The number one advice when you’re tense, frazzled and overwhelmed is to minimize your exposure to stress. But when life’s tragedies hit, that’s not an option.
Living with chronic illness comes with unavoidable stress. On top of unpredictable symptoms, pain and insomnia, you’re also faced with anxiety about the future, identity issues and new relationship dynamics. Even worse, you may have to deal with losing your job, financial problems or marital troubles. Not to mention the mountain of paperwork you have to sort through to keep track of medical records, insurances and social security benefits.
When stress can’t be prevented or escaped, there’s only one solution: finding effective ways to best deal with the uncontrollable stress.
The Process of Stress Appraisal – And Why It Matters
When something distressing happens, your brain quickly analyzes the situation. Is this incident a threat to my wellbeing? Could that stressor hurt my health, my goals or my beliefs about the world? This intuitive evaluation is called cognitive appraisal.
If your mind interprets the event as a threat, it automatically starts assessing if there’s anything that can be done to improve the situation. Can you make any changes, ask for help or simply leave? When the answer is yes, your primal control coping mechanisms get activated, which comes down to doing something to solve the problem.
The way you perceive a potentially stressful event influences your experience and your health.
But what if there’s nothing you can do to fix your problems? Not even run away from them? For example, if you’re nervous about undergoing surgery, problem-solving strategies like receiving a clear walk-through from your doctors and getting support from family can take some of the stress away. But in the end, you can’t escape your body when the procedure scares you. That’s when secondary control coping comes into play: adjusting yourself to the circumstances. Instead of solving the problem, you need emotion-focused strategies to deal with the uncontrollable stress.
Now there are constructive ways to cope, and not-so-good coping strategies. Worrying, emotional eating or self-medicating with alcohol and drugs give some temporary relief, but in the long run, these behaviours do more harm than good. So how can you deal with inescapable stress in a healthy way?
11 Emotion-Focused Ways to Deal with Uncontrollable Stress
There are two broad approaches for dealing with stress: reducing those agitated feelings the very moment you’re experiencing them and a more preventive plan that focuses on minimizing the impact of the stressful situation. Let’s have a look at 11 healthy coping strategies for the short and long-term.
Short-Term Strategies for Coping with Uncontrollable Stress
- Positive distraction. Distracting yourself with your favourite series takes your mind off your problems. But distraction works best as a temporarily solution. Constantly pushing away your problems and losing yourself in gaming or browsing social media can be harmful to your mental health. So try more constructive forms of distraction, like seeking the company of loved ones, moving your body or engaging in hobbies.
- Seeking support. Who hasn’t turned to their best friend for a hug or a good cry? Reaching out to loved ones for support is one of the most natural ways to handle hardship. But when it comes to coping with chronic illness, you can also get tailored advice from your physician and other medical professionals.
- Reappraising the stressful situation. You don’t have to put rose-coloured glasses on when life clearly sucks, but seeing events in a more positive light can help you cope better. Give a new, more helpful meaning to what’s happening. For example, doctor’s visits can be physically and emotionally draining, but they hopefully lead to a diagnosis and/or treatment.
- Engage in self-soothing activities. Kids tightly hug their beloved stuffed animal when they’re scared and sad. You can comfort yourself in similar ways, by mindfully engaging your senses. Listen to calming music, sip a cup of tea, burn some incense or give yourself a relaxing foot massage.
- Foster an encouraging internal dialogue. Thoughts are powerful. The way we talk to ourselves about stressful situations and our ability to cope with it, has a real impact on how we experience the distressing event and our wellbeing. You can learn to replace negative thinking patterns with more helpful self-talk or you could quiet your racing mind by practicing mindfulness, meditation or prayer.
- Use stress-reduction techniques. You might not be able to change your stressful situation, but you can control how stress affects your body and mind. So no matter how busy and tired you are, make time to physically relax, quiet your mind and calm your emotions. Deep breathing, yoga and progressive muscle relaxation are well-known ways to release tension from your body, but a warm bath, dancing it out and going for a walk in nature work just as well. For more science-based exercises, try these 16 stress management activities and worksheets.
“When we are no longer able to change the situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl
Long-Term Coping Strategies for Uncontrollable Stress
- Try proactive coping when possible. When you live with chronic illness, you know you’ll be facing your fair share of challenging situations. And isn’t it ironic that the times when you experience the most stress, are the exact times when you are least capable of dealing with it? Luckily, there are things you can do before stressful events happen so you’re able to cope better when they do. Take a more preventive approach by identifying recurring stressors – hospital appointments, your daily commute, childcare on flare-up days – and anticipate. Is there anything you can do differently to make things easier? For example, have a back-up plan ready: healthy freezer meals for sick days, a packed hospital bag or ‘rainy day activities’ for the kids.
- Purposely cultivate positive emotions. In her book Positivity, professor Barbara Fredrickson describes how we need 3 positive emotions for every negative one to stay emotionally healthy. So counteract the stress of living with chronic illness by creating ‘positivity portfolios’ with items that spark joy, gratitude, hope or love. You can also make a list of things that make you happy and actively sprinkle those simple pleasures throughout your day.
- Build routines and use energy-conserving life hacks. Doing things on autopilot reduces physical stress and mental overload. Combined with ‘buffer time’, setting priorities and planning, you’ve got the essential ingredients for good energy management.
- Create a coping box. We can all use a little support when we feel anxious and overwhelmed. Having a box with soothing items not only calms you down on bad days, but can also build resilience over time. So gather some comforting things to help you cope better with distress.
- Work on acceptance. Accepting that you’re chronically ill is a long and difficult process. Just like coping with stress, it’s about learning to deal with an uncontrollable situation and the negative thoughts and feelings that come with it. Feeling less upset about having to live with long-term health problems can be an important way to reduce your overall stress levels.
How do you deal with the uncontrollable stress linked to living with chronic illness?
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