How do you cope?

“How are you coping?” we might ask a friend.

What do we really mean when we ask this? Do we want to know how they are doing, or do we really want to know how they are coping? Perhaps in a friendship, it is the former. But in my research, I am asking the question literally, that is, what things are you actually doing to cope with the situation you are facing? Coping is a bit of an ambiguous term, and it’s not always easy to know how it is being used.

Coping is typically defined as a process which involves thoughts and/or behaviours which aim to manage a stressful, challenging or threatening situation. When you and I are trying to cope, we are frequently seeking to minimise or tolerate our distress in some way or form.

You might remember a recent situation in which you needed to cope, using patterns of coping that are probably second nature to you. Were they helpful? Did you succeed in making yourself feel better or resolving a difficult situation?

Most of the time, when coping is discussed, conscious efforts are being referred to, rather than strategies that lie within the subconscious, otherwise known as defence mechanisms. These are often deemed to be negative and maladaptive, however there is some benefit in some of these techniques and they can be affective in some instances for short periods of time.

For example, one unconscious defence mechanism is repression, which in its simplest form is the mind protecting itself against disturbing or threatening thoughts. In a situation where an individual does not have the adequate coping skills to successfully navigate the challenge, for example a small child, their experiences may be repressed into the unconscious. Initially, this may allow for survival and for the child to then at a later stage become aware of the repressed thoughts and deal with them effectively. When prolonged however, for example into adulthood, these repressed feelings or thoughts can become problematic, creating issues such as anxiety and depression.

But, conscious coping is what we are able to study most effectively, and there is great benefit to doing so. By identifying the adaptive ways in which people cope, these techniques and strategies can be harnessed and taught to those using more maladaptive strategies in order to promote resilience and overall well-being. So what’s the deal with coping? (From here on, coping will refer to those coping strategies which are conscious).

As previously mentioned, coping is viewed as a process and a well-known model is that of Lazarus and Folkman (1984) and their Transactional Model of Stress and Coping. Here, when a stressor is recognised, a primary appraisal takes place, whereby it is assessed as positive, irrelevant or dangerous. If appraised as dangerous the next stage of the process occurs, secondary appraisal, where the level of resources available to deal with the stressor are assessed. If resources are deemed to be insufficient, strategies need to be used and these are typically problem-focussed or emotion-focussed. Once a strategy has been implemented the stressor is reappraised and the process continues until (hopefully) the stressor is eliminated.

The distinction between problem-focussed and emotion-focussed coping is just one of the many ways in which psychologists have sought to categorise this concept. A great deal of research has been conducted regarding these categories. Problem-focussed coping involves efforts which are directed towards reducing, eliminating or changing a stressor. Emotion-focussed coping on the other hand involves efforts which are directed towards reducing, eliminating or changing an emotional reaction towards a stressor.

Some examples of problem-focussed coping include seeking information, learning new skills and seeking social support. Emotion-focussed coping strategies include releasing pent-up emotions, distracting oneself, managing hostile feelings, meditation, avoidance and denial. Appraisal focussed coping is also important, and is sometimes considered to be cognitive coping, whereby assumptions, perceptions and thoughts surrounding a difficult situation are addressed. For example, rather than being an impossible situation, that statistics assignment is perceived as a challenge to be overcome!

Research has shown that a combination of all three coping styles are important and most effective for managing difficult situations. However, in many instances, problem-focussed coping is considered to be the most adaptive whilst emotion-focussed coping the least adaptive. It is important however to remember that some coping strategies will have their own time and place where they are beneficial, and others where they are not helpful at all. Problem-focussed strategies are particularly useful in situations whereby control can be taken and where taking action will have an impact. Emotion-focussed strategies however are most useful in instances where stressors are uncontrollable, for example terminal illness or bereavement.

I think personally, all coping strategies have their own benefits and their own shelf life. It is not necessarily the coping strategy itself that is either adaptive or maladaptive, but the way, the duration and the extent to which it is used.

Coping is not a fixed trait or concept. Our coping strategies develop over time and our coping resources change considerably as we grow older. This means that though we have instinctual ways to cope, the ways in which we approach situations and deal with them are malleable, and therefore effective coping strategies can be taught. So if you are reading this and thinking ‘How am I coping?! I’m not!’ then all is not lost.

There are many ways to assess your coping, obviously a professional can help, however it is possible to become more aware of your own coping methods by reflecting on past situations in which you have been challenged and required to step up and cope.

How did you manage? Did it help? What were the strategies that felt most helpful? Are there some strategies that you know aren’t helpful and could use some work?

By conducting research into these factors and by asking the questions above, psychologists are able to determine how individuals cope, and seek to help in difficult circumstances. Interventions can be developed which teach effective coping and more importantly awareness, which is key in undoing maladaptive habits and giving individuals the power to recognise the ways in which they are behaving and seek to change them if they would like to.

If you are interested in seeing how you cope with situations in your life, you may wish to look here for the COPE scale, developed by Carver and colleagues. Though the scale does not classify into problem-focussed or emotion-focussed coping, it does allow you to see the ways in which you cope and it might be interesting to see if you tend to use a particular strategy or whether there are others than might be useful for you.

Until next time 🙂

(Feel free to leave comments below or get in touch with suggestions for future blog posts, I’d love to hear from you!)

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