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Professor Ewan Gillon: Developing healthy coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety

Professor Ewan Gillon.
Professor Ewan Gillon.

Have you decided to go ‘Sober for October’? Or do you wish you’d received an invite to the London Chocolate Forum to celebrate Chocolate Week?

Reading about both of those events got me thinking about coping mechanisms and how we apply them in our everyday lives.

First things first, I am not about to tell you to stop eating chocolate for good or forego that well-earned glass of wine with dinner after a busy day at work.

However, used in excess, either can turn into an unhealthy habit masquerading the actual problem rather than helping us address it to find a true solution.

Why do we need coping mechanisms? Simply because our lives don’t always resemble plain sailing.

We have to deal with disappointments, times when we feel we’ve taken on more than we can deal with, family bereavements and any number of situations that increase our stress levels or even cause anxiety.

How we deal with them is largely determined by three factors: genetic predisposition, the type of stressor we are confronted by and our way of coping with that stressor.

We can’t change our genes, and it’s nearly impossible to predict which challenges we will face at any given time in our lives, but the last of these three factors – coping mechanisms – is the one we can influence the most.

Coping mechanisms are what we apply when things get tough. Without effective coping mechanisms we may well end up becoming our own biggest problem.

For example, feeling that you are undeserving of a promotion at work, will not help you present your case effectively to your manager.

The result is often a foregone conclusion – a colleague gets promoted and your thoughts of not being good enough are reinforced.

Reaching for wine and chocolate may well provide quick relief, but – as your only coping strategy – is likely to create bigger problems down the line.

Healthy coping mechanisms are designed to lower the emotional distress you feel. They can also help you control stress and anxiety levels before they get out of control.

Professor Ewan Gillon: How to have a happy autumn … even at work

Generally, coping mechanisms come in two forms: problem-based or emotion-based.

The first looks at the situation, and problem-based coping skills would allow you to change that situation, for example by removing the stressor from your life.

Getting out of a bad relationship would be one example as is finding a job that puts fewer demands on you and your time.

Emotion-based coping skills focus on controlling your reaction to the situation. They are useful when you can’t change the situation itself, for example after a bereavement.

In many cases, a mix of both strategies works best. Let’s look at feeling overwhelmed by a heavy workload as an example as it’s something most people can relate to.

Problem-based coping mechanisms may include not accepting additional projects or asking colleagues or your manager for help.

Laying out a clear plan and prioritising tasks will help you tackle smaller issues and create ‘small wins’ along to way to completing the whole project.

Emotion-based coping mechanisms often revolve around our lifestyle. In this case of an overly high workload, it’s important to make time for lunch or a short walk to clear your head.

Taking a ten minute coffee break can already make a difference to your work day, and even though you may feel that you need to take work home – don’t.

Instead, use your time after work to actively recharge your batteries, whether it is by spending time with family or simply reading a book.

There is no one size fits all solution here, and all coping mechanisms require some work.

But the results will last longer and help you feel better than that bar of chocolate or glass of wine ever could.

Professor Ewan Gillon is Chartered Psychologist and Clinical Director at First Psychology Scotland, with centres in Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Borders.