Dr. Maria D. Reyes
Stress is a major issue in the world today. If you ask someone how they are doing, it’s commonplace to hear them say, “I’m just really stressed.” This isn’t surprising according to the statistics on stress in the US. According to the American Psychological Association, nearly half of all Americans admit that stress negatively affects their relationships.The sources of stress are endless, but the most common are finances and work. If you also consider family, relationships, and politics, then stress seems nearly inescapable. It appears your best bet might be to try and find a cabin in the woods where you can escape the pressure of the modern world.
Since few people can pull a Henry Thoreau and disappear into the woods, you will have to find a way to cope with the stress. The first step is to recognize unhealthy ways you cope with stress. While you may have just recently started to feel overwhelmed by your stress, you’ve likely been coping with stress for a long time. Before moving forward in a healthy way, you will need to find out how you’ve been handling the situation.
Christians and Coping
Hearing about unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress can be hard for Christians for two reasons. First, it can be difficult because it hits too close to home. Some coping mechanisms overlap with common sins. Getting drunk, getting high, and watching porn are all common sins that often also serve as coping mechanisms. Due to the pressure Christian communities can put on people to be “perfect,” it can be hard for people to acknowledge they are coping with any of these methods.
Unfortunately, this creates a silence about and willful suppression of the coping mechanism, which only creates shame and more stress about being found out. Rather than bringing these sins and coping mechanisms into the light where you can find forgiveness through Jesus Christ, many choose to keep them underground and suffer alone.
Second, Christians can struggle to see they are coping with stress in unhealthy ways if their coping mechanisms aren’t traditional sins. This is the opposite of the first reason. The first reason people refuse to acknowledge their coping mechanism publicly is that it is a sin. The second reason Christians struggle to acknowledge their coping mechanism is that it isn’t a sin, therefore, they think it can’t be bad.
Take running for example. This is a great form of exercise and can be great for your mental health and help you manage your stress. However, if you become addicted to running and the high you get from it, it can become a form of unhealthy coping.
Rather than relying on community, faith, and exercise, you can be obsessive over your running routine. If anything becomes a compulsion, necessary for you to survive, then it has become an unhealthy coping mechanism.
Another common coping mechanism that is ignored because it seems innocent is overeating. Eating food can distract and calm you down. It’s no surprise that after a tough meeting at work, you hit the drive-thru on the way home. You explain it away as just being busy, even when you know you have food at home.
It’s because it’s not just about the need for food. It’s about getting the salt, sugar, and fat that takes the edge off, if only for a moment. Paul is addressing this exact sort of thinking when he confronts the “food for the stomach and the stomach for food” argument in the Corinthian church. He concludes that Christians are too self-controlled and principled in all things.
Unfortunately, despite Paul’s teaching, overeating is often not considered a form of “coping” because it’s not commonly viewed as a sin by Christians, even though the Bible has a lot to say about self-control and moderation.
Christian Counseling for Stress
So, if you want to seriously start managing your stress in a healthy way, then you will need to honestly identify your coping mechanism. If you find yourself struggling with this for either of the above two reasons, then meeting with a Christian counselor will help.
A Christian counselor will offer you a safe space where you can share whatever is going on. If you feel uncomfortable sharing your coping mechanism with people in your Christian community, then you will be able to share it in confidence with a professional Christian counselor who is unconnected to your life. They are trained to hear your story and will be a powerful voice of both accountability and encouragement.
Or, if you are struggling to identify your coping mechanism amid your stress, a Christian counselor will be able to listen to your life and patterns and help you discern how you are choosing to manage your stress. While it can be difficult for you to discern what is going on, an outside observer will have a much clearer perspective on how you are responding to the pressure of life.
Identifying Your Coping Mechanisms
Unhealthy coping mechanisms can be broken up into several distinct categories. For simplicity, here are some of the most common broken into two categories, physical and relational. Remember, some of these aren’t inherently bad, but when driven by compulsion, obsession, or addiction, anything can be an unhealthy form of coping.
Physical Coping Mechanisms
- Addiction to exercise
- Getting drunk
- Doing dangerous drugs
- Abusing prescription medication
- Excess recreational drug use
- Chewing your fingernails
- Driving fast in your car
- Smoking or chewing tobacco
- Excess coffee consumption
- Becoming aggressive or violent (hitting someone, throwing, or kicking something)
These are all considered physical because they need some sort of physical action or substance to help you cope with stress. Many of these are what you think of when you think of a coping mechanism because they are the easiest to identify and often pose the most immediate threat to your health.
However, as discussed above, there are less obvious physical coping mechanisms that can go unnoticed or even be considered part of a healthy lifestyle. Considering this, you will need to closely observe your actions and discern your motivations to decide if a behavior is a coping mechanism or not.
Relational Coping Mechanisms
- Criticizing yourself (negative self-talk)
- Yelling at your spouse, children, or friends
- Avoiding friends and family
- Watching endless hours of TV
- Withdrawing from friends or partners or, conversely jumping into a frenzied social life to avoid facing problems
Some of these are more obvious than others. Yelling at others or negative self-talk can be coping mechanisms to deal with stress and other issues, but it’s not a surprise that these are negative behaviors.
On the other hand, watching too much TV or withdrawing from friends and family is much more difficult to address. These aren’t always coping mechanisms, but they often are, which is why they can easily go unnoticed for so long.
Finding Healthy Ways to Cope
Once you can identify your unhealthy coping mechanism, then you begin to make changes. Stress won’t go away, but you can learn to manage it in a healthy way. Working with a Christian counselor is one of the most effective ways to do this.
Christian counselors are trained to help you process the stress, get to the root of the problem, and create a plan to help you move forward in your life. Healthy forms of coping can consist of journaling, exercise, and mindfulness. You need to find what works for you.
Whatever you find, it shouldn’t be a compulsion, but rather a careful, self-controlled, discipline to help you manage your stress in life. If you don’t do the work of finding your unhealthy coping mechanism, then you will not be able to establish new healthy patterns and rhythms in your life.
“Pandemic Stress”, Courtesy of Engin Akyurt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Overwhelmed”, Courtesy of Luis Villasmil, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Catch me”, Courtesy of Noah Buscher, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Overwhelmed”, Courtesy of Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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