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The ‘perfect bathrobe method’ of handling stress


July 21, 2015
By Dorothy Cotton

I recently spent most of an entire day shopping for a new bathrobe. I had a very clear idea of exactly what I wanted and was not willing to compromise. It had to be a particular length and made of a certain kind of fabric. There were several colours I would consider but not black, white or grey. I wanted a tie belt, not a zipper front. It should be cozy, not slinky, and slightly too big.

Who cares, you ask? What difference does it make? You might think this is a trivial decision — but given its REAL purpose, it was a decision of enormous magnitude. You see, I’m heading off for knee replacement surgery. By the time you read this, I should be leaping tall buildings in a single bound but the thought of serious and very painful surgery with a lengthy recovery time frame really stresses me out.

I have done all the reasonable things that people should do to prepare for such surgery — exercises, moving furniture and getting a cane – but was still pretty stressed. Bathrobe shopping was the answer. If I could just find the definitive bathrobe to wear in the hospital, all would be fine.

I think we call this “displacement activity.” One might argue that this is not exactly the best way of coping with stress. It’s like fighting with your spouse because you had a bad day at work – but in real life, what is a good plan for coping with stress?

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Needless to say, there is no simple answer. It depends on the person — and the type of stress. I am reminded of the Alcoholics Anonymous creed, which suggests that you need to change the things you can change, and live with the things you can’t change — more or less.

The research tells us that there are two fundamental types of approaches to coping with stress.

{Problem focussed}

These strategies actually propose changing the stress itself. If lack of communication with your partner (either at work or home) is the stress, you need to work on better communication skills. If you’re stressed about not being able to fit into your uniform, you need to lose weight (or get a new uniform). If money is a stress, you need to spend less or earn more.

Problem focussed—> address the problem.

One would not normally think of changing your eating habits or budgeting as stress management strategies, but if lack of money or being too heavy is a stress, then budgeting and changing your eating habits are stress management strategies. More specifically, they are problem-oriented stress management strategies.

{Emotion focussed}

On the other hand, if the problem is that you spent yesterday doing notifications of next of kin or visiting your dying mother, problem focussed strategies are not so useful. The fact is that you aren’t likely to be able to change these things; you have to cope. You don’t change the stress; you change your reaction to the stress. That means using emotion focussed strategies.

These tend to include exercise, social support, cognitive reframing (e.g. learning to look at things a little differently), relaxation strategies, sometimes even a little distraction. None of these things actually change the situation — but they do help you hold up better under the stress.

Not all coping strategies fall neatly into one of these two categories. Note that I have not mentioned drinking and using illegal substances, yelling at your spouse and kids, hiding in a closet, blaming other people, eating junk food or shopping. These well known and frequently used strategies really don’t work very well. (OK, I am willing to concede that a glass of wine and a bag of cheezies seems to cure almost anything but when used on a regular basis, is not an adaptive strategy.)

There are also many situations in which you might want to use both problem and emotion focussed strategies. Knee replacement surgery is a good example, actually. You DO want to exercise, move the furniture, plan for someone to wait on you hand and foot for a while, read up on the normal recovery process, ask the doctor a lot of questions and buy pants that are easy to get on and off. However, even if you do all this, it’s still going to be pretty miserable — so distraction, learning cognitive pain control techniques and avoiding catastrophizing are also good ideas.

Even before you get to organizing your coping strategies, there is an important first step that we sometimes overlook. First, you have to actually recognize and acknowledge that you are stressed. Many people are not very good at this. There is a saying that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” However I need to point out that if it IS broken and you refuse to see that it is broken, you are not going to be able to fix it. Nevertheless, that will not change the fact that it IS broken.

If you are one of those stalwart people who think that nothing bothers you and you are never stressed, I encourage you to ask anyone close to you — family member, colleague etc. I am confident that they will be able to provide a litany of examples of times you have been stressed.

Once they have told you what stresses you (or you have figured it out yourself), then you can address the coping part. Is this is changeable thing? If so, you might want to think about how you are going to change it. No? Then go for the emotion-focussed stuff, including biologically based coping mechanisms like mediation, mindfulness, deep breathing and exercise in general.

The whole issue of stress in policing is an interesting one, as typically when this subject comes up, we think about maimed children, shootings and other gory disgusting stuff that leads to PTSD, which is, of course, a whole ‘nuther kettle of fish… and beyond what I can talk about in this brief space.

If we confine ourselves to everyday stress, it is interesting to note that the research is pretty clear that what drives police officers around the bend tends not to be the calls and actual work, but the organizational issues. In fact, the main stresses in policing are exactly the same as they are in any other line of work — idiot bosses, unrealistic expectations, lousy communication, bad shift schedules, unfair internal processes…

When you think about what kinds of strategies might be best for addressing these kinds of stresses, you are up the creek, at least a little. Can you change your incompetent boss? Address your uneven organization? Should you focus on the problem or on the emotion?

Maybe you need a little of each – or you could get a new bathrobe.