A coping strategy is a specific effort that we deploy in an attempt to mitigate, minimize, or cope with stressful events, people, or situations. These strategies can be psychological, or they can be behavioral.
While coping strategies typically fall into just three categories, there are subcategories, as well as hundreds upon hundreds of strategies that have been classified as such.
Emotional Based Coping And Problem Focused Coping
The two main categories are emotion-focused coping mechanisms and problem-focused coping mechanisms.
- The problem-focused coping strategy revolves around taking a proactive approach to deal with the event or circumstances causing the stress.
- The emotion-focused coping strategy aims to regulate the emotional stress and consequences that stem from stressful events.
- It is possible to use both strategies in a stressful event. The predominance of one strategy over the other is down to the individual. Often, we don’t even realize that we are deploying a coping strategy, particularly in the case of emotional-focused solutions.
Though, this may depend on the situation itself. For example, if you are faced with a controllable event or problem, then a problem-focused approach is a good way to tackle things.
Whereas an emotion-focused approach is more appropriate if the situation is uncontrollable. If you can’t influence the event, situation, or circumstances, your only way to counter the stress is to focus on your own emotional response.
Active Versus Avoidant Coping Strategies
There is another distinction worth discussing before we proceed. We will talk about both active coping strategies and avoidant coping strategies.
An active coping strategy can be psychological or behavioral. They are designed to influence the nature of the stressor and how you think about that stressor.
An avoidant coping strategy takes the individual down another path.
It may contribute to substance abuse, it may draw people to distracting activities, or negative mental states such as withdrawal. Ultimately, any type of mindset or activity that helps them avoid addressing the stressor.
Generally, an active coping strategy is a more appropriate response to stressful events, whether they are behavioral or emotional. Meanwhile, avoidant coping strategies tend to exacerbate your stress and anxiety about the event because you may put off dealing with it, but it’s still present in your thoughts.
That’s just for starters, these broad distinctions only tell part of the story.
Unhealthy Versus Healthy Coping Skills
As discussed above, there are healthy approaches to coping like problem and emotion-focused strategies and unhealthy ones such as maladaptive avoidant techniques. It’s important to understand that those unhealthy strategies often feel great when you’re in the moment. However, they have negative consequences for the long-term. On the other hand, a healthy coping strategy might not come with the same instant gratification it results in positive outcomes for the long-term.
Unhealthy Coping Skills
- Emotional eating or overeating
- Social withdrawal
- Drug use
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Sleep issues (whether too little or too much)
Healthy Coping Skills
- Time management
- Relying on social support
- Eating healthily
- Problem-solving strategies
- Relaxation technique
- Pursuing therapy or other professional help
Unhealthy Strategies in Action
Let’s take a look at unhealthy coping strategies in action and how a healthy approach would have helped.
Joelle is working on a big paper. The deadline is fast approaching and every time she thinks about it, she feels anxious. It’s going to require a lot of work so instead of doing that work she distracts herself. She feels better when she practices a hobby instead of working on her paper. But, by procrastinating she felt better for a moment while creating major anxiety in the long run.
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Instead, Joelle could have managed her time to work on her paper a chunk at a time while finding healthy relief from her hobbies. Putting it off only added more stress. Joelle should enlist problem-focused coping strategies.
Eric gets insanely jealous when his wife socializes with her friends. He tries to control the situation by insulting her friends and making her feel guilty for going out. When she eventually gives in and stays, he feels relieved that he was won. He has used aggression as a means to relieve his jealousy. This isn’t just unhealthy, it’s controlling and abusive.
Instead, Eric should focus on dealing with his jealousy. Why is he so jealous of his wife’s friends? In this situation, professional help may be necessary to get to the bottom of his reaction. His tactic should be a combination of problem and emotion-focused coping.
Megan is furious because she was passed over for the work promotion she has been toward for the last year and a half. Instead of approaching her boss to discuss the situation, she drowns her anger with alcohol. By drinking, she finds temporary relief from her overwhelming emotions.
While Megan may have found temporary relief, she hasn’t dealt with the situation at work. Therefore, the issue will persist until she faces it head-on. Like Eric, Megan is in need of both problem and emotion-focused coping, with the emphasis being on the latter.
Why You Need Healthy Coping Skills
Negative situations and difficult emotions are a natural part of life. You cannot stop them from happening – you are going to experience troubling times. Unfortunately, life can’t always turn out as you hope. You are going to experience disappointment, you will lose people you love, you will face hardship at some point.
