Coping

Coping refers to a complex set of behaviors and cognitions that individuals use to deal with stress and adversity. The concepts of stress and adversity are explicitly linked to coping. Understanding coping is fundamental to understanding how stress affects people.

The Nature of Coping

Since the 1980s the most widely accepted definition of coping has described coping as (a) constantly changing, (b) involving both cognitions and behavior, (c) effortful, (d) concerned with the management of specific demands, and (e) present when demands from within or outside of a person are evaluated as taxing or exceeding that person’s resources.

Key features of this definition focus on the process of coping, noting that coping is not trait-like. Coping fluctuates across situations, although there is also stability in coping. The management aspect of this definition also is emphasized. Coping efforts may not always be successful. Some of the cognitive and behavioral strategies individuals use to manage stress lead to better adjustment, while other strategies result in worse adjustment. A third feature of the definition is that coping is a psychological construct, in that it involves evaluations or appraisals of a situation as exceeding a person’s resources to manage the situation. Finally, coping involves voluntary and effortful responses. Individuals respond in broad ways to stress, and those responses include both voluntary and involuntary (automatic) reactions. Coping refers to the effortful responses people make to manage a situation or their emotional responses to it.

Coping behavior is only one part of a broader set of constructs referred to as coping processes. Richard Lazarus, Susan Folkman, and their colleagues describe the coping process as consisting of appraisal, behavior, and reappraisal. Appraisal involves an evaluation of the extent to which a situation is challenging, benign, or harmful, and an assessment of the internal and external resources available to deal with the situation. Coping behavior follows this appraisal, and then a reappraisal is made to determine the extent to which the coping behavior had the desired effect.

Functions of Coping

One way of classifying coping behaviors, now regarded as overly simplistic, is as having either an emotion-focused or a problem-focused function. Emotion-focused coping refers to people’s efforts to manage their emotional responses to stress. Examples include reframing the problem, venting, distracting oneself, and denial. Problem-focused coping refers to efforts to solve the problem. These efforts can be directed inward or outward. Examples of problem-focused coping strategies include thinking about solutions, taking direct action to solve the problem, shifting one’s focus, and seeking help from others. Both types of coping can be adaptive and both can be harmful, depending on the precise behavior enacted and the nature of the situation.

Recently, researchers have suggested that the functions of coping be considered in light of challenges and threats to the basic human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. From a motivational perspective, all individuals have basic needs to feel competent, to relate and be connected to others, and to make independent decisions. When viewed from this perspective, the function of coping is distinguished not by the coping behavior used but by the extent to which it is a response to attacks on core needs.

Structure of Coping

Two primary ways of thinking about types of coping are whether the coping behaviors involve active or approach (sometimes called engagement) strategies or avoidant (sometimes called disengagement) strategies, and whether the behaviors involve cognitive or behavioral strategies. Active coping behaviors are characterized by a willingness to interact with the stress, either internally or externally. Coping efforts that fall into this framework include cognitive reframing (thinking about the problem situation differently), acceptance, problem solving, and emotion regulation. In contrast, avoidant coping behaviors reflect an unwillingness or inability to confront the problem. Avoidant coping behaviors include denial, avoidance, and wishful thinking. Involuntary responses to stress (e.g., emotional or physiological arousal, intrusive thoughts, and emotional numbing) are not regarded as coping per se. Proactive coping is an additional form of coping that is not assessed by most coping inventories. Proactive coping consists of efforts undertaken in advance of a potentially stressful event to prevent it or to modify it before it occurs.

Recently some psychologists have suggested that a hierarchical system be developed for grouping coping strategies, but no such system has been forthcoming to date.

Measurement of Coping

Questionnaires are the most frequently used method of assessing coping. Observational methods and interviews are used rarely. The Ways of Coping Checklist and the COPE are the two measures of coping most often used with adults. Popular options for assessing coping in children and adolescents include the Adolescent Coping Orientation for Problem Experiences Scale (A-COPES), the Children’s Coping Strategies Checklist (CCSC), the Coping Response Inventory, and the Responses to Stress Questionnaire (RSQ). Theoretically driven measures that were developed and validated using Confirmatory Factor Analysis are preferable to measures developed using other strategies. The COPE, CCSC, and RSQ are excellent examples of such measures.

Most general measures of coping have both dispositional and situation-specific versions. Dispositional measures ask about the coping strategies the individual uses with a broad array of stressors. Situation-specific measures assess coping strategies used to deal with a specific event or class of events (e.g., peer rejection or job loss). Both dispositional and situation-specific measures of coping tap some forms of active and avoidant coping. For example, problem solving, positive reframing, support seeking, distraction, and avoidance are common coping behaviors on many inventories. Additionally, some inventories assess humor, religious coping, or drug or alcohol use as a means of coping.

