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Coping with Stress and Change

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Stress » Featured Article

By Debra Milinsky, LCSW

Debra Milinsky, LCSW

Life is a problem-solving process.... 

Even under the best of circumstances adjusting to changes and transitions are sometimes overwhelming, exceeding a person's usual ability to cope and adapt. Learning to anticipate responses and consequences, and to acknowledge and manage disappointments as these arise, are hallmarks of maturity and cornerstones of resilience.

Troubling emotional and physical symptoms are more likely to develop when changes are unexpected, occur simultaneously, or are unremitting without opportunities for recovery and repair.  In some cases, these stressful circumstances and experiences can trigger bouts of clinical depression or severe anxiety, which can upset relationships and impair performance at work or school. This combination of personal and interpersonal factors may lead to a sense of powerlessness, dread, hopelessness and despair.

Of course, not all problems of everyday living result in psychiatric disorders and interpersonal difficulties. Even so, one may still feel extremely challenged and stressed. Some examples of common stressful situations include: relationship problems at home or in the workplace; moving through transitions of weddings, births, children leaving home and other developmental milestones; family disruptions and separations due to military service, divorce, or death; accidents and other traumatic events; care-giving for chronically ill, special needs, disabled, dependent or aging family members; financial or legal problems; and unexpected job insecurities, job or home loss, or undesired relocation for employment. 

Resilience rather than Reactivity...

The ability to manage these stressful life events with resilience rather than reactivity and severe, protracted symptoms depends on several important factors. These include:

  • the availability of external supports, relationships and resources

  • the ability to make use of all available resources and relationships offering help

  • developing and utilizing tried and true coping strategies

In addition, knowing how to recognize the characteristic signs of stress, depression and anxiety before these become disabling makes it possible to take proactive steps in your own or another's behalf and to relieve suffering sooner. 


  1. Feeling restless, nervous, on edge, agitated, fearful or anxious

  2. Feeling panicky, pressured, desperate or crazy

  3. Feeling depressed, tired, low energy, sluggish

  4. Mood changes, increased anger, irritability, sadness, tearfulness, emotional numbness

  5. Decreased ability to concentrate, remember or make decisions

  6. Diminished interest in enjoyment and pleasure in normal activities including sex

  7. Significant changes in appetite or interest in food with unplanned weight gain/ loss

  8. Feeling worthless, guilty, remorseful about faults and failures

  9. Increased perfectionism or procrastination

  10. Significant disruption in sleep patterns, sleeping too much or too little

  11. Troubling dreams, anxiety dreams or nightmares

  12. Upsetting, intrusive, obsessive thoughts or feelings related to the stressful situation

  13. Sense of apprehension or dread, tension, worry, helplessness and despair

  14. Isolating, gradual pulling away from others; not opening mail or paying bills on time

  15. Thoughts of wanting to die, disappear, feeling alone

  16. Actively thinking of suicide, self-injury, or taking revenge on/ harming others

  17. Use of alcohol, cigarettes, street or prescription drugs to relax, sleep or cope

  18. Physical complaints and pain such as headaches, back and neck aches, upset stomach, nail-biting, hair twisting or pulling, malaise or frequent illnesses


Children and adolescents respond to stress with many of the same symptoms as adults, and can be very reactive to the emotional or behavioral changes they observe in their parents. Depending on age and personality style, children may have difficulty expressing their discomfort verbally and truly rely on parents and other caretakers to help them describe and manage difficult experiences and feelings. Paying careful attention to any emotional, physical or behavioral change can offer important clues that alert parents to their child's distress.

When children are unable to express thoughts and feelings directly, they may express suffering indirectly through actions that are revealed in physical symptoms and changes in behavior. Some warning signs such as physical complaints, increased clinging, whining or withdrawing; irritability, oppositional or defiant behaviors, refusal to go to school, to sleep at bedtime or in their own bed, or other protest behaviors; and any regressions in skills formerly mastered such as self-feeding or dressing. and bedwetting or soiling, should be explored further with your child in a tone that conveys caring, curiosity and understanding. Teens and adults may also express distress indirectly through somatic symptoms, isolating, becoming uncommunicative or withdrawing. They may also show changes in mood or behavior such as becoming more "touchy," irritable or oppositional.


Many of life's problems are managed and resolved within a supportive and resourceful community of family and friends along with the "tincture of time." When distress is protracted and not easily repaired, professional consultation can offer new perspectives, resources and skills that quicken the healing process bringing relief from uninvited symptoms and suffering.

Last Update: 6/22/2009

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