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You’ve got a closet stuffed with clothes you never wear anymore, a refrigerator full of spilled foodstuff, or a set of bills clamoring to be paid. The job is not one you’re looking forward to undertaking, and so you’ve put it off for far too long. It’s becoming stressful even to think about it, but you know you’ve got to do something. New research on the coping strategies used by people pushed to their limits suggests how you can tackle such chronic daily stressors in your life.

University of Nottingham’s Emma Nielsen and colleagues (2017) investigated the means of coping used by people who, at some time in their lives, had engaged in self-injurious behavior. The forms of self-harm used by the 1,157 adults (age 16 to 49) surveyed in a large online study included such behaviors causing physical damage as banging, hitting, biting, pinching, hair-pulling, severe scratching, burning, and carving into the skin. These actions, to be considered self-harm, needed to be performed intentionally and, in the Nielsen et al. sample, in response to a stressor. Another group of participants was identified on the basis of reporting that they had thought about committing these actions but hadn't done so, and a third group hadn't engaged in self-injurious behaviors at all. The stressors identified by participants ranged from severe — such as learning of the illness of a family member— to everyday — dealing with debt, public transportation, or exams in school. A large percentage (40 percent) had in fact engaged in 101 to 500 self-harm behaviors over their lives.

Turning next to coping, the researchers used a standard coping dynamics questionnaire that assessed the following four dimensions of what participants thought the coping strategy would achieve:

1. Approach — directly confronting the problem

2. Avoidance — ignoring the problem

3. Emotional regulation — dealing with the emotional consequences of a problem 

4. Reappraisal — readdressing and reinterpreting the meaning of a situation 

An example of emotional regulation is represented by this item: “To what extent did this/these activities enable you to deal with any emotional upset caused by the event?” Reappraisal was measured via items such as “To what extent did this/these activities allow you to grow and develop as a person?”

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, most individuals in each of the samples used avoidance as their primary coping mechanism. However, those who engaged in self-harm were most likely to wish the problem wasn't there. These individuals were also least likely to approach the stressor directly, or to use reappraisal to give them a better perspective into the problem. Accordingly, the high self-harm group also were most likely to use emotional regulation, meaning that they tried to make themselves feel better without actually doing anything to change the situation.

One particularly interesting finding relevant to this issue of coping with unpleasant tasks was that the accumulation of everyday stress, rather than one major event, seemed to trigger self-harm behaviors. As the authors noted, “The seemingly innocuous may have a profound impact as tipping points for enaction ... such that a seemingly less significant event serves as the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’” (p. 334).

These findings based on individuals with self-destructive approaches to coping suggest that it is, in fact, the unpleasant tasks in our day-to-day lives and not the major life changes that can really take us off guard and provide a significant coping challenge. Let’s see how these findings, in addition to the general stress and coping literature, can give you guidance in getting through the “seemingly less significant” events that can stretch your resources:

1. Stop putting off the inevitable: You know that the task must be completed and that, if you don’t, you’ll pay a hefty price, whether it’s interest on overdue bills or an inability to get what you need out of your closet or fridge. Avoidance will only cause the problem to magnify, and then it will truly be unpleasant.

2. Find something to distract you: Audiobooks or your favorite playlist can occupy your mind while you perform mindless tasks, such as cleaning, or even cooking a large meal.

3. Get the worst out of the way first: Another implication of the Nielsen et al. study is the ease of using avoidance as a coping mechanism. If you plunge in and get the most irksome feature of the job behind you, the rest may seem to be not that bad.

4. Focus on doing the best you can: There’s no reason to perform a mindless task badly. Quite the opposite: Practicing mindfulness can help you transform the task into one that becomes a challenge. This is a form of reappraisal that can be productive, as it will help you find, as the study indicates, a way to “grow and develop.”

5. Find positive meaning in the task: Reappraisal does more than help you find your focus; it can also allow you to find aspects of the task meaningful that you hadn’t previously considered to have any positive value.

6. Control your negative emotions: People who snap when their stress levels build up put themselves at risk, the British study showed, for problematic ways of managing their reactions. If you allow your anxiety and unhappiness to bubble over, you may soon become out of control and unable to prevent yourself from engaging in harmful behaviors.

7. Ask for help: Social support is one of the best ways to alleviate stress. Nielsen et al. observe that “it is of paramount importance that individuals have ready access to support and that both informal and formal support networks are able to identify and respond appropriately to signs of distress” (p. 334).

8. Prepare ahead of time: A great way to put off an unpleasant task, which in turn creates its own stress, is to approach the job without the right equipment. Whether it’s having enough cleaning supplies for taking care of the mess in the fridge or getting all your documents out before working on your personal finances, give some thought prior to starting about exactly what you’ll need to complete the task in the most efficient way.

9. Pace yourself: You may have a task that is longer or bigger than you can hope to complete at one time. One of the best problem-focused coping methods is to break the task down into manageable units.

10. Reward yourself for successful completion: Whether you complete the task in one sitting or over a period of weeks, make sure you pause to pat yourself on the back for having gotten through it, or at least part of it. Perhaps you’ll give yourself 10 minutes on Facebook or get a mani-pedi; whatever it is that you regard as motivating can become a reward that eases the burden of getting through the task.

These tips will never turn a messy or arduous task into one that you crave, but they can help you control your emotional reactions so your stress becomes manageable. Fulfillment in life doesn’t always involve engaging in fulfilling activities, but getting through the unpleasant ones with the least amount of stress can allow you to save your emotional energy for the ones you truly enjoy.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Nielsen, E., Sayal, K., & Townsend, E. (2017). Dealing with difficult days: Functional coping dynamics in self-harm ideation and enactment. Journal of Affective Disorders, 208330-337. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2016.08.036

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