stress coping styles

When it comes to dealing with pressure, your stress coping styles are personal. That’s precisely the reason why some of the tactics you’ve developed over time don’t work! Nobody tells us, as we grow from child to adult, how to manage stress. Most of us have to figure it out as we go along, and most of us don’t do it well (if we did, we wouldn’t get so stressed!).

Stress is everywhere, it seems. Whether its a problem for you or not, it’s handy to understand the warning signs and a few quick tips to help you combat the effects of stress when you need to.

It’s handy to understand the ‘good’ habits that help protect you against stress, and the ‘bad’ ones that can actually make you more vulnerable.

Stress is unavoidable. You can’t avoid it, but you can learn how to monitor your stress levels to spot it early enough to take corrective action. It is also handy to understand the ‘good’ habits that help protect you against stress, and the ‘bad’ ones that can actually make you more vulnerable to stress.

This post will help you identify your stress coping styles and to understand the different ways in which people respond to stress. You’ll be able to identify your typical style, understand helpful and unhelpful habits, and things to you could usefully avoid, to keep your stress levels in check.

Reactions vs responses

We all have our individual ways of responding to stress. Some of these ‘coping styles’ are helpful, others are not.  You might say that ways of responding to stress which are unhelpful are reactions, in that they are usually automatic and they kick in without any conscious decision on our part. 

In contrast, helpful ways of coping can be seen as responses; we choose how to behave in the face of stress rather than reacting blindly to it.

Helpful or not?

Stress affects everyone differently and each individual responds in their own way. Nevertheless, there are some common stress management strategies which people use.

Stress reduces our options. It pushes us to think in certain ways aimed at survival (remember fight or flight). So it’s useful to be able to take some corrective action to counter the onset of stress when we begin to notice the indicators.  ‘Sooner is better’ because we are more responsive and have more control over the symptoms in the early stages of the stress cycle.


First, let’s consider the helpful strategies that people tend to use naturally. These can act as an antidote to the stressors and help to mitigate the effects:

  • Humour. Pointing out the amusing aspects of the problem at hand, or “positive reframing,” is thought to help deal with small failures.
  • Taking responsibility – cooly asking ourselves what part we have played in creating or perpetuating a situation allows us to be objective and plan our way out of a difficulty. 
  • Some people associate responsibility with ‘blame’ (see below). There is no inevitable connection between them, especially where stress and wellbeing are concerned.
  • Reframing. Finding a different perspective or meaning. For example, telling ourselves that 
  • Taking regular breaks. These need not be long; a few minutes to step back and think, can provide a valuable space for reflection and change of pace.
  • Giving it a name or identity (Mr stress, the red mist…) Name the devil…
  • Seeking support. Asking for help, or finding emotional support from family members or friends, can be an effective way of maintaining emotional health during a stressful period.

Not helpful

Those are helpful stress coping styles. Stress reduces your options, so these ideas counter that. They give you a range of options, and choice is empowering. But there are also more destructive strategies which eventually make the situation worse, not better:

  • Blame – self or others, it doesn’t matter. The more we can beat ourselves up or heap blame on others, the more we divert our attention from the issues that really need to be addressed. It’s a risky strategy because blaming ourselves can shake our confidence, affecting self-esteem and motivation.
  • Denial – handy and sometimes helpful for getting us through an unavoidable situation. If it prevents us from addressing what needs to change in ourselves or a situation it can become destructive.
  • Venting – Despite the popular myth that “venting” reduces anger, there is no scientific basis for this belief. In fact it could make things worse; just believing that ʻletting it all outʼ reduces angry outbursts can actually make it more likely that those outbursts will occur. Anger begets anger, so beware.
  • Negativity – As the saying goes, “Misery loves company”. Negativity and complaints are toxic. They will infect your thinking, so avoid hanging out with people whose outlook is constantly pessimistic.
  • Wishing and hoping – “If only”… is a pernicious habit that will drag you deeper into dissatisfaction.
  • Comparing – Similar to the point above. Comparing the situation with “how it used to be”, or,  “how it could be if only…” etc., just makes things seem worse. Cultivate acceptance and live in the-here-and-now’ and suppress the habit of comparing.


Recognising your own natural coping styles will help you understand whether they are helpful or not. If they do help, foster them as habits to help counter the pernicious effects of stress. If they and not helpful, then practice spotting them early in the cycle so that you can change your responses. This may seem difficult at first but with practice, it can develop into a new habit.
Giving yourself a conscious choice gives you more control because you are then in charge of yourself, even if you can’t control the situation (which mostly we can’t).
Understand the situations that you find as stressful. Stress results from a constellation of effects which are variable. This means that something you normally don’t find stressful (speaking to a group of people socially for example), can have a dramatically different effect when the circumstances change (speaking to a group of people at a job interview).
Monitor your stress levels. Develop a habit of reading your ‘stress barometer’. Unless you know where you are on the scale you might be suddenly taken by surprise (and get stressed), by a minor event that normally, by itself, wouldn’t trouble you.
Stress is cumulative so several minor events – which you would easily deal with taken on their own – when they occur at the same time, can suddenly and dramatically raise your stress levels and push you past your normal range of coping. Use the Stress Barometer to increase your awareness so that things don’t take you by surprise.
Knowing your stress coping styles will ensure that you understand your own common responses to stress and the circumstances and situations that put you at risk. The earlier (in the stress cycle) you can spot what’s happening in you, the better you’ll be able to manage stress and the circumstances which challenge you. 
If it works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, do something different. Remember this.

I’m a psychologist, coach, and therapist. All my work is aimed at enabling people to improve personal aspects of their lives and work.