Your coping skills will carry you through. It’s your reaction to life giving you lemons that determines whether you choose to make lemonade with it or drown under the weight.
Spending your life anxious and overwhelmed is no way to live. If every time you have a job interview you walk in convinced there’s no chance you’ll get it because why would anyone hire you? If every time you’re dealt a blow you sit and wallow in it, you’re not coping in healthy ways. The longer you live without healthy coping skills the longer you will live with stress, anxiety, and general unhappiness.
You can learn coping skills. You can hone those skills and you can unlearn the unhealthy ones you have relied on thus far. It’s easy to pour another glass of wine to feel good for a moment. It is not easy to deal with the long-term health consequences that come from substance abuse.
Having healthy coping mechanisms to call on can help you move ambiguity and fear into peace and confidence.
The Consequences of Denial And Avoidance Versus Healthy Coping
Possessing healthy coping skills means you will have the strategies necessary to overcome even the most difficult situations in life. If you don’t approach difficult situations properly then they are likely to get worse. The right strategy will depend on the situation itself and if you do not get it right you will only delay the solution and extend the pain.
Coping skills boost your levels of resilience, which is handy ass resilience is necessary to quickly manage difficult situations and overcome stressors. So, the more healthy coping skills you have in your arsenal the quicker you will bounce back from traumatic situations. Resilient people are quick to process traumatic situations and difficult experiences because they can recognize the mistake, the lesson, and find a way to move on.
The reason coping skills are so handy for increasing resilience is that they help you cope with negative emotions, manage panic, and process negative situations. When you deal with negative emotions effectively you learn to let go of all the negativity that you associate with the experience. It’s clear that your ability to cope with difficult situations impacts both your physical and mental health.
Healthy Coping Strategies
We highlighted unhealthy coping strategies so it’s only fair we close by highlighting some of the healthy options you have at your disposal. However, there are literally hundreds of coping strategies you can rely on. With some effort and persistence, you can build a strong set of coping strategies that will carry you through any difficulties you may face.
The situation cannot be changed, but your emotional response to it can be changed. This is when emotion-focused strategies come to the fore. Your sense of humor, optimism, emotional wellness, and fortitude all influence your perception and help you cope with the negative emotions that you will face.
According to the American Psychological Association’s Dictionary Of Psychology, emotion- focused coping is, “a stress-management strategy in which a person focuses on regulating his or her negative emotional reactions to a stressor. Rather than taking actions to change the stressor itself, the individual tries to control feelings using a variety of cognitive and behavioral tools, including meditation and other relaxation techniques, prayer, positive reframing, wishful thinking and other avoidance techniques, self- blame, seeking social support (or conversely engaging in social withdrawal), and talking with others (including mental health care professionals). It has been proposed that emotion- focused coping is used primarily when a person appraises a stressor as beyond his or her capacity to change.” [identified in 1984 by Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1938–), U.S. psychologists]
Examples of Emotion-Focused Coping
The ability to calm yourself is an important one as this will help reverse your body’s stress response. Once your stress response has been triggered your body and mind process information differently.
You will notice you feel both emotionally and physically taxes and if this continues it will escalate to the level of chronic stress. So, learning to calm yourself immediately is an efficient way to relieve stress and improve your focus. Deep breathing and meditation are good ways to bring calm.
Keeping a journal is a great way to boost self-compassion and writing about how you will master the moment and overcome will help you increase your positivity.
It is easy to get caught up in resentment, blaming and anger when we are wronged. But all this does is harm you in the long run, as these negative and damaging feelings and state of mind sours your spirit and interferes with your inner peace and serenity.
- Forgiveness is about letting go, it is about you and not the transgressor.
- Forgiveness starts the healing process, and supports your wellbeing, both of mind and spirit.
- Forgiveness also facilitates improvement in feelings of compassion and empathy.
- The process of forgiving improves you in ways that can ultimately improve all your relationships.
Cognitive reframing is a technique where you shift how you see a problem. It is about identifying solutions and possible new perspectives.
Reframing is taking a step back and viewing the problem more objectively. Sometimes an objective view allows you to see the problem in a new light whether you realize it is not something you can fix, or whether it is not as impactful as it first appeared or where you begin to see solutions that will resolve it. Sometimes reframing allows you to tap into positive thinking and see the silver lining. In reframing it helps to talk with a trusted person, because through talking and brainstorming, new perspectives maybe achieved. Reframing is an action step, versus the alternative of being angry, wallowing in self-pity and giving up.
