The stresses inherent in the daily challenges of life create a need for continuous monitoring and adjustment. Coping is the behavioral, cognitive, and emotional process of managing a stressful or threatening situation or circumstance. It is a nearly continuous process as people are frequently confronted with new and changing environmental demands that can lead to stress. Minimizing, mastering, or managing a situation in such a way as to render it less distressing is the goal of coping.
Richard Lazarus (1966) offered a three-process model of stress. Primary appraisal is the process of perceiving a threat to oneself. Secondary appraisal is the process of calling to mind a possible response to the threat. Coping is the execution of the response to the threat. The body has its own way of coping with stress. Any threat or challenge an individual perceives in the environment initiates a sequence of neuroendocrine events. These events are conceptualized as two separate responses: a sympathetic/adrenal response, in which catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine) are secreted (i.e., the “fight or flight” response), and the pituitary/adrenal response, involving the secretion of corticosteroids, which act to restore the biological system to homeostasis (Frankenhauser 1986).
Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984) were the first scholars to make the distinction between problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping seeks to ameliorate the stress being caused by a given situation by identifying and making efforts to deal with the source of the problem. It may involve taking action to remove a stressor or to evade a threatening stimulus. For example, changing trails to avoid a snake while on a nature walk would be an example of the problem-focused method of coping: By effectively removing oneself from the threatening situation, one lowers the stress it induces.
The goal of emotion-focused coping is to reduce the intensity of distressing emotions associated with stress— that is, the aim is to make oneself feel better about a real or perceived threat or stressor without addressing the source of the stress. Emotion-focused coping often occurs when problem-focused coping fails to reduce the stress in a situation or when the stressor is so great that problem-focused coping has no real likelihood of helping. It can also come into play when many aspects of a situation are out of one’s control, such as when one is dealing with a terminal illness or the sudden death of a loved one.
Charles Carver and his colleagues (1989) developed an instrument to measure coping responses based on a number of conceptually distinct methods of responding to stressful life events. Active coping involves taking steps to remove oneself from a threatening situation. Planning involves generating strategies to cope with the stressor. Other strategies include reinterpreting the stressor as a positive or growth-oriented experience, suppression of competing activities (i.e., putting other concerns aside until the stressor sufficiently subsides), restraint coping (i.e., waiting for an opportunity to act effectively), focusing on and venting of emotions (i.e., expressing grief or “venting” anger), using humor to cope with the stressor, mental or behavioral disengagement (i.e., giving up on trying to solve a problem or reach a goal), seeking social support —either instrumental support, such as information or resources, or emotional support, such as sympathy and understanding— turning to religion (i.e., putting the problem in God’s hands), and acceptance, whereby the threat is accepted as unavoidable (as with, for example, terminal illness).
Sometimes the nature of a stressor is such that it overwhelms an individual’s coping resources. When this occurs, rather than engaging in positive coping strategies, the person sometimes seeks to disengage from the stressful situation altogether. This emotion-focused strategy is called avoidant coping, and its goal is to escape or avoid feelings of distress. Denial of the existence of the stressor, for example, can be negative if it causes one to neglect to seek medical attention when symptoms of a possibly serious disease appear. Substance use (i.e., using alcohol and/or drugs) can aid in this disengagement from reality, but only for a time. People may also engage in “magical thinking” in an attempt to wish away a stressor. Unfortunately, in the end the stressor remains, and will inevitably resurface.
It is now widely accepted that receiving effective social support from one’s social network can play a role in influencing health and well-being. The two main theories of how social support impacts stress and coping are the main effect hypothesis, which asserts that social support is beneficial whether or not one is experiencing increased stress, and the stress buffering hypothesis, which asserts that social support during time of elevated stress serves to protect an individual from a stressor’s harmful effects (Cohen and Wills 1985).
Social support can take many forms. These include instrumental support (e.g., providing a family member with money to buy groceries), informational support (e.g., providing information about an illness), and emotional support —that is, providing care or comfort. For such support to be effective, however, it must be matched with the environmental demands causing the distress and be provided by the appropriate member of one’s social network.
Often, the best coping strategies are a combination of problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies, which together engage the stressor in an effort to reduce both its force and the negative emotions it evokes. Seeking social support in times of elevated stress can also be an effective coping strategy. When one is faced with stress that greatly exceeds one’s ability to cope, professional services may be helpful, both in strategizing ways to deal with the stressor and as a source of emotional support.
SEE ALSO Emotion; Mental Health; Mental Illness; Neuroticism; Resiliency; Stress; Vulnerability
Carver, Charles S., Michael F. Scheier, and Jagdish Kumari Weintraub. 1989. Assessing Coping Strategies: A Theoretically Based Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 56 (2): 267–283.
Cohen, Sheldon, and Thomas A. Wills. 1985. Stress, Social Support, and the Buffering Hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin 98 (2): 310–357.
Frankenhauser, Marianne. 1986. A Psychobiological Framework for Research on Human Stress and Coping. In Dynamic of Stress: Physiological, Psychological, and Social Perspectives, eds. Mortimer H. Appley and Richard Trumbull, 101–116. New York: Plenum Press.
Lazarus, Richard S. 1966. Psychological Stress and the Coping Process. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Lazarus, Richard S., and Susan Folkman. 1984. Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.
Roxane Cohen Silver