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Handling Stress

Interview with Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D.

The following is a sample of an interview with Elaine Bontempi conducted by Dr. Susan Nash . The Full Interview Can Be Seen on ELearning Queen.

Q. How do people manage change today? What are some of the negative ways that people cope with change? What are better ways?

The ways in which people handle stress vary considerably from one person to the next. Each person has a unique set of experiences, coping mechanisms, abilities, and values that all contribute to how one copes with stressful situations and events. In addition to individual differences there are some general group differences that can be seen as well, as a result of cultural norms and gender socialization.


Some of the negative ways that people cope with change and stress include smoking, drug use/abuse, alcohol use/abuse, compulsive spending, over or under eating, eating unhealthy "comfort" and junk foods, excessive use of sugar and caffeine, sleeping too much or too little, sexual promiscuity, overworking, lashing out at others, and violence.

However, there are definitely healthier ways of handling stress. The first step is identifying the sources of stress in your life, as well as your attributional style. Do you have a tendency to place the blame for your stress on others, do you feel that you have no control over your circumstances, or do you recognize that although you may not be able to control events, you can control your reactions?


There are different approaches to changing the stressful situation--you can either avoid the stressor, or sometimes you can alter the stressor. For example, you can often times avoid a stressor by simply learning how to say "no." Often times, we feel compelled to say "yes" to everything in order to please others, or to avoid looking incompetent or lazy. It is imperative that you learn to recognize your limits and say no to things that will result in too much stress.

If you are unable to avoid a stressor, you may choose to alter the situation. An example of altering the situation might include expressing your feeling in a different manner. For example, rather than bottling up emotions and letting them fester and brew, find a friend or counselor that you can talk to. Or, it may mean changing how you express your emotions, or even regulating your time so that you are less likely to feel stressed out from having too much responsibility and not enough time to accomplish the things you have committed to.


You can also learn to adapt by using healthy stress management techniques, and/or accept the stressor. Adapting to the situation often means learning how to use emotional regulation strategies for healthier coping, which often times involves changing your interpretation of the event that you perceive as being stressful. Is the stressor really that important or are you putting too much emphasis on something that really, in the long run, doesn't mean much? The old saying, "learn how to pick your battles" may apply here.


Sometimes you simply have to accept things that you cannot change but find work arounds. Focus on the things you CAN change rather than getting upset about things you cannot control. For example, if you are responsible for the caregiving of a sick child or aging parent, you probably won't be able to change or avoid the stressor. However, you can change your reaction. You will need to accept that your child or parent is ill and needs help, and re-arrange your schedule in order to meet these demands. If you are still responsible for other obligations then it may be necessary to adapt to the stressor by seeking outside help to assist in caregiving, recognize that you as a caregiver, also need to maintain a healthy lifestyle, learn to manage time more efficiently, and never overlook the importance of self-care.


Some of the healthier ways in which people handle stress include:

· social support networks including family and friends

· support groups, spirituality and prayer/meditation

· learning the art of forgiveness

· spending time in nature

· getting regular exercise (cardiovascular exercise in particular)

· eating properly and getting plenty of sleep

· applying biofeedback

· practicing yoga

· spending time with pets

· writing in your journal

· working outside in the garden

· painting/sculpting/drawing

· dancing

· playing a musical instrument

· scheduling time for self-care such as massage/Reiki/ acupuncture

· practicing mindfulness

· learning time management

· accepting there are things you cannot control

· embracing a positive attitude

· avoiding too much caffeine

· avoiding abuse of alcohol, drugs or nicotine

· seeking counseling, etc.

Certain counseling techniques such as cognitive evaluative therapy might be helpful in thought stopping behaviors and replacing negative thinking with positive thoughts. Behavioral therapy can also helpful in reinforcing positive behaviors and extinguishing negative ones. Exercise can play a very important role in improving anxiety and depression. Especially something as simple as walking daily. Exercise increases the production and release of serotonin and dopamine, both neurotransmitters play an important role in maintaining a healthy and positive mood.


Q: What are some of the major stressors in our world today and how do they change over one's lifespan?

We are facing many stressors in the world today. It seems like our world is shifting so rapidly that people are struggling to keep up with the transitions, and as a result sometimes it seems that the world has gone mad. Climate changes that are causing major shifts in weather patterns, mass immigration and migration, racism, economic uncertainty resulting in layoffs, downsizing, closures and job loss, global migration, political polarization, mass shootings, etc. are just a few of the global stressors. We are also seeing alarming trends concerning the use of social media and depression/anxiety/suicide. A sociological phenomenon known as “upward social comparison” is wreaking havoc on peoples’ self-worth and self-esteem, as they are comparing themselves to the lives of others represented through reality television and social media. Even though these profiles are considerably altered through selective use of highly edited photos, and the “highlight” reels of one’s life, people are often left feeling deflated and dissatisfied with their own lives when comparing them to the self-marketed profiles of others in Facebook and other social media platforms.

Other stressors are small, daily things such as dealing with traffic and long commutes, office politics, paying bills, screaming children, juggling obligations between work, family, and/or school, etc. These types of stressors don't tend to score big on the "life stressors" chart, but major transitions in life, even if they are perceived as positive, can take a larger toll and undermine well-being.

Major transitions in life include events such as graduation, marriage, birth of a child, changes in career (new job or loss of job), relocation, divorce, empty nest, changes in health, loss of a loved one, natural disasters, war, unhealthy relationships, aging parents, etc. Studies have repeatedly shown that as people grow older, their health declines more rapidly if they do not have a social support system. This is a growing problem as people are living longer, but often more isolated lives. Adult children are often scattered across the globe as job opportunities take them away from the same town as their parents. This is especially common in individualistic cultures such as the United States and western European cultures, that place value on independence and competition rather than on community and harmonious interdependence. Nursing homes and assisted living centers in the US are filled with aging, forgotten parents.

Q: What are support networks? What happens when people lose their support networks?


Support networks refer to the psychological and physical support provided by a social network. Social networks can include close friends and family members, tribal members, social activity/group such as a book club, community support groups, or even a religious community. Social support networks can provide a variety of resources ranging from emotional support, financial assistance, prayer, or help with daily tasks. Those who have high quality or quantity social networks tend to show decreased depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug/alcohol use, and a lower risk of mortality in comparison to those who have low quantity or quality of relationships. Poor social support has been also linked to cardiovascular disease, lowered immune system, and altered brain function. Although there are individual and group differences, women often have closer support networks due to the differences in how men and women are socialized. While gender roles are changing, women are still more likely to be socialized as nurturers and caregivers, and playing support roles rather than placing emphasis on competition and independence. As a result, women’s health tends to benefit as they grow older as they are much more likely to have a social network for support. Men tend to rely on spouses and children, but if neither are around as they grow older, they are much more vulnerable to the ill effects of having a limited support network.#DrBontempi #HandlingStress