What to Do When Your Life Is a Mess

You have problems at home, you’re late with bills, your dog needs to go to the vet and you don’t have a penny in your pockets. There are things to be done left and right, and you don’t even know where to start. Your life is an utter mess and slowly going out of control. If you’re in this situation right now, you have come to the right place!


Psychology has some interesting methods of dealing with stress, which is the main problem of today’s society. Coping with stress is one of the most prominent fields in psychology and also one of the easiest to apply. Some of the first studies on stress were done by Hans Selye, a brilliant psychologist who defined the “General Adaptation Syndrome”. He said that we deal with stress in the same way animals do – by becoming alarmed and yielding to exhaustion after a lot of stress. However, unlike animals, we possess “cognition” which means that we think about our experiences and decide if they’re stressful or not.

According to Richard Lazarus, a Berkeley psychologist, a situation is stressful only if we perceive it like that. A threat to you is a challenge to some other person. A full inbox is a big problem for you, but your friend relishes the experience. Lazarus and his partner Susan Folkman of the University of San Francisco discovered that we deal with stress in 2 ways: either with problem-focused or emotion-focused coping. Their research showed that there’s no universal best way for dealing with stress. Everyone deals with it differently, but problem-focused coping is great when you can change a situation while emotion-focused coping is best when you can’t.

In the 30 years since the research, there were major advancements in the field of coping with stress, and hundreds of new studies have further explored the connection between stress, coping and the psychological well-being. For example, a study conducted by University of Kentucky psychologists Kristen Riley and Crystal Park proposes to take the feeling of being overwhelmed and transform it into useful actions. According to them, there is a third type of stress coping called meaning-focused coping with which you can change the way you approach a stressful situation and see it as an opportunity.

Riley and Park examined the possibility that redefining a threat as a challenge may make you feel better. Instead of refusing to open your full inbox, you should see it as a challenge for your skills. This way you’ll confront the task confidently and resolve it easily. The study asked 284 undergraduates to complete questionnaires at 3 time points over 3 months in order to report their reaction to a stressful event. The event was “the worst ongoing thing you are dealing with,” – in other words, a difficult chronic stressor. The subjects rated if the event is serious and if they felt like they could change it, and the outcomes included ratings by subjects of their degree of stressful and depressive feelings.

The fact that the study had multiple assessments over time gave Riley and Park a chance to put problem-focused and meaning-focused stress coping against each other. They predicted that problem-focused coping will be better at handling situations that are controllable. Although the subjects didn’t reduce the stress completely, they were able to tackle it.

The type of stress in the study was primarily academic, which is why the study is a good framework for thinking about the type of stress that makes your life a mess. Students need to balance their academic workload along their jobs and emotional problems as well as other things in their lives. Feeling that they had resources to address these problems gave them energy to tackle the problematic event.

Redefining a mess in your own life as something that you can straighten out is the first step towards a more organized mess. Spending hours on Facebook or playing video games won’t help in the long run, so you should take certain steps to make the mess controllable and ultimately resolve it.

Things in life don’t go smooth always, so when you have a problem, put yourself in control and try to solve the mess one step at a time.

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