Coping 101: A Guide To Coping Mechanisms

When something stressful or unexpected happens in your life, how do you handle it? Does your one glass of wine after work turn into three? Or, do you find yourself not-so-subtly stalking your ex’s facebook page? Perhaps, you turn to counting calories to get your mind off the situation.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar to you, you are not alone! You are just doing the best that you can with a situation that feels unmanageable. One way or another, you are coping.

Your response is called a “coping mechanism,” which is basically a way of dealing with difficult or painful emotions that arise as a result of negative events. Each person has her own way of handling stress, and there are almost as many forms of coping as their are people in this world. Also, when you deal with something unconsciously (without realizing what you are doing), you are likely using your defense mechanisms; things like denial, acting out, or passive aggression. If you find yourself doing one of these things, or, more likely, if someone points out that you are doing one of those things, the key is to recognize what you are doing so that you can stop the behavior.

For today, though, let’s focus on the kind of coping that requires conscious thought. As we said, there are many different types of coping to  choose from, and the situation will dictate which is most effective. To simplify things, let’s look at the research done by Lazarus and Folkman in 1984, which famously identified two major types of coping: Emotion Focused Coping, and Problem Focused Coping.

Emotion Focused Coping

Emotion focused coping centers around helping the person to reduce the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that they are experiencing. Some emotionally focused coping techniques include:

Distraction – Reading, playing video games, watching television, (etc). Anything to keep your mind off what happened.
Expression – Writing or talking (possibly in therapy), about your feelings.
Prayer, Meditation, Mindlfulness – Going within yourself to find safety and peace.
Consuming – Eating comfort foods, drinking alcohol, using drugs, shopping, etc. These are ways to numb pain, and obviously are not healthy in large doses!
Reframing – Rethinking the situation to make it more manageable. Identifying and changing cognitive distortions like “Black and White Thinking,” and “Overgeneralization,” falls into this category.

Problem Focused Coping

Problem focused coping involves practical ways of targeting the problem and dealing with it directly. This type of objective approach may involve problem solving, time management, and/or garnering support from others.
Problem focused coping is clearly beneficial for issues like having too much on your plate, or having a hard time saying no, but it isn’t going to cut the mustard if you are dealing with a major trauma.

As you can see, different stressors call for different styles of coping. And some styles are healthier than others. Yet any attempt at coping should be celebrated because sometimes life’s curveballs are just hard too hard to catch.

If you would like to learn more about healthy coping skills that can be used in a variety of contexts, contact us. We are here to help!