Your home is in disarray, you’re behind on your bills, your In box is overflowing, and your cat is in need of a visit to the vet. There are things to be done everywhere you look, and you don’t know where to start. It seems like your life is a mess, and you don't know how to take control of it. You shouldn’t even be reading this article because you’ve got so much to do.

Fortunately, you have come to the right place: Psychology give us fantastic ways to cope with stress—and it is stress that’s causing you to feel this way. The field of stress and coping is one of the most prolific in psychology, and also one of the easiest to understand and apply to your life.

    Susan Krauss     Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment.

Editor:  Nadeem Noor

Some of the first forays into stress were conducted by the renowned physiologist Hans Selye, who defined the “General Adaptation Syndrome.” Selye proposed that we deal with stressful situations much as his lab animals did—by becoming alarmed, trying to resist, and eventually succumbing to exhaustion if the stress continues.

Unlike lab animals, humans possess “cognition,” meaning that we think about our experiences and decide whether they represent stress or not. Berkeley psychologist Richard Lazarus proposed that a situation is stressful only if we perceive it that way. A “threat” to you may be a “challenge” to someone else. You see a full inbox as presenting an insurmountable problem, but your best friend loves to tackle all of those emails in an efficient way, and even sees them as a testimonial to her importance to others.

Lazarus and his collaborator, Susan Folkman of the University of San Francisco, proposed that we deal with stress in two basic ways:

  • In problem-focused coping, we directly address the threat by trying to change the situation.
  • In emotion-focused coping, we try to make ourselves feel better about the threat.

Lazarus and Folkman’s research showed that there’s no one best way to cope. Whatever helps reduce your stress is the method that is best for you, although problem-focused coping is better when you can actually change a situation and emotion-focused is best when you can’t.

In the three-plus decades since these advances in defining stress and coping, hundreds of studies have further elucidated the relationships among stress, coping, and psychological well-being. University of Connecticut psychologists Kristen Riley and Crystal Park (2014) provide insight into how you can take the feeling of being overwhelmed by life’s messes and transform it into useful action that helps you turn a threat into a challenge.

According to Riley and Park, there is a third type of coping—meaning-focused coping—in which you change the way you approach a stressful situation and see it as providing you with an opportunity for growth. This is like looking for the silver lining after a relationship ends.

However, the silver lining may not always be so evident, nor may it provide you relief from the stress that's a result of feeling like your life is a mess. Riley and Park studied the possibility that by redefining a threat as a challenge, you can actually do a better job of feeling better. Instead of just refusing to open your In box (emotion-focused coping), you should see it as a challenge to your ability to tackle the task. Now you’ll confront the process more confidently, which allows you to eliminate this as a source of stress.

Riley and Park asked a sample of 284 undergraduates to complete a set of questionnaires at three time points over a three-month period to report on their reactions to the same, participant-defined, stressful event. The event they selected was prompted by the researchers to be “the worst ongoing thing you are dealing with,” or what is called a “chronic” stressor. Participants rated whether the event involved something truly serious, and whether they felt they could control the event. Outcomes included ratings by participants of their degree of stressful and depressive feelings.

The fact that the study allowed multiple assessments over time gave the researchers the chance to test a causal model in which they pitted problem-focused vs. meaning-focused coping as a way to reduce stress and depression. Riley and Park predicted that problem-focused coping would actually be better than meaning-focused coping at getting these chronic stressors to be perceived as controllable, and hence, better adjusted to by the participants. Although participants weren't able to reduce their stress entirely, by seeing themselves as able to manage the stress, participants did begin to tackle it.

The types of stresses identified by the University of Connecticut students were, as you might imagine, primarily academic in nature. Therefore, this study provides a good framework for thinking about the kind of stress that makes you feel that your life is a mess. Students have to balance their academic workload with jobs they need to help pay for school, as well as problems with roommates, parents, and other things going on in their lives. Feeling they had the resources to address their problems gave the students the energy they needed to help reduce their stress.

In your own life, redefining a “mess” as something that you can straighten out is the first step to take to make that mess more organized. Retreating into Facebook or your favorite video game won't help—although it may help you forget about things for a while. Instead, take those first steps; you’ll be able to see your mess as controllable, and one by one, its causes will go away.

Fulfillment in life doesn’t mean that things always go smoothly. Instead, when the going does get rough, see yourself in control of managing life’s messes. Eventually, your fulfillment will follow, one stress-reducing step at a time.