5 Ways to Cope With Emotional Stress

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Emotional stress can be particularly painful and be challenging to deal with. It can take more of a toll that many other forms of stress. Part of the reason is that thinking about a solution, or discussing solutions with a good friend—coping behaviors that are often useful and effective in solving problems—can easily deteriorate into rumination and co-rumination, which are not so useful and effective.

In fact, rumination can exacerbate your stress levels, so it helps to have healthy strategies for coping with emotional stress as well as redirecting yourself away from rumination and avoidance coping and more toward emotionally proactive approaches to stress management.​

Causes of Emotional Stress

Relationship stress carries a heavy toll on our emotional lives and creates strong emotional responses. Our relationships greatly impact our lives— or better or for worse.

Healthy relationships can bring good times, but also resources in times of need, added resilience in times of stress, and even increased longevity. However, conflicted relationships and 'frenemies' can make us worse off in our emotional lives, and can even take a toll physically.

Relationships aren't the only cause of emotional stress, however. Financial crises, an unpleasant work environment, or a host of other stressors can cause emotional stress, which sometimes tempts us toward unhealthy coping behaviors in order to escape the pain, especially when the situations seem hopeless.

Perhaps one of the more challenging aspects of coping with emotional stress is the feeling of being unable to change the situation. If we can't change our stress levels by eliminating the stressful situation, we can work on our emotional response to it.

Coping With Emotional Stress

Fortunately, while you can't always fix these situations overnight, you can lessen the emotional stress you feel, and the toll this stress takes on you. Here are some exercises you can try to effectively cope with emotional stress.

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Practice Mindfulness

When we feel emotional stress, it's also often experienced as physical pain. You may feel a 'heavy' feeling in the chest, an unsettled feeling in the stomach, a dull headache.

It's common to try to escape these feelings, but it can actually be helpful to go deeper into the experience and use mindfulness to really notice where these emotional responses are felt physically. Some people notice that the pain seems more intense before dissipating, but then they feel the emotional and physical pain is lessened.

Distract Yourself

Common belief used to be that if we didn't express every emotion we felt (or at least the big ones), they would show themselves in other ways. In some ways, this is true. There are benefits to examining our emotional states to learn from what our emotions are trying to tell us, and 'stuffing our emotions' in unhealthy ways can bring other problems.

However, it's also been discovered that distracting oneself from emotional pain with emotionally healthy alternatives—such as a feel-good movie, fun activities with friends, or a satisfying mental challenge—can lessen emotional pain and help us feel better.

Block Off Some Time

If you find that emotional stress and rumination creep into your awareness quite a bit, and distraction doesn't work, try scheduling some time—an hour a day, perhaps—where you allow yourself to think about your situation fully and mull over solutions, concoct hypothetical possibilities, replay upsetting exchanges, or whatever you feel the emotional urge to do.

Journaling is a great technique to try here, especially if it's done as both an exploration of your inner emotional world and an exploration of potential solutions. Talk to your friends about the problem, if you'd like. Fully immerse yourself. And then try some healthy distractions.

This technique works well for two reasons. First, if you really have the urge to obsess, this allows you to satisfy that craving in a limited context. Also, you may find yourself more relaxed the rest of the day because you know that there will be a time to focus on your emotional situation; that time is just later.

Practice Meditation

Meditation is very helpful for dealing with a variety of stressors, and emotional stress is definitely in the category of stressors that meditation helps with. It allows you to take a break from rumination by actively redirecting your thoughts, and provides practice in choosing thoughts, which can help eliminate some emotional stress in the long term.

Talk to a Therapist

If you find your level of emotional stress interfering with your daily activities or threatening your well-being in other ways, you may consider seeing a therapist for help working through emotional issues. Whatever the cause of your emotional stress, you can work toward lessening and managing it and feeling better in the process, without losing the 'messages' that your emotions are bringing you.

If you or a loved one are struggling with stress, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.