Meditation is well known for its many benefits for mind, body, and spirit. Meditation is one of the best ways to not only calm stress, but to clear your mind and allow you to get in touch with your truest inner self. This type of introspection allows you to tap into your inner self in a calm and objective manner, where you can sort through and organize your thoughts, assess current situations, and make the right choices in how you need to deal with any given problem. Regular meditating helps you perfect this skill, where you can gain from its benefits on a regular basis.
6| Cognitive Distortions
Cognitive distortions are ways in which we convince ourselves of things that are not true. Usually, these distortions reinforce negative situations, thoughts, and emotions. As we convince ourselves these things are accurate and true, it only serves to make us feel bad about ourselves. When you identify your own cognitive distortions, you can then become aware of how you are contributing to your own problems.
7| Talking with Other
Talking about issues that come up is one of the best and most important coping skills you can utilize. Letting it out is a skill that can be learned at any age, and it is a skill and not something that comes naturally to everyone.
Talking releases emotions, such as sadness, anger, and frustration, which allows us to not only have a more objective perspective on a problem it can prevent the typical consequences of bottled up emotions such as, physical pain, depression, and general bad mood. Talking with others can also bring resolutions that are more likely to be discovered together, versus alone.
Distractions can help in any situation, especially when the stressor or problem is not something that you can get away from on a permanent basis.
For example, if work is stressful and you cannot quit your job, which is likely for most of us, a distraction can come in the form of a short vacation or some type of activity that is completely separate from work and work related activities. Seek out new experiences. Relax. Change your environment. Distract. Make new memories that can overtake the ones dominating your mind at the moment.
Faith is an option in coping, as many feel better and find clarity when they talk to God or their Higher Power, whatever that might be. Spirituality benefits humans because “meaning and a larger context in which the situation can be understood and thus more accepted.” (Zeinder and Hammer, 1982)
Therapy with a mental health professional has numerous benefits for mental health. Coping with life and all its surprises, problems and challenges is greatly enhanced with the listening ear of a professional, skilled, and empathetic guide.
On the scale of self-improvement, clinical intervention provides a stage where one can explore, learn, and grow which always has a great influence on an individual’s ability to deal with life on life’s terms.
If you can change it, you would use a problem-focused coping skill. Or you might not be able to change things entirely, but you may be able to influence it. Regardless, problem-focused coping strategies are an effective stress-reliever while also dealing with the stressor head-on. It’s all about taking action.
Generally, this approach follows a set of steps:
#1: Define the issue.
#2: Create solutions and even potential alternatives. In order to do this, you would need to look objectively at the problem and brainstorm how to solve it.
#3: Use the skills you have to solve the issue or possibly acquire new skills that you may need to resolve it.
#4: Re-evaluate the situation to assess the outcome. If needed create additional plans to address and resolve both the problem and its associated stress.
The problem focused coping skill will not be applicable in every situation, for example when the source of the stress is beyond your control. This type of coping skill works best when you have ample control of the problem and the stress it is causing
Examples of Problem Focused Coping Skills
1. Time Management
If your difficulty stems from the stress that comes with too much to do and not enough time, then time management makes perfect sense. It’s all about managing your time effectively enough to take care of your priorities while finding time for entertainment and stress- relieving activities.
2. Social Support
While social support can also be an emotion-focused coping technique, it is also an effective problem-focused strategy. When you lean on your social support network you work through your thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
This process can help you problem-solve while processing emotions. It’s a two-fold winner that can help in any number of situations.
3. Avoid The Problem
While avoidance is not typically the answer to anything in this case it may be. If you can avoid the stressor without consequence, this can work to your advantage.
For example, if a friend who is not so nice and who is most of the time hurtful and is mostly a source of stress can be eliminated, freeing you from the problem and the stress it causes.
Another example is taking on too much in your day. In this case prioritizing means eliminating things from your do to list thereby lessening the burden and its associated stress.
4. Problem Solving
In this process you identify, evaluate, assess, and make a plan to solve the problem.
Whatever situation you face, whether you realize it or not, you respond with coping mechanisms. You might unconsciously respond by indulging in unhealthy coping mechanisms, you may unconsciously decide to deploy a combination of emotion and problem-focused strategies.
Either way, going forward, you need to make conscious decisions on which coping strategies you deploy and by doing so you put yourself in the driver’s seat. It’s important to note that you can use a combination of strategies to deal with the situation.
If you have realized that you often rely on unhealthy coping strategies, do not beat yourself up over it. We all fall into the trap of instant gratification from time to time but take heart and know that you are capable of taking control and learning healthy coping skills.