Healthy and Unhealthy Ways to Handle Stress

February 27th, 2023

By P. Casey Arrillaga, LCSW, LCDC

Stress is inevitable in life. As much as we may want to avoid it for ourselves and those we love, it will be there on some level or another. Therefore, it’s not whether we have stress, it’s how we handle it that makes all the difference. Do our coping mechanisms reduce stress, leave it about the same, or actually make it worse?

To answer this question, we need to understand what stress is and how much of it is in our control. Stress is our mind and body’s reaction to external situations and events, combined with our beliefs about those situations and events. When these outside things are likely to lead to stress, they can be called stressors. It is important to note that all stressors are not obvious, and in fact may seem like happy things from the outside. For instance, getting a promotion at work can be a stressor, not just because of new responsibilities, but also because any major change takes us into the unknown. Similarly, getting married, having a child, or suddenly coming into a large sum of money are all stressors. This doesn’t make them secretly bad things, but we will have to be aware of the potential for stress and learn how to deal with it in the healthiest ways we can.

The level of stress we experience from a given stressor is not set, but instead comes from what we believe about it. This, in turn, is determined by a combination of our genes, life experience, and the patterns of thought that develop as the first two factors interact. Our brain loves habits and shortcuts, so it will tend to return to familiar thinking patterns and ways of seeing the world even if these things are uncomfortable. In addition, we constantly subconsciously compare everything we experience to what we have experienced before to see if we can use anything we’ve previously learned to help us now. Thus, if a new situation reminds us of something that felt negative before, we can get stressed even though nothing bad is happening to us currently.

It has been observed that our genes don’t care if we are happy, they just want us to stay alive and pass them along. On this basis, some people’s minds opt for being easily stressed, as if convinced that this will keep us alive. This leaves some of us much more prone to stress than others. No matter how much this is true for you, you can reduce the amount of stress you experience by understanding how you think and then making changes in any parts that aren’t working for you.

Unfortunately, many people don’t make this their first reaction to stress. This is especially true for people who are prone to addiction and other mental health issues. Those at risk for such things tend to use coping strategies that provide relief in the moment but then make everything worse in the long run. This might include such obvious maladaptive strategies as using alcohol or other drugs to make the stress go away. Needless to say, once the drugs wear off, the original stressors are still there and new ones may have been created by intoxicated words and behaviors. This is in fact how many addictions and compulsive behaviors start. Other negative coping strategies include acting out in anger or even rage, and compulsive food, sex, shopping, gambling, and/or romance. Less obvious maladaptive strategies include compulsive avoidance and procrastination. All of these things are particularly distressing because they all can make life worse and ultimately more stressful.

Neutral strategies are ones that don’t make things much worse but also don’t make them better, either. Such neutral coping strategies include becoming passive, sleeping more, or spending too much time zoning out watching shows, reading escapist fiction, social media, or games.

What we want to concentrate on are healthy coping mechanisms, the ones that reduce stress and make things better in our lives. Luckily, there are many that fit the bill. Some simple exercises that anyone can do on their own include:

  • deep breaths from the diaphragm
  • engaging the senses (notice colors you can see, things you can physically feel, sounds you can hear, things you can smell, and things you can taste)
  • progressively relaxing all the muscle sets in your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes
  • getting regular exercise

Other, more involved techniques you can do on your own include:

  • yoga
  • regular mindfulness practice that involves not only being highly aware of the here and now but also accepting what you find
  • creating a regular spiritual practice such as daily prayer and/or meditation
  • reading things that are uplifting or inspirational

Finally, there are the stress relievers that involve others:

  • individual and/or group therapy
  • support groups, including recovery fellowships
  • being social with friends
  • healthy sex with a committed and caring partner

It’s never too early or too late to reduce the stress you feel. Try picking one thing from the list that you can start or improve, and start moving toward living a happier, more fulfilling life today.

About The Author

P. Casey Arrillaga is the Team Leader for Education at Windmill Wellness Ranch, and he is the author of books including “Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions”. His books, podcast, videos, etc. can be found at

Sign up for our FREE Family & Friends Course

Created specifically for those who have loved ones that struggle with addiction.