When Your Coping Style Doesn't Work for Pandemic Stress
How to reinvent yourself for a better fit.
Posted Jun 01, 2020
Stress, depression, even suicide has risen during the pandemic. By nature, each of us has a predominant style of coping with stress. But during extraordinary times, our stress levels are also extraordinary. When we can't control what's happening, we can challenge ourselves to change the way we respond to what's happening. The coping strategies you ordinarily use may need to be altered in the face of these unusual challenges.
Some people have a self-defeating approach that raises rather than lowers their stress needle. Stress vigilantes go overboard in their attempts to control stress. At the other extreme, stress avoiders have trouble stepping up to the plate and facing their stressors.
Forethought, preparation, and planning are qualities that arm you with good stress prevention strategies. But if you go too far, you might fall into the category of stress vigilantes—people who go overboard, overreacting to pandemic uncertainties. If you’re a stress vigilante, you attack stress with all guns blazing, anticipating, and controlling situations that you really can’t control. In trying to preempt stress, you actually create more of it with your extreme approach. Examples of stress vigilantes are the control freak, the crisis junkie, the perfectionist, the care-aholic, and the worrywart.
If you’re the control freak, you have trouble sharing the load or working as a team. You think no one can do the job as well as you and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. You tend to over plan and over organize, so conditions are predictable and controllable. In times of uncertainty such as the pandemic, you have great difficulty letting go and relaxing. When you overload, overwhelm, and isolate yourself, it dampens your spontaneity, creativity, and flexibility.
The crisis junkie is impatient and in a hurry to get tasks completed because nothing moves fast enough. Your impatience creates more stress and more crises. The more tasks you can cross off your list, the better you feel. Your preference to multitask gets your adrenaline flowing and creates a false sense of accomplishment. Your snap decisions cause you to make avoidable mistakes. In the era of COVID-19, the changes that are required cause you numerous meltdowns.
If you’re the perfectionist, you have standards for yourself and others that are unattainable. You judge yourself and others unmercifully, trying to cover all the bases and get it right. During times of uncertainty and unpredictability, it’s impossible to get it right, which sends your stress level through the roof from the inhuman burdens you place on yourself.
If you’re a care-aholic, you’re on a mission to rescue people during COVID-19, even if they don’t need it. Overloading yourself with other people’s problems is a distraction from your own. While being in service to others, your world is crumbling under your feet. And your risk for compassion burnout escalates. The job you’ve neglected is to take care of yourself first before taking on the burdens of others.
If you’re a worrywart, you’re an excessive worrier. Although most of what plagues you about the Coronavirus never happens, you go through the stress of it anyway risking physical illness. Constant worry is an attempt to predict the future and prepare for unknown pandemic outcomes. Instead of preparing you for the future, worry undermines your confidence, well-being, and preparation. And it piles on more pandemic anxiety.
Sometimes avoidance is a good strategy to manage certain stressors. But for situations like the pandemic that require thoughtful attention, too much avoidance creates more stress. If you’re a stress avoider, stalling, delaying, or retreating from preparing for remote work or strategizing how to adapt to the pandemic might seem like the best way to cope with stress. But in the extreme, this self-defeating style gives stress a free pass to stampede your career. Examples of stress avoiders are the procrastinator, the appeaser, the sad-sack, and the slacker.
The procrastinator puts off preparing for changes in routines due to the pandemic because procrastination provides temporary relief from facing the fear. But stalling creates greater stress in the long run. Dragging out a deadline raises your tension level, things pile up and you become even more overwhelmed and unlikely to meet your deadline or to adapt to new regulations in a timely manner.
The appeaser is afraid of disapproval. Winston Churchill said, “An appeaser is someone who keeps feeding a crocodile hoping it will eat him last.” You avoid conflict by agreeing with people even when you don’t agree. You end up dealing with the stress of turning yourself into a pretzel for approval. But people-pleasing has a short shelf life. Someone will disapprove of something you say or do and your cover is blown.
If you’re the sad-sack, you believe you have no say-so over your career, that you’re at the mercy of the workplace or the dire pandemic circumstances. You’re afraid to take chances or try new avenues to face stress because you think your actions won’t make a difference. Instead of managing pandemic pressures, you throw in the towel and become a victim of them. Under a deadline, you blame coworkers and job problems or other conditions for not being able to deliver.
If you’re the slacker, you see the big picture but have trouble with details. You have creative ideas, start many projects but get bored with follow-through. Easily distracted, you start new projects before completing the ones underway. You have many half-baked tasks and missed deadlines that overwhelm you.
The Secret Sauce: The Middle Way
If you’re a stress vigilante, you need to loosen up and let go. While a certain amount of worry and control keeps you safe in the era of COVID-19, too much or too little creates more harm than good. To bring balance, learn to delegate and prioritize, cultivate more flexibility, and learn to be a team member while remote working. Take a calmer approach and do one thing at a time. Give yourself elbow room to make mistakes and learn from them. Learn to slow down and relax your mind with meditation, deep breathing, or yoga.
If you’re a stress avoider, you find balance with more direct action. You can develop fearlessness, step up to the plate, and face the reality of all the changes due to the pandemic and the stressors that have gotten a free pass. There are times when you need to slack off and appease. But in the extreme, these traits backfire, raising your stress needle. To bring balance, face pandemic changes head-on and early instead of postponing until the last minute. Learn to stake a stand, to disagree, or say no instead of always yes. Be willing to get out of your comfort zone, stick your neck out and try new things and adapt to change. Learn to finish one project before starting another one.
Once you determine whether you lean in the direction of the vigilante or avoider or whether you’re a combination of several types, ask yourself what actions you can take to create more balance with the required transitions we all face. In the era of COVID-19, the trick is the middle way—learning to worry or control well and to slack off and appease well, at the right time, to the right degree, to the right people.