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Coping With Trauma and Stress: Research Shows How You Cope Might Tell You More About Yourself Than You Ever Imagined

by Jordan Miller

It’s difficult. We understand. No one likes it. Again, we understand. The truth is, we’re all under a certain amount of pressure. We’ve all dealt with trauma. We all feel stress. And, none of these statements are intended to diminish your current emotions or your personal level of stress. In fact, it’s intended to do the opposite. Those statements were intended to recognize it. 

“Okay, so what do I do about it?” you might be asking. “I feel stress. I deal with trauma. What do I do?”

Obviously, different people use different coping mechanisms to deal with stress. And, scientists have long studied a spectrum of coping mechanisms. To make this simple, let’s begin with each end of the spectrum. 

On one end, there’s the approach to coping that’s the most direct and active in terms of addressing the sources of stress. It’s been called action-focused coping or active problem-solving. This is when you focus on action to change the stressful situation itself. This might include gathering information or developing a strategy, but it always means exercising your autonomy. 

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s what’s known as avoidant coping. In avoidant coping, people try to disengage from stressful situations through a variety of methods. These can include denial, substance use, or behavioral disengagement. As you’ve probably heard before, avoiding problems won’t make them go away.

In between these two spectrums (facing your stressors directly and running away from them), there are two more strategies: 

  • Seeking emotional support from people you can rely on is social coping. Knowing that people you trust have your back can make a big difference in how well you can handle stress.
  • Seeking emotional support from a higher power is spiritual coping and can take many forms such as prayer, meditation, or belief in a higher power, even in nature or art. The key is the connection to placing your troubles within a greater, meaningful context.

So, is there a relationship between how much stress people are experiencing in their lives and the coping strategies used? Yes. There definitely is. Our research shows that there is a linear relationship between the amount of stress a person experiences and the way they tend to cope with it. In fact, if you break the population into four equal parts according to the level of stress they report, we find some interesting patterns:

The least stressed groups are the ones most likely to engage in active problem-solving and spiritual coping. And the probability of using these particularly effective approaches declines as stress levels increase.

Conversely, we find that the most stressed groups are most likely to engage in avoidant coping, which drops off as stress decreases. 

This finding is troubling: The people most in need of effective coping strategies are the least likely to use them and are the ones most likely to retreat into denial.

The next time you’re feeling particularly stressed, make sure you’re not retreating into the temporary comfort of denial or avoidance. Action-focused, practical approaches will help you address the actual sources of your stress while taking a spiritual view can help you put your problems in their proper perspective. 

If you’re looking for further guidance on how to deal with stress or trauma, we highly recommend our 6-course learning path, Prevailing Through Trauma which is led by certified trauma therapist and grief specialist Lori Toscano and Overpowering Stress which includes a quick assessment to gain insight on how you cope with stress.

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