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Stressed? Turn to the Written Word

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I have a confession to make.

Those of you who follow my blog know that I write quite a bit about effective coping strategies. In general, if the stressor is something that is under your control (e.g., article to write, deadline to meet), when you encounter said stressor, you should do everything in your power to fix it (e.g., write the article, meet the deadline). This is known as problem-focused coping. While I frequently engage in problem-focused coping -- I would never get anything done if I didn't -- do you know what my number one, absolute favorite de-stress technique is? I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with problem-focused coping.

Give up? It's reading. Getting lost in a good book. Escaping to someone else's problems -- and world -- for just a little while. I sit down to read and my mind stops spinning, my breathing and heart rate slow down, and I find peace. Reading a good book is truly vegetable soup for my soul (I'm a vegan so the whole chicken soup thing is out).

Horrors, you say. Aren't you engaging in avoidant coping (avoiding or denying your problems)? Isn't that the bad kind of coping? Shouldn't we avoid that at all costs? Yes and no.

While avoidant coping is not something I usually advocate except under extreme circumstances, I don't consider reading an avoidant coping mechanism. For me, reading serves as proactive coping -- upfront efforts to ward off stress. Reading time is me time, and depending on what I'm reading, it may relax me, make me laugh, or exercise my brain. It really doesn't matter. The point is that it offers a little mental break -- a mini siesta, if you will -- and after I finish the chapter, I return to work, to life, more refreshed and able to cope with all of the little things that seem to pile up day after day.

Great, you say. But what if it's the middle of my work day? I can't exactly take 30 minutes to read a good book -- not without getting fired. No worries. You can turn to my second favorite de-stress technique -- writing.

When the stress is piling up and I can't sneak out of the office for a quick escape into the world of fiction, I write. Not for real, not for public consumption, just for me. I open up Microsoft Word or get out my journal and favorite purple pen and just have at it. What you write isn't important; the key here is that you are getting the emotions out. Get it down on paper and it will no longer hound you. Write about how you hate your boss (just make sure to delete the document when you're done). Write about how unfair life is or how stupid your coworkers are. Write about an imaginary world where you're a famous star fleet trouper on a mission to save the world from alien invasions. It doesn't matter. This process is called emotion-focused coping -- an attempt to reduce distress by addressing the emotional consequences of the stressor. When you find yourself in a situation where you can't fix the problem, this is the way to go. Why? Because getting the emotions out removes the roadblocks that are preventing you from getting the job done. Write about it, and then move on with your life. It's as simple as that. Plus, you're still at your computer, so no one can accuse you of not working -- as long as you actually do get your work done at some point!

So, in sum, how do reading and writing fit in to the I-need-to-de-stress equation? Very well, as it turns out. Stress occurs when we believe that we cannot cope effectively with the demands of a particular situation. There are two primary ways to deal with stress: 1) prevent it from happening in the first place. This is where proactive coping via reading or writing comes in. 2) cope with the stressor once it occurs -- either with problem-focused coping (doing something to fix the problem) or emotion-focused coping (processing the emotions -- in this case by reading or writing), depending on the situation.

The bottom line is that reading and writing can both reduce your distress either directly through emotion-focused coping or indirectly through proactive coping. Although I certainly don't need another excuse to read a good book, it's nice to know that making frequent use of the written word -- regardless of whether I am the one writing the words -- is helping to melt my stress away. Read (and write) on!