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4 Healthier Ways to Cope with Chronic Stress

Lisa Damour

For some of us, eating popcorn became a new, almost daily habit over the past year. Someone in the house always seemed to have eaten the last of the ice cream. And there was just no keeping cookies around.

Coping strategies? Yes. Healthy and effective coping strategies? Not so much.

Negative coping strategies, says psychologist and New York Times columnist Lisa Damour, are ones that help a little in the short-term but they don’t hold up over the long term. Here are four common examples, according to Damour:

Negative Coping Strategies

  1. Emotional retreat. This is what happens when we withdraw from people, cut them off, or avoid them.
  2. Substance misuse. “One of the things that is true about substances is that they are incredibly effective at helping us feel better,” she says. “But if it becomes a regular short-term solution, it doesn’t end up going very well down the line.”
  3. Junk habits. “These are things that we do that we know we’re not supposed to do, like take our phone to bed and scroll and scroll and scroll through it instead of sleeping, or only eating comfort foods, or not getting off the couch.”
  4. Crankiness. This is the age-old-letting-it-fly-at-someone-to-relieve-a-little-stress strategy.

So, what’s the better alternative? Positive coping strategies, says Damour, have the great advantage of working in both the short-term and the long-term. Here are some examples:

Positive Coping Strategies

  1. Seek social connection. “It doesn’t matter how many people you have in your life. What matters is whether you have what you need. To have the social support that sustains you, everybody needs three things. They need someone to tell their worries to. They need somebody to tell their secrets to. And they need someone or a group who helps them to feel connected and accepted.” If you are missing any of those, Damour suggests, make a special effort to find it.
  2. Think about ways to take a break. “Happy distractions are really important for getting through chronic stress conditions. We’ve got years of research that tells us this,” she says. “It is important to check out sometimes, to not think about the headlines, to not think about prevailing conditions, and just let ourselves restore a little bit.”
  3. Practice incredibly disciplined self-care. “This means getting good sleep and taking steps to make sure you can fall asleep at night, maybe by winding down before you go to bed. This means eating well, eating a terrific variety of foods, enjoying foods, enjoying treats. This also means being active. Moving in ways that feel really good and keep your blood flowing, keep you moving.”
  4. Take care of other people. “Taking care of other people actually does help us take care of ourselves,’ says Damour. ‘So, in addition to taking care of ourselves, we want to do what women always do and take good care of other people.”

The bottom line. Positive coping strategies won’t help you eliminate chronic stress. But they will help buffer the psychological impact of chronic stress. So, if the popcorn or chips aren’t doing the trick anymore, try Damour’s tips for a healthier, more effective impact.

Lisa Damour spoke at the 2020 Massachusetts Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk. Damour is the author of several books, including Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.

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