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The best way to cope with stress? Flexibility

When you encounter stressors in your life, particularly those that are pronounced and disturbing, do you fret, get overly emotional, lapse into neutral, hoping everything will get better if you just avoid the issue, or do you charge into problem-solving mode?

Each of those is a common way to deal with stress. And if you want to know which is the best, Hymie Anisman's answer may not be totally satisfactory. The professor of neuroscience at Carleton University in Ottawa, who has spent 40 years studying stress and just published Stress and Your Health, says it depends. Each approach may be good in different situations – with different forms of stress, or at different stages of stress. So you need to be flexible, not hanging on to your favourite approach, but adapt as necessary.

Life is full of stressors, of course. Each time we encounter one, we appraise it. We evaluate whether we have the resources to handle the stress and consider what is the best method to apply. Often this is unconscious. But it's happening, throughout the day, he explains.

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Also influencing our chosen approach for handling stress is our mood. Some of us tend to be negative, seeing the proverbial glass as half-empty, while others are positive. At any point, our mood may differ from our predisposition, but how we appraise the stress will depend on mood. If you're having a bad day or the source of stress reminds you of a bad childhood incident, that will come into play.

In his book, he identifies 16 coping methods that people use, boiled down to five key categories:

1. Problem-focused strategies

Find a solution that makes the source of the stress go away. This can include positive reframing, in which we put a new spin on the problem – a silver lining for the black cloud.

2. Avoidant or disengagement strategies

Go to the movies, exercise, or even immerse yourself in work to distance yourself from the stress and try not to think of the problem. He notes that some people even use alcohol and drugs to find temporary relief.

3. Emotion-focused strategies

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This covers the realm of the emotions, such as crying or anger, blaming others, blaming yourself, ruminating, wishful thinking, and passive resignation.

4. Social support

Seek individuals who can help you cope with the situation.

5. Religion

He distinguishes between internal religiosity, using a belief in God to deal with stressful events, and external, in which you use a social component associated with religion where other people congregate to help support you through the stress.

"We hear a lot that problem-focused coping is good and emotion or avoidance is bad. But the method depend on the situation and the time," he said in the interview.

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If you're told you have cancer, your first reaction might be to figure out how to handle the problem – what hospital and treatment to choose. You might turn to friends for advice, to bake casseroles while you're running to medical appointments, or simply to listen. You may vent. After a while, if nothing changes, you might try to distract yourself from your plight, giving the treatment time.

We all have certain coping strategies that we prefer. But in some situations, they will be useless. The kid who learns that if he cries and screams, his parents will give in won't find that an effective reaction to stress in the workplace.

His studies of mice finds that some strains are more flexible than others. It's the same with humans. And flexibility helps. If we become fixated on the stressor, ruminating endlessly, wallowing in negativity, it will be unhealthy. "Ruminating negatively is the worst enemy when dealing with stress," he says. Avoid that approach through mindfulness – meditation or tai chi might help you to let it go – or behavioural therapy to change the habit and find a better strategy.

The methods are not distinct. Stricken with cancer, we might mix problem-solving with social support, asking others to help us by searching the Internet to find out the best treatment method.

Emotions can scare others around you. But it's also a message that they might pick up, indicating you are not doing well and need help. "If you see a friend crying, you might go and help them. Or crying can help you vent and get rid of anxiety," he said. Anger is considered bad but if you use it to let go and don't hold on to the anger, maybe it can be helpful.

Often we seek meaning as we deal with stress, a form of problem-solving. A child is killed by a drunk driver and we join MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). This will work for some people but in other cases be futile. Seeking meaning works best when it happens naturally as a reaction to the event, not when you try to force yourself to find significance, he said.

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Over all, no method is the silver bullet. It's best, he says, to stay out of stressful situations. But when they occur, being flexible is the best strategy.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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