Coping is a dynamic process that includes efforts to solve the problem (problem-focused), manage emotions (emotion-focused), and maintaining close relationships (relationship-focused). Effective copers tend to vary their coping strategies during different phases of a stressor. For example, the initial coping response of someone receiving a diagnosis of cancer may be denial,
allowing the person to gradually adapt to the life-threatening diagnosis. However, this may change as the individual and his or her family accept the diagnosis and
begin to look toward treatment options. So, although denial is effective initially, if continued it may hinder chances of recovery if treatment isn’t sought. Additionally, it is important to be aware that stressful situations may include many different stressors, and these may require different coping responses.
Problem-focused coping describes direct efforts to solve the problem at hand. Problem-focused strategies often include trying to change the situation. These strategies may include defining the problem, identifying or generating alternative solutions, coming up with a plan, and then acting on that plan. Other problem-focused coping strategies may be geared toward changing ourselves, such as learning new skills, thereby increasing one’s coping resources.
Several factors influence the use of problem-focused coping strategies. For example, the perception of threat or high levels of stress may interfere with the successful use of this form of strategy due to the reduction in capacity for information processing. People are more likely to use problem-focused coping strategies when they feel the situation can be changed and that this change is within their control. For stressful situations that cannot be solved with problem-focused coping, such as the death of a family member, individuals may need
to direct their efforts to emotion-focused coping.
The primary focus of emotion-focused coping is to reduce emotional distress. This form of coping may be achieved through avoidance, distance, or wishful thinking. While these strategies can be maladaptive in certain circumstances, they can also be quite effective, as discussed in the cancer example earlier. Changing the
meaning of a situation, using cognitive reappraisal, can be helpful when we can’t change the problem itself.
Relationship-focused coping is aimed at managing, regulating, or preserving relationships during stressful periods. Successful coping may not only involve solving problems and managing emotions but may also involve maintaining and protecting social relationships, particularly when stressors occur in interpersonal
contexts. This aspect of coping is important for the maintenance of social relationships during periods of stress. In studies of couples coping with stress, relationship-focused coping strategies involving empathic responding have
been associated with less marital tension and greater marital satisfaction and stability.
Some coping strategies can have mixed functions. For example, social support seeking could be used to express emotion (emotion-focused coping), to gather information (problem-focused coping), and to maintain relationships with others (relationship-focused coping). Sometimes using a combination of all these strategies together provides an optimal solution for beating stress.
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