Why Traditional Coping Strategies for Stress Do Not Always Work

Why is it that two people who are experiencing the exact same event can have completely different responses?

I remember when we would have to give presentations in college, some people were incredibly uneasy and stressed, which came across as they presented, while others sailed through seeming completely unphased. Others may have felt the stress of public speaking but were able to conceal it well and appear confident. We were all doing the same assignment for the same course, and had access to the same material and same amount of time to practice, but there were vast differences in how each of us approached the task.
This is likely due to differences in our mindsets – how we see ourselves and the event. Do we see stress as enhancing, or debilitating?

Issues with coping methods

Stress is unavoidable. It is such a widely studied and talked-about topic, and there are many commonly used coping methods, such as meditation, mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation techniques, and avoidance techniques.

However, there are some issues with these, and here are a few reasons why they may not always work:

  1. Different coping procedures can be complicated and can create more stress

    There are so many different stress management techniques, that even trying to choose the right one can be a cause of further stress. Not knowing which solution is right can cause problems.

Also, there are so many complicated or varied strategies that might not be applicable to all stressful situations. For example, if you usually cope with stress by trying to solve the problem, this may be damaging for stressful situations in which there is not a solution to a problem, for example, losing a loved one. A strategy that worked in one stressful situation will not necessarily work in a different situation.

2. It can be difficult or counterproductive to try to reduce stress

There are some things in our lives that are completely out of our control, and trying to mitigate or eliminate stressors is not always possible. Sometimes we are advised, “just don’t think about it”, or to try to forget about a stressor, but this is not necessarily an effective way to cope. For example, losing your job is a stressful event that is out of our control, and making attempts to ‘avoid’ this stress or not think about it are likely to be unhelpful to the situation.

See our blog on ‘Taking Control Over Stress’ for more on this topic.

3. Most traditional approaches to reducing stress are coming from the wrong mindset

A lot of these techniques are from the ‘stress is debilitating’ mindset. When we have this mindset, we see new experiences or challenges as threatening. When we see stress as debilitating, it can take over your rational way of seeing things, causing your focus to deteriorate and you may think less clearly, which will hinder performance.

However, when we see stress as enhancing, we believe it can have a positive influence, it can be a motivator to enhance performance or alertness.

So, what can we do instead?

When the traditional approaches aren’t working, it might be time to examine your mindset in relation to stress, challenges, and setbacks.
We can begin making these changes by looking at the situation differently; Changing your thoughts and feelings can help change the bodily reactions to stress.

For example, imagine you have a deadline for a big project coming up. If you think about it as, “I have so much I have to do. How am I ever going to get this all completed? There’s too much work”, it’s likely going to be triggering the negative stress response.
Try to change that view, and say “I’m going to get my work completed by the deadline. It’ll require hard work, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I’m looking forward to having this finished!” The latter is more likely to boost motivation, and see the challenge as an experience from which to learn and grow.

Remember that making these kinds of changes take time and training. It is like going to the gym; to see and feel the positive effects, it requires consistent effort and practice. By confronting more new situations, you will build up that confidence and capability to cope better under pressure.


This information is adapted from the writings of Dr. Steven Stein and Dr. Paul Bartone, who have developed the Hardiness Resilience Gauge.  This is an assessment measuring one’s ability to remain committed despite setbacks, to focus on what is within our control and what we can influence, and to seek challenges to develop ourselves and see change and novel and exciting.

If you would like to learn more about this framework, or become certified to use it in your practice, get in touch! Contact details are below.