would likely be exhibiting under-control if they did nothing except complain to their spouse about the pain, despite never speaking to a doctor, exploring ergonomic solutions, or trying a helpful form of exercise (e.g., pilates).
The secret to effective coping lies in learning to balance the two sides of the spectrum. If taking control is possible, do it. If it isn't, try to find acceptance. Even when there’s nothing you can do to change your immediate situation, you can still take care of your emotions and mindset.
Examples of ways to do this could include scheduling time to journal your feelings, speaking with someone who can support you (e.g., a therapist, coach, or friend), or practicing gratitude. Acts like these help boost our resilience and ability to deal with setbacks by lessening their negative impact on our emotions and sense of self.
When we strike the right balance of control and take productive action in the face of stress, this is called ‘active coping.’ As we gain skill at active coping, we tend to embrace adversity rather than deny or avoid it—we swiftly leverage the resources at our disposal and act accordingly. This means increasing our efforts to solve our problems, educating ourselves on the nature of the issue, or finding a new perspective to look at challenges.
In sum, active coping reflects an embodied recognition that, even when everything seems to fall apart, there is always something we can do, even if that is to voluntarily let go of control and focus on caring for ourselves and those we love.
A Two-Part Guide to Surviving Stressful Times
The next time you face a stressful situation, give the following two blueprints a try. In combination, they can help you strike the right balance of control and identify the most helpful ways of coping with your situation.
1. Reality Check
To begin, recall a recent situation that caused you stress. It could be anything from not getting enough sleep to anticipating an unpleasant conversation with your boss.
Next, try to describe the physical and emotional aspects of that experience. For example:
- Did you feel tension in your body, such as in your neck, back, or shoulders?
- Did you feel sweaty in your palms or have a dry mouth?
- How were you feeling emotionally? Irritated? Scared? Angry?
Based on this combination of factors, rate the intensity of the stressful experience on a scale from 0 (barely stressful) to 10 (extremely stressful).
Lastly, move on to the reality check. Revisit the chosen event and carefully consider which factors were and were not within your control. As you do, try to be objective yet non-judgmental toward yourself.
For instance, imagine you became stressed while driving when you were running late to an important meeting. In this example, you might write down the following:
- Things I cannot control: Being stuck in traffic; the actions of other drivers; the reaction of my colleagues and boss.
- Things I can control: The number of responsibilities I say ‘yes’ to; how early I start getting ready for the meeting; the time I spend planning my route.
When you next face a similar situation, draw upon your observations about the things you can control to help minimize the stress of the event next time. Likewise, spare yourself the anxiety of agonizing over the factors beyond your control.
2. Ways of Coping
When it’s too late to dodge the consequences of stress, you can still reflect on your ways of coping.
For instance, consider again the example of running late. What did you do in response to the situation:
- Did you fall into negative self-talk, beating yourself up about being late?
- Did you get angry, honking and cursing at other drivers?
- Maybe you were tempted to speed or drive recklessly.
Consider whether these ways of coping were helpful. You might rate their helpfulness on a scale of 0 (very unhelpful) to 10 (very helpful).
Next, think about whether there may have been a better, more adaptive way of coping with the situation. Brainstorm some solutions that could reduce the physical and emotional effects of the challenge you faced.
For example, next time you’re running late, you could:
- Call your colleague to notify them.
- Take some deep breaths while behind the wheel.
- Speak compassionately and realistically to yourself (e.g., “Everyone runs late sometimes; it’s not the end of the world.”)
- Reflect on what’s most important (i.e., yours and others’ safety) and give yourself permission to prioritize it by slowing down and driving safely.
Planning ways to minimize stressful situations and act kindly to ourselves when they arise is key for preserving our limited energy. Further, by learning to respond to stress with awareness and intention, we can grow braver in the face of it and begin bouncing back from life’s upheavals swiftly and with greater poise.
So try these two blueprints today, and watch as you gain greater mastery over stress in your own life!
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