The stressors in one’s life can be managed in three ways (Hood & Carruthers, 2002). First, people can target the thoughts or perceptions of threat that trigger the flight or fight response and the related feelings. Second, people can take action to address directly the environmental challenges. Third, people can pursue activities that reduce the physiological stress response. People cannot be simultaneously physiologically stressed and relaxed.
One’s perceptions or thoughts are the primary source of distress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). People who experience chronic distress may have distorted and irrational thoughts (Burns, 1999). Some people are genetically predisposed to overreact to stress (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996). Emotion-focused coping strategies target the thoughts and feelings associated with distress (Smith & Carlson, 1997). When people use emotion-focused coping strategies, they might examine the ways in which their irrational thoughts contribute to their negative emotions (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). For example, a young woman who is anxious about going to college parties may be afraid that she will make a social blunder and others will judge her harshly. She can recognize and challenge that negative self-talk and replace it with rational, constructive thoughts or just realize that her distorted thoughts are not reality and let them go. She can learn to keep situations in perspective and not overreact emotionally to life events.
Another example of emotion-focused coping is distraction (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Distraction is the process of diverting attention away from one issue and focusing attention on another. If a person is not thinking about a potential threat, the physiological stress response will be turned off, resulting in the relaxation response. When people believe there is nothing that they can do to change the situation, it does little good to think about it. In fact, the distress created by thinking about it can result in physical and emotional harm (Davis et al., 2008). Under these circumstances, it may be helpful to turn one’s mind to an enjoyable, engaging leisure activity (Kleiber et al., 2002; Lyubomirsky, 2008). Leisure experiences that are personally meaningful, challenging, and enjoyable are optimal experiences for disengaging from everyday routines and worries (Hood & Carruthers, 2002). To reap the reward of this coping response and turn off the physiological stress response, it is important to immerse oneself in the leisure experience as completely as possible.
A final example of emotion-focused coping is acceptance (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Like distraction, this coping strategy is used when people believe that there is little that they can do or should do to change a situation. Many things in life are out of our control; it is simply not within our power to change them. Worrying and fretting about them will just create chronic stress and undermine our physical and mental health. Acceptance of a situation is experiencing it for what it really is, without defense or distortion, and letting it be (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Mindfulness meditation is a leisure activity through which acceptance can be cultivated. The focus of mindfulness meditation is to see and accept things as they are, moment by moment.
A second strategy for coping is problem-focused coping. Problem-focused coping involves taking action to directly address the challenges of life. For example, problem-focused coping strategies for the stress associated with writing a final exam might include joining a study group, setting aside 2 hours a day to study, and getting a good night’s sleep before the exam. Problem-based coping requires a realistic assessment of actions that can be taken to improve a situation and the willingness to act. The development of one’s personal strengths and resources contributes to one’s ability to cope with life’s demands (Carruthers & Hood, 2002; Hood & Carruthers, 2002). Enhancing or developing resources can be seen as a proactive approach to coping. The cultivation of physical resources, such as health, fitness, and energy, can contribute to one’s coping capacity. The development of emotional resources, such as a belief in one’s own competence, worth, and purpose, can contribute to one’s coping capacity: Engagement in optimally challenging, meaningful leisure can enhance these emotional resources (Iwasaki, 2008). The creation and maintenance of social resources, such as social connections and support, can also contribute to one’s coping repertoire. Leisure is an important area for the cultivation of these social networks (Iwasaki, 2008).
A third strategy for coping is to pursue activities that facilitate the relaxation response. Relaxation allows for physiological and emotional recuperation from stress (Fredrickson, 2000), and leisure is an important path to attaining a relaxed state. Leisure can serve as a context for engaging in personal reflection, gaining a sense of perspective and appreciation, and living in the moment (Kleiber, 1999). Engaging in physical leisure activities decreases anxiety and depression (Lyubomirsky, 2008). Experiencing nature through activities such as walking in nature preserves and hiking in the wilderness has a restorative effect (Hartig et al., 2003). Involvement in leisure activities that are nontaxing and enjoyable, such as watching television or listening to music, also induces the relaxation response. After immersing ourselves in optimally challenging activities that require our full concentration, we often feel refreshed. The full attention required to engage in the activity helps us disengage from our ruminations and distress (Lyubomirsky, 2008). Finally, activities such as meditation, yoga, and tai chi can directly reduce the physiological stress response (Olson, 2006).
A fourth strategy for coping includes three specific forms of coping that are leisure based: leisure palliative coping, leisure mood enhancement, and leisure companionship (Iwasaki & Mannell, 2000). Leisure palliative coping might include activities like running, cycling, or hiking that give us temporary relief from stress and an opportunity to regroup and gain perspective. Leisure mood enhancement activities might include watching a funny movie or playing a game with friends. Leisure companionship would include any activities that involve social interaction that facilitates a supportive social network of friends. With each of these leisure coping strategies, the activities we select to cope with stress will likely reduce stress but may not necessarily improve our health and well-being. Leisure mood enhancement activities could include excessive alcohol consumption or drug use. Leisure companionship might include promiscuous sexual activity, and leisure palliative coping might include engaging in reckless or dangerous activities.
Leisure involvement clearly can support a person’s ability to cope with stress (Hutchinson et al., 2008). Certain qualities of the leisure experience are particularly important for supporting well-being and building a life of meaning and purpose. These qualities support both the experience of happiness and positive emotion and the development and expression of one’s full potential (Carruthers & Hood, 2007).