How do you cope when life throws a curved ball?
Try these new ideas for proactive stress management
The latest ‘coping research’ identifies new proactive stress management strategies for coping with unforeseen events. While we can feel we are in control of our lives, life can inevitably throw a curved ball our way. As John Lennon famously quipped, ‘Life is what happens when we make other plans’. However, unexpected and potentially stressful events needn’t knock us off track. In this article we discuss some new suggestions from experts to help cope proactively with life events, avoiding unwanted stress before it starts.
New ways of thinking about ‘coping’ with stress
Traditionally stress has been defined as a response to a real or perceived threat to our wellbeing. However, new ‘coping research’ recognises that the response of various people to the same event, can be different. For instance, for a person struggling in many areas of their life, the loss of a job could be devastating. However, for another person who has a positive outlook, supportive family, good health and financial reserves, it could be just the ‘break’ they needed. In other words, our relationship to our environment has a lot to do with how we experience potential stressors.
‘Appraising’ or giving personal meaning a potentially stressful event
Stress arises from the appraisal that a particular event is about to tax our resources. Appraisal is when an individual evaluates and gives personal meaning to an event and considers the significance of ‘what is at stake’ in terms of harm, threat or challenge. Dewe, O’Driscoll and Cooper (2010) explain that there are two parts of the appraisal process that occur in response to a potential stressor:
- Primary appraisal - this part of the appraisal process involves recognition that the event is significant to us and will impact on our normal functioning.
- Secondary appraisal – this part of the appraisal process is required in order to decide the significance of the event. It further refines the meaning around the event and addresses the question, ‘What can I do about it?’ Coping is central to this appraisal process and is utilised to manage and deal with demanding events.
The cause of stress is not just an event, but also be how we appraise an event. If we are able to appraise an event in a way that leads to positive action, we are more likely to maintain a sense of being in control and cope better.
How should we cope with stress, including work stress?
We can cope with stress using traditional reactive coping strategies and proactive stress prevention strategies promoted in recent research.
Traditional Strategies for coping with a stressful event, including at work
There is a conventional list of stress management interventions that have been suggested by researchers for over 40 years. These are definitely useful when we encounter a taxing event. These strategies include:
- Forward Planning: Behaviours aimed at the person’s own psychological state, such as forward planning and assessment of one’s aspirations
- Health Life-style Change: Health-related behaviours such as diet, exercise and sleep which are designed to improve one’s own physical status
- Changing Leisure Behaviour: Changing one’s behaviour and activities to improve life generally. For example, taking holidays, engaging in relaxation, developing close friendships
- Changes to the Work Environment: Behaviours intended to change the work environment such as reducing workload, delegating tasks to other people or even changing to a less demanding job
While these strategies are important, evidence for their effectiveness is also mixed. This is because, while these strategies are all positive, there is an assumption that individuals can change the circumstances that put the strain on them. Obviously this is not always the case. Sometimes events persist that continue to cause stress. This is why the latest coping research highlights proactive, prevention strategies.
Be Proactive – add fun, expansive, coping strategies to your Tool Box
There is a trend in current coping research to promote proactive coping strategies, as well as the more traditional reactive coping strategies. What motivates ‘proactive copers’ is the belief that change brings with it the rich potential for individual improvement or growth. This means viewing life more as an adventure, which can involve fun, expansive, learning opportunities. Proactive coping strategies include:
- Focus on Growth: Focusing on positive challenges and goal achievement i.e. the ways that one can grow and find positive priorities
- Plan a Life-style that Accommodates Change: Accumulate resources and acquire skills that forearm and prepare i.e. training, insurance, holidays, times for fun, a life-style that is has some financial and time slack built in
- Focus on Goal Management: Adopt an approach that emphasizes goal management rather than risk management i.e. organize one’s life to help one manage well, rather than react
- Set Goals that are Personally Important: Maintain performance levels that are personally meaningful and provide purpose i.e. set goals that are meaningful to you, including within one’s work-life including skill acquisition, promotion, ways to serve, or even ways to help enhance fun at work (for instance as a manager).
Adding proactive strategies to our coping toolbox helps us to building up our ‘reserves’. This will inevitably allow us to be more able to ‘cope’ when life’s ‘curved balls’ are thrown our way.
Conclusion – Benefit from Reactive and Proactive Coping
It is useful to acknowledge that life will throw us a curved ball from time to time. However, we can view change in positive ways and prepare ourselves in advance with the resources, skills and life-style that will allow us to not survive, but cope well, when difficult events or changes occur in our life and work.
Dr Kathryn Owler, Joyworkz.com Director.
Dewe, P., O’Driscoll, M. and Cooper, C. 2010. Coping with Stress. West Sussex: John Wiley and Sons.
Tips, training and resources
Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars such as "Standing Up to Stress" (which discusses the importance of good diet, exercise and sleep) that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.
A wellness programme: Consider a workplace health challenge to get employees moving. If you need help getting started designing a made to measure wellness programme, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.
Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the range of free Alsco Heart Health posters that encourage staff in healthy workplace practices.
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