3 Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Stress in Daily Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Robert Sapolsky. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are some healthy coping mechanisms for stress? How can you choose the right coping mechanism for certain stressful situations?

Robert Sapolsky wrote Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers to explore the biological reasons behind chronic stress in modern society. According to him, the key to finding healthy coping mechanisms for stress is choosing the right strategy based on the stressful situation you’re experiencing.

Read on to learn three healthy coping mechanisms for stress, according to Sapolsky’s method.

Cope Better With Stress: Sapolsky’s 3 Strategies

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky contends that you can reduce stress by finding ways to displace frustration, implement a sense of predictability in your life, and lean on social support. Although these are all healthy coping mechanisms for stress, there are caveats and exceptions to these methods you should be aware of. The key is to find the right strategies and coping mechanisms for certain situations and to figure out which ones work best for you.

In this article, we’ll look at each of these coping mechanisms in detail so that you can use them in a healthy way to reduce psychological stress in your life while keeping in mind some of their caveats. 

#1: Use Exercise to Vent Frustration

Sapolsky’s first coping mechanism suggests a popular, well-studied, and healthy way to reduce stress and vent frustration: exercise. Remember, the stress response is preparing your muscles to exert energy, so by exercising, you give your body the chance to release that energy. Exercise can also reduce stress by simply taking your mind off the stressful event. 

(Shortform note: Using the energy created by a stress response can help you avoid stress response hyperstimulation, in which your body is constantly semi-prepared to respond to stress, and anxiety-induced excess energy, in which you feel you’re too excited or have too much energy. By simply getting rid of some of the energy caused by stress, you may be able to decrease your likelihood of developing an anxiety disorder.)

It’s important to note, however, that exercise only reduces stress if it’s something you want to do. If it’s something you feel like you have to force yourself to do, it may add to your stress levels and worsen your health. Sapolsky points to a study where rats that voluntarily ran on a wheel saw health improvements, but rats that were forced to run saw their health decline.

(Shortform note: A 2016 study reinforces Sapolsky’s claim that forced exercise can be harmful, as it found that mice that were forced to exercise saw increased stress hormones and neuronal damage. It should be noted, however, that the rodents in these experiments are being forced to exercise against their will, which is much different than not wanting to exercise. As a human, you’re rarely if ever forced to exercise against your will. Though you may not want to exercise, it’s still a voluntary decision, so you may still see health benefits. In any case, finding a form of exercise you enjoy is still important as it increases motivation and helps you maintain healthy exercise habits.)

It’s also important to make sure you don’t exercise too much. Too much exercise can be just as bad as or worse for your health than too little exercise.

(Shortform note: Experts say around 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week is enough to see reduced stress and other health benefits. Too much exercise, however, can lead to an increased chance of injury, exhaustion, and a decline in mental and physical health. Excessive exercise can even be an addiction similar to eating disorders. Like those who practice extreme diets, exercise addicts exercise because they feel a need for control, even though their excessive working out is actually harming them.)

#2: Use Predictive Information Wisely

The next coping mechanism Sapolsky recommends is finding healthy ways to use predictive information since predictability can help reduce stress in humans. Sapolsky claims that it can be helpful to make your life more predictable: Make schedules based on various timeframes (daily, weekly, yearly), make a budget to keep track of expenses, look up the weather before going to an outside event, and so on.

Globalization and the Decline of Predictability

Even though people benefit from it, predictability has rapidly declined for many people due to globalization. This could be a significant contributor to rising global stress levels

When globalization took off in the 1980s and 90s, many organizations discarded standard practices and procedures that made life predictable for the average person—like lifelong job security. To remain competitive in a globalized economy, organizations felt the need to constantly adapt and change alongside it. People across the globe lost stability and predictability, not knowing if their jobs might be discarded, offshored to another part of the world, or made obsolete by rapidly advancing technologies. The rapid changes in the modern world were bound to make life less predictable and thus more stressful.

There are, however, several exceptions to the rule that predictive information is a healthy coping mechanism for stress:

  • Getting information about common occurrences doesn’t help much because you’re fairly certain these are going to occur anyway. (It’s not useful to be told that you’ll have to wait in a doctor’s office for the doctor to see you.)
  • Getting information about a stressor just before it occurs doesn’t reduce stress in a healthy way because you don’t have enough time to adjust your coping mechanisms. (For example, your hair dresser announces they’re about to cut five inches of your hair and then do.)
  • Getting information well before a stressor also doesn’t reduce your stress because you weren’t stressed about it to begin with. (It’s unhelpful to know that in 19 years you’ll have to go to the hospital.)
  • Getting information that is too vague might actually increase stress because you don’t know what to do with the information. (Say, you learn that something bad will be announced at work this afternoon.)

(Shortform note: Each of these list items shows ways in which increased predictability doesn’t reduce stress because we can’t do anything useful with the information. Another way we might become stressed is when we receive predictive information that could be useful if acted upon, but we feel that other people aren’t taking the proper precautions. For example, many people fear the effects of climate change and don’t feel others are doing enough to curb those effects. In this way, predictability can actually increase stress—if you know something bad might happen, yet feel no one’s doing anything about it, you’d probably be better off not knowing about it at all.)

#3: Seek Social Support

Sapolsky claims that having the social support of a community is a healthy coping mechanism for stress and can greatly reduce chronic stress. Even in highly individualized societies, people still long to be a part of something. Therefore, he recommends that to become better at managing stress, you strengthen your current relationships with friends and family and build new ones that are intimate, supportive, and communal. 

It’s also important that you give support as well as receive it. Helping others not only strengthens bonds and releases endorphins, but it also gives you a small sense of control in the world—it shows you that through small acts of kindness, you can improve people’s lives and change the world.

The Communal Support of Group Therapy 

One form of social support psychologists recommend is group therapy. Group therapy can be extremely beneficial for one’s mental health, especially for those who may not consider themselves a “group person.” Many people are reluctant to join group therapy because, due to a culture that views vulnerability negatively, they’re afraid to talk about their problems in front of a group of people. They may also not like the idea of listening to other people’s problems.

But if you can overcome your reluctance to join a group therapy session, you may see several psychological benefits. With group therapy, you’ll build strong relationships as part of a tight, close-knit community, and you’ll be able to receive and give support, as Sapolsky recommends. Additionally, it can reduce the shame you may have around your negative emotions or feelings because you’re surrounded by others who are going through the same things. 
3 Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Stress in Daily Life

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  • The physical and mental harm chronic stress does to your body
  • The steps you can take to reduce stress in your life
  • Why you should make your life more predictable

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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