How do we cope with stress?

“we’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick” (Sapolsky)

Biologic stress is not the same as nervous tension. Selye described an environmental view of stress in terms of change and adaptation dictated by life events. Over time, persistent stress may cause the body to adapt—to permanently change, possibly in unhealthy ways. Quality of adaptation to psychological, physical, social, and economic stressors determines quality of life. Failure to adapt leads to what Selye called diseases of adaptation.

According to neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, human beings and related primates suffer stress-related diseases more than any other animals. Man is a smart, organized, social creature with too much spare time and uses that time to stress each other out. According to Sapolsky, “we’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick.”

Most people experience stress as a stream of chronic everyday stresses, or hassles. Human beings handle physical stressors—both acute and chronic—better than psychological and social stressors, and today’s stressors are predominantly psychological. At some point chronic stress takes its tolls on a person; chronic stress is implicated in illness and disease and in premature aging.

Coping includes our thoughts, emotions and actions in stressful situations.


The transactional model of stress

In the late 1970s Lazarus and Folkman presented a transactional model of stress and coping. The stress process as a transaction consists of a precipitating event, a mediating factor, and an outcome.

The relationship between person and environment is mediated by cognitive appraisal and coping resulting in a new, different circumstance. Appraisal determines how one copes with a situation and establishes intensity and quality of the resulting emotions. Primary appraisals determine whether something is relevant to one’s well being. Secondary appraisals determine how much control one has over the situation and whether one is capable of actions to improve it. Primary and secondary appraisals may identify three levels of stress: threat (the anticipation of harm); harm (damage already done); and challenge (confidence in ability to successfully manage the situation). Coping, rather than stress per se is the primary factor in the outcome.

 Coping has two primary roles: changing the person-environment relationship (problem-focused coping) and regulating emotional distress (emotion-focused coping). Any coping act or thought may be either problem-focused or emotion-focused or both. Younger individuals use more problem-focused, active coping forms; older individuals use more emotion-focused, passive coping forms.

In transactional theory appraisals and perceived controllability determine coping efforts. Perceiving a stressful event as controllable leads to problem-focused coping (attempts to alter or eliminate the situation) and perceiving a stressful event as uncontrollable leads to emotion-focused coping (changing one’s reaction to the situation). Appraising a stressor as undesirable leads to more emotion-focused coping.


The ABC model of stress: A + B = C

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) incorporates the ABC model. In this model, an activating event (“A”) is the trigger that starts it all. It could be an actual happening, or something you imagine or anticipate or worry about. Your reaction to that event may cause uncomfortable feelings or negative thoughts and self-talk. Thoughts and feelings are circular – thoughts lead to feelings, and feelings in return lead to thoughts.

Our thoughts, feelings, and self-talk are determined by our beliefs (“B”). Cumulative life experiences help form our beliefs. We use our beliefs to interpret the world around us, including those activating events. A negative event can be interpreted positively or negatively, depending on our beliefs.

It’s the interpretation of the activating event, driven by our beliefs, that results in consequences (“C”) – our feelings and actions.

Activating event + Belief = Consequences

CBT examines beliefs to determine whether they are accurate and justified, or the result of errors or wrong assumptions. If the beliefs are not justified, then Balancing Statements can help put the situation in proper perspective. If the beliefs are the result of automatic negative thoughts, they can be changed. We can learn to become aware of patterns of irrational, illogical and unhelpful thoughts in order to dismiss them. We can learn to replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk.


The ABCs of stress management

Coping may change as the situation evolves. It is important to develop different strategies so you are prepared for different situations. The ABC approach to stress management includes:

  • Alter your situation/avoid stressful situations
  • Build mental, physical, spiritual resistance
  • Change the way you see or feel about a particular stressful situation

Coping strategies vary from situation to situation and from person to person. In general, though, some efficient strategies include:

  • Positive reframing – look for the humor in a situation, or look at it as a learning experience
  • Support – ask for help or emotional support from friends or family
  • Exercise – anything from yoga to running
  • Calming techniques or relaxing activities
  • Anticipate various outcomes and adjust your expectations accordingly
  • Decide not to over-react; decide to deal with stressors one at a time

Ineffective coping strategies would include:

  • Denial – which often leads to over working, over eating, or over sleeping
  • Venting – expressing emotions can be healthy, to a point; but excessive venting is not
  • Self-blame – can result in low self-esteem and depression



 Gerber, R. (2001). Vibrational Medicine (3rd ed.). Rochester, VT: Bear & Company.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1987). Transactional theory and research on emotions and coping. European Journal of Personality, 1, 141-169. doi:10.1002/per.2410010304

 Sapolsky, R. M. (1994). Why zebras don’t get ulcers (3rd ed.). New York, NY: W. H. Freeman and Company.

 Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.



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