Coping with stress during a crisis

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Stress is universal and the feelings resulting are not something new even if one may not exactly know how to define ‘stress’ technically or terminologically. Although stress is rather perceived negative by many, it also becomes the impetus for moving forward in front of challenging situations sometimes. Stress is generally experienced when the situations become challenging or threatening. In short, stress is experienced when demands/threats are appraised as exceeding a person’s resources to cope. Undoubtedly, the situation around us at present is indeed challenging and as Sri Lankans, we are undergoing a tough period.

Stress has many components, and it is needed to distinguish the difference between stressors and stress responses. Stressors are the external or internal factors that trigger stress responses.  As a local mental health practitioner, it can be assumed as to how stressful, anxious and depressed one’s day-to-day life can be under the prevailing situation in the country. Daily hassles like waiting for days and weeks in long fuel and gas queues and being sardine-packed in public transport, inadequate medicine and basic needs indeed could become possible stressors at present.

As per the theory of person-environment interaction, individuals cannot be kept aside from the environment in which they deal; positive environmental changes, financial stability and one’s personality, as well as social support, will be some of the key determinants of individual well-being. As mentioned above, stress can be positive in certain situations until it goes beyond one’s control. One might resist stress in the long run, yet, being continuously exposed to stressors will make individuals exhausted as per the theory of Hans Selye. Being exhausted as a result of stress is not healthy at all since the person then is at risk of being susceptible to illnesses.

How a person labels a situation is a crucial determinant of being stressed or not being stressed. Two persons would show two different responses before the same event or incident owing to the diversity of their perceptions. Therefore, mental health professionals stress the importance of the appraisal process since it largely determines stress responses.  In facing challenging situations, there can be two approaches that we strongly rely upon. One is problem-focused whereas the other one is emotion-focused.  In a situation where sorting out the problem is beyond your capacity or beyond your potential, it is better to be focused on your emotional aspect. To change emotions (if negative and problematic), one would need to change the way he/she appraises the situation.  This does not undervalue the importance of addressing the problem if it is possible.

There can be psychobiological stress responses such as behavioural, affective, cognitive and physiological responses.  Perceiving a situation threatening/challenging (appraisal) can result in those responses, and the responses can be either positive or negative. Problematic coping strategies like drinking, smoking: problematic affective responses like distress, sadness, anxiety: cognitive difficulties such as poor concentration and problems related to the immune system are possible due to one’s problematic appraisal mechanism. 

It is not bad to be stressed always as it prepares you to face challenging events such as exams and interviews; yet, it can also be problematic as mentioned above. With current financial turmoil and social unrest, if you feel stressed; and if it is not manageable, it is better to talk to a professional. Even under these circumstances,  due attention is yet to be paid to mental health. Mental health is always left unfocused in my opinion. Therefore, the current situation can indeed be triggering stress, anxiety and depression. Thus, be alert! This message goes out to everyone responsible.

By Dr. Ashoke Priyadarshana – Psychologist