Trauma, stress and daily hassles: Coping with what works!

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Rumi.


Emotion (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Daily hassles and stress are an unavoidable part of daily living and occasional traumas are also part of the human condition. However, the inevitability of stressful situations need not lead to feelings of despair or hopelessness; we can cope with the stressors by either changing the situation or changing our reaction to it.

The former is called problem-focused coping and involves tools like the SOLVE method to come up with a workable solution to reducing or eliminating the stressful situation. As per the SOLVE method, you State the problem, Outline your goals, List your alternatives, View the consequences and Evaluate your results. Methods like these help address directly the problem at hand.

But sometimes external things are beyond our control and wisdom lies in not only changing what we can but accepting what we cannot and knowing the difference between the two. So we have another set of coping mechanisms called emotion-focused coping. Here we work on how our beliefs and habitual patterns help or hinder in having useful reactions to the situations. We work directly on our emotional reactions to situations and how we can regulate our emotions to better cope with the situations.

Although emotion-focused coping is sometimes seen as having negative consequences and worse outcomes than problem-focused coping, and has also been associated with defense mechanisms, which have got a bad rap, still the utility of emotion-focused coping especially where not much can be done to change external circumstances is immense.

There is a parallel consideration in positive psychology as to what is the best way to achieve and account for happiness- is it all in the mind and we should focus on how we appraise events and react to them and the sort of mindset we have; or should we persist in changing the circumstance of our living? Johnathan Haidt, in his book ‘The happiness hypothesis‘,  concludes, and I concur, that happiness lies in-between – neither wholly outside and not wholly inside, but is co created and interactionist in nature.

In a similar vein, both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping may be required and beneficial, especially in case of major traumas. We can consider daily hassles as daily exercise which tire the muscles and then we need some time to recover  – so also for living with daily hassles we may need quality downtime to rest and recover. However, when one suffers a traumatic injury to the leg , say a ligament rupture or a broken bone, one needs a cast to heal and get back on one’s feet! Extending the analogy after a traumatic event, one needs an ’emotional cast’ where one does not tax one’s coping system too much with daily emotional decisions or regulations and caregivers attending to such a person should allow more leeway for emotional outbursts etc.

As a caregiver, you can also help in one of two ways- either providing instrumental help- for e.g. helping the person directly solve his problem say by providing employment leads after an employee had been downsized;  or you can provide emotional support – just being there and listening to the person being downsized and providing him a shoulder to cry on.

In our work lives as well as our lives outside of work, we will be faced with many stresses, and while its important to take a problem solving approach initially, we should also leverage emotion focused coping mechanisms to our advantage.  A combination of both approaches will provide us with more resilience!

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