How to Handle Stressful Situations

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You can't always avoid stress, which is why it is important to know how to handle stressful situations. Getting better at managing stress is a great way to become more resilient and able to confront future challenges.

Often when people face a new and stressful situation—a job that’s a bit too challenging, a thorny relationship hurdle that will take a while to sort through, a change in lifestyle that feels like a step down from what they had—they feel overwhelmed at the thought that they may have to deal with this stress for an extended time.

People who worry about long-term stress have reason to be concerned: chronic stress, the type of stress that is continual and unchanging, can take a heavy toll. It can negatively impact both physical and mental health.

The good news is that you can mitigate the stress of virtually any situation, even if it is there to stay for a while. If you are facing a challenging life situation, or wondering if it gets easier and how to speed the process, try stress relief strategies that can help.

These techniques can help significantly if you face a life crisis or overwhelming stressor. But ff your stress feels unmanageable, seek help from a mental health professional.

Identify the Source of Your Stress

The first step toward handling stressful situations is to figure out what it is that is stressing you out. Understanding which aspects of the situation make things difficult for you can help you develop strategies to manage these feelings.

Identifying the cause isn't as always as easy as it sounds. While you might recognize that starting a new job or moving to a new area is stressful, being able to point to the specific aspects of the situation that are difficult for you is important. 

For example, knowing you are stressed about meeting new people at your new job can help you cope with the social aspects of work.

Writing in a journal can often effectively decrease stress and anxiety. It can also be a useful tool for learning more about your stress sources and how you typically cope with stressful situations.

How to Keep a Stress Journal

Consider situations where you might feel anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed, and ask yourself:

  • What was it about the situation that caused you to feel stressed?
  • What did you think about the situation?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • What did you do in response to the stress?
  • What did you do to relieve the stress?

Have the Right Attitude

You can’t always control what you are facing, but you do have a choice in how you face it. You can choose the attitude you take, which can help determine whether you view each situation as a threat or a challenge.

Research shows that viewing something as a challenge helps you mobilize resources and bring your "A game" to the situation more easily. Viewing the same situation as a threat can lead to greater stress and worse performance.

There are a number of problems associated with avoiding the source of your stress. This approach is known as avoidant coping and while it provides temporary relief, it can actually make stress and anxiety worse in the long run.

Understand the Role of Attitude

Your attitude can help to determine how stressful a situation feels for you, and how you approach your options. In fact, attitude can affect which options you see and do not see, which can also affect your stress levels and the outcome of your actions.

Examine Your Thought Patterns

Your thought patterns may feel automatic, but you can choose where your focus lies. Research has found, for example, that thought patterns can contribute to increases in the stress hormone cortisol.

To begin to make that choice, it helps to become aware of your habitual thinking patterns. This exercise can help you to see these patterns more clearly and can help you to relieve stress in the process.

Practice Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk means using more optimistic language in your head, and focusing more on possibilities. It involves more than merely trying to look on the bright side, although that is part of it.

Learning how to shift your focus can help alter what is possible for you. For example, instead of focusing on the negative aspects of a situation that are out of your control, you might instead focus your attention on areas where you can make a positive change.

Change What You Can

Sometimes there are certain aspects of a situation you can change, even if you cannot change the overall situation. Focusing on what you can control can help you feel more empowered and less helpless when you are handling a stressful situation.

For example, you may, for financial reasons, be unable to quit a job you don’t enjoy. However, you can connect with co-workers more, alter your attitude while you’re at work, and use your break time for stress management activities. All of these can alter how you feel when you are at this job.

Try Solution-Focused Coping

Solution-focused coping means taking action to change your life where you are able. Examples of solution-focused ways to handle stress include:

  • Finding ways to manage your time more effectively to make a stressful situation easier to handle
  • Taking steps to minimize aspects of the situation to make it less anxiety-provoking
  • Relying on conflict-management skills to deal with difficult interpersonal relationships that contribute to stress

These changes can be large in scale or small but targeted. Change can bring stress, so it’s important to choose the changes that matter most.

Find and Eliminate Tolerations

Tolerations are those nagging stressors in your lifestyle that you put up with almost without realizing it, but which bring you constant low-grade stress. The thing about tolerations is that they add up to bigger stress.

Cutting out tolerations can relieve stress so you can tolerate more things you can’t change.

Create a New Life Plan

Knowing where you want to go and having a plan for the future, can help to minimize stress in the present. Planning changes according to your values and priorities can be helpful and inspiring, even if you can’t bring those plans to fruition for a little while longer.

One study found that people who balance living in the moment and making plans are the most resilient in the face of daily stress and stressful situations.

Build Resilience

If you can’t do any more to change your situation, you can still reduce the stress you feel as you manage your daily life. Certain activities can promote resilience, help you feel less stressed overall, and help you be less reactive to the stressors you face when they rear their ugly heads.

Practicing resilience-building activities can help you develop new skills for managing stress. The more they become an automatic habit, the less your stressors will bother you.

Self Care

Everything feels more stressful when you are tired, hungry, and run down. It also means that you have fewer coping resources at your disposal. This means that you are more likely to react to stress rather than respond to it. Or you might let things snowball until things become even more overwhelming.

Focus on taking care of your body, and you will have a greater ability to handle frustration and stress in your life overall. Do things that make yourself feel good and cared for, whether that's getting a massage, reading a book, or enjoying a relaxing spa day at home.

Exercise

Exercise is one of those wonderful stress relievers that can build resilience by helping you to blow off steam. Better still, regular exercise can help you to become less reactive toward stress.

Because of that and the obvious health benefits of exercise, this is a powerhouse of a stress reliever that should be worked into your schedule when at all possible.

Meditation

Meditation can help you to remain centered in the face of stress and can help you to regain a sense of peace when you are feeling off-balance. Many meditation techniques work well, so try a few and stick with a favorite technique that feels right.

Over time, you should find yourself reacting to stress with less intensity and more able to remain calm and peaceful.

Positive Attitude

Maintaining a positive attitude is one thing you can do to make everything in your life feel easier. A positive attitude also helps you to get along better with others (which can lead to greater social support and less conflict) and can help you to remain feeling good, even when things around you are not so great.

A Word From Verywell

It would be great if you could simply avoid or eliminate the stressors in your life. Unfortunately, that's only possible to an extent. There will be times when you are all faced with unpredictable or unavoidable stressors when you need to rely on resilience. You may not be able to change everything in your life, but these tips can help you handle stressful situations. 

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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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.