Coping with Distress

Have you ever experienced these feelings when you have to deal with something that makes you anxious, such as public speaking on stage, a job interview, etc.: a racing heartbeat, jittering jaws, shaky limbs – and the impulse of running away? Worry not, that is your body getting you ready for a ‘fight’ as it senses danger.

There are many other feelings, such as panic, depressed etc, that could leave us distressed. Although these feelings are normal, they are nonetheless unpleasant and may even hinder our productivity. 

Enough about the chattering, so, how do we deal with these feelings? Are there any methods that could enable us to get through these uncomfortable situations? Certainly.

Coping strategies can be really useful at times, with the way you cope greatly affecting your behaviour and experience. Here, I would like to introduce a few of them.

First and foremost, we can use breathing techniques, especially for anxiety and panic attacks. The 4-7-8 breathing technique is an easy technique to start with for beginners. Breathe in with your nose for four seconds, hold for seven seconds, breathe out from your mouth for eight seconds, and repeat. Follow the flow, hang in there, and you will calmness in a moment.

For those who feel unsettled, you could try the butterfly hug therapy. Lightly put your right hand under your left armpit, and set your left hand on your right chest – hold yourself – give yourself a big hug, and there you are. 

For those who are looking to enhance your own awareness, you could try body scanning – scanning through your body from top to bottom with all your senses. It might take some time to master and really understand how it works, but it is a good practice to do.

Enough about quick coping strategies to get you through the moment. Actually, there are also long-term coping strategies that we should pay attention to – not all coping strategies are beneficial, and you may be adopting some unhelpful ones. Life is unpredictably challenging, and things don’t always come our way. Sometimes, we may get defensive – denying, acting more immature, rationalizing our behaviours etc – it is normal to try to defend ourselves, but we must be aware that our actions may not always end well.

When caught in a difficult situation or when something bad happens, some may internalize the issue, blaming and attributing the fault to themselves. We all tend to do that sometimes – that is the human part of us – but it doesn’t help with the situation, and has a negative on your self-esteem, not to mention the emotional distress that comes along. This is a kind of maladaptive coping mechanism which we should try to avoid.

You may ask, if I am not able to take responsibility for the event, what am I to do? The unsettling feeling leaves me distressed and upset. Actually, there are some adaptive coping styles we can replace these feelings with. For instance,  by implementing the problem-solving coping strategy, we can try to focus on ways to deal with the issue. By occupying our minds with solving the problem, we are distracting ourselves from the stressor. Thus, we may actually provide ourselves with a way out from stressful events (or at least alleviate the unpleasant emotions).

Whilst speaking of maladaptive coping styles, an issue sprung to my mind. Recently, some teenagers have unfortunately turned to self-harm as a way of settling their distress. Some have unhelpfully stigmatized such behaviours as attention-seeking, but I believe that these individuals were just lost and could not find another way to express their feelings – sadness, anger, frustration, or a mix of everything – sometimes we just don’t know. Expressing our emotions could be an advanced topic. There is a quote I am really into: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.” Maybe this is their way of expressing their suppressed feelings, which have been buried for a long time.

If I could, I really would have liked to have a chat with, and listen to, every single youth who turned to self-harm to get to understand what they were going through, as I imagine things had been really tough for them. But here’s the message I would like to give: no matter how unbearable your past, or how difficult the situations are now, it is our experiences that make us who we are. Coping strategies are just a tool to get us through tough situations with less distress, but the stress is still valid. All these experiences are honing you into a better person, and I sincerely hope that you will be able to find a suitable adaptive coping style to accompany you in your journey of exploration. I hope you will gradually transform more and more into who you want yourself to be.

In short, your suffering is valid, and I hope you will be able to find a coping style that suits you to ease the pain. Your past has made you who you are. Because of it, you are stronger, tougher and better. So, let’s learn to cope with all those difficult moments, and remind yourself that you have grown better in spite of them.