What is coping?

In 1988, Folkman and Lazarus, two of the most prominent stress and coping researchers, defined coping as “the person’s cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (reduce, minimize, master, or tolerate) the internal and external demands of the person-environment transaction that is appraised as taxing or exceeding the person’s resources” (p. 572).1  When breaking it down, we can see that they didn’t only clarify the concept of coping, but they also emphasized just how much what causes stress and what coping mechanisms are called can vary from person to person. They tell us that we must consider our “person-environment transactions”, which can be more simply described as our individual capacities and the interaction between them and the external demands being placed on us. It is through this process that the researchers suggest we consider if and when our personal resources are being exhausted and accordingly, to begin employing our unique coping mechanisms. They emphasized that we all utilize thinking and behavioral changes to attempt to control- or to adapt- to the stressors we encounter. In reality, this process may seemingly happen instantaneously. For example, we all have that moment where we think “I’m so overwhelmed right now, work and my personal life are too much, so I’m going to _________ (insert preferred coping mechanism here).” However, by rushing this thinking process, or instinctually choosing our “go-to” coping method, we don’t always employ the appropriate or healthiest strategies.

How to begin reflecting on our coping styles?

Start by thinking about your current “go-to” coping styles. It is often helpful to begin by considering what we typically do and in what situations we employ particular methods. To that end, we may want to consider the following questions:

  • How do I typically react to stressors now?
  • Do I tend to avoid problems and hope that they will disappear? Or conversely, do I try to approach problems and “fix them”? (Stay tuned to find out if one of these is the “preferred” method of coping.)
  • What behavior or thought do I get when I get overwhelmed or upset?
  • Do I cope better with certain situations than with others? What types of situations do I have difficulty coping with?

If we find that upon answering these questions we aren’t happy with the coping mechanisms we employ, or that our current methods might be causing additional problems, we may want to consider reflecting further or making changes.

Think about what is standing in your way. We may also want to consider factors that interfere with our ability to overcome difficulties or to make healthy changes. Some of these may be tangible or observable, such as conflicted relationships, schedules, existing commitments, financial circumstances, or illnesses. However, there are also many things we may be doing unconsciously that impede our capacity to cope with a stressor. For example, we may be engaging in denial (not accepting the reality of our circumstances), ignorance (recognizing problems but failing to seek further information), or ambivalence (having conflicted feelings about the stressors in our lives). Regardless of how these blocks manifest, these impediments are worth looking at. Individual therapy may be a great and safe outlet in which to reflect on- and begin to remove these barriers to coping.

Take inventory of your current stressors and capacities. Finding the appropriate coping mechanisms often depends on the stressor itself as well as on our capacities and current life circumstances. Therefore, it is imperative to begin identifying current stressors. Stressors can vary significantly, for example, they can span from loss of a loved one, an unexpected illness, to a shift in job roles or a financial change. While all of these may range in severity, we must consider the relative impact the stressor is having on us. That is to say, we must also consider the extent to which it is impacting us, our current sources of support, ability to take time to ourselves, and our mental and emotional resources. Taking all of these factors into account can help us to identify appropriate coping mechanisms. For example, if we identify a stressor as unexplained feelings of panic, we can then research relaxation techniques, self-care, or individual therapy. Alternatively, if we determine that a stressor is our interaction with our parents, we would then consider setting boundaries or asserting ourselves or examining the conflictual relationship in therapy.

Types of coping mechanisms

A quick Google search will lead you down what seems to be an infinite list of coping mechanisms and strategies. It is important to remember that these methods can look different for each person, so choosing the methods that feel appropriate, sustainable, and doable for you are important factors to consider. For some, it might be spending time with family and friends, while for others in the same situation, it involves staying away from family and friends. Likewise, what yoga can do for one person, cooking/hiking/organizing might do for another. All this to say, it is important to find the coping mechanisms that works for you and are appropriate for the stressor you are experiencing.

Having adequate and healthy coping mechanisms can have significant long-term impact on our overall health, relationships, and success. Therefore, slowing down the process in which we choose a coping method and reflecting on our current processes is vital.

1 Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1988). Coping as a mediator of emotion. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 54(3), 466-475. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.54.3.466