In addition to measures that assess a wide array of coping behaviors, there are measures designed to assess very specific types of coping in great detail. For example, a number of measures are specifically designed to assess religious coping. These measures are designed to capture subtle differences within the broad category of religious coping, and are useful for in-depth study in a particular area. Other coping inventories are designed for specific stressors such as health conditions (e.g., cancer, depression, infertility or chronic pain), and life situations (e.g., marital problems, job loss, or death of a family member).

The choice of measure used in a study of coping should depend on both the quality of the measure and the specific aims of the study. With the exception of proactive coping, which may go unstudied because it is hard to detect, many coping inventories assess the most commonly observed coping behaviors.

Why Coping Matters: Links to Adjustment

A key reason for psychologists’ concern about how best to categorize and measure coping is that people’s success in dealing with situations that tax their resources affects their mental and social adjustment. The goal underlying attempts to group coping strategies is to determine which coping strategies are most adaptive. Although definitive conclusions are premature, it appears that both youth and adults who use active coping strategies and versatile coping behaviors in response to stress demonstrate better psychological and physical health. In contrast, individuals who rely on avoidant coping demonstrate worse adjustment. Avoidance may be necessary in the short term to permit the individual to achieve some distance from the stress; ultimately it is harmful to psychological and physical well-being.

Influences on Coping

Given the importance of coping, psychologists are engaged in an effort to understand what influences coping, particularly if changing coping as a way of improving adjustment is the goal of the counselor. Coping behaviors are influenced by a broad set of factors, including qualities of the individual, aspects of the specific situation, and pressures in the environment.

Individual Influences on Coping

Qualities of the individual that influence coping include age, gender, socioeconomic status, temperament or personality, beliefs, and values. Girls and women are more likely than boys and men to seek social support when confronted with stress. Cognitive coping strategies increase over time; adolescents are more likely than school-age children to use cognitive coping strategies. Optimistic adults and Type A individuals (i.e., those who are hard-driving, achievement oriented, and impatient or hostile) are more likely to use active strategies and less likely to disengage from stressors than individuals who are pessimistic or not Type A.

Personality factors can serve as coping resources in times of stress. Individuals for whom religion is important are more likely to endorse spiritual forms of coping than individuals who do not hold religious values. Individuals who place a high value on maintaining relationships with others will engage in coping that repairs relationships to a much greater degree than individuals for whom this is not a salient value.

Situational Influences on Coping

Aspects of the situation that affect coping include the extent to which the stressor is acute versus chronic in nature, is familiar or novel, is controllable, involves threat as opposed to loss, involves a conflict situation, and is interpersonal in nature. For interpersonal situations, the power difference of those involved is another relevant factor. For example, individuals use religious coping much more frequently in situations that are chronic and involve loss than in situations that involve more mundane everyday stress. Situations that can be changed evoke greater use of problem-focused coping strategies than situations that cannot be changed. For example, a layoff might evoke coping focused on managing affect, whereas a conflict with a friend might stimulate coping focused on repairing the relationship. Even in situations that are not controllable, however, individuals do have a choice in how they think about and respond to the stress.

Some forms of coping are influenced by qualities of the situation to a greater degree than others. Across a variety of situations, there is much greater consistency in the use of coping strategies that involve religion, avoidance via alcohol and drug use, and seeking emotional support than there is in the use of denial, disengagement, and some aspects of active coping.

Environmental Influences on Coping

Familial, cultural, and social aspects of the environment also influence coping behavior. Family socialization plays a large role in shaping how individuals respond to stressors, particularly for youth. Coping styles and strategies develop over the course of childhood and adolescence, and are heavily influenced by parents. For example, parental reactions to differences in temperament (an individual influence) can transform natural coping tendencies.

Parents influence the development of coping strategies in three ways. First, parents coach youth to engage in particular coping behaviors via direct suggestion. For example, parents might suggest that children come talk to them when they have a problem, or parents might suggest that children engage in physical activity to take their minds off a situation. Second, parents model coping behaviors. Children observe both the behavior and the consequences of the coping choices, and when confronted with a similar situation tend to enact that coping strategy. Third, parents create an environment that encourages or discourages specific coping activities. For example, children feel freer to talk about their feelings in families that model open communication than in families where honest discourse is discouraged. The influence of these three mechanisms in teaching youth coping strategies is apparent even when individuals become adults.

Peer, work, and neighborhood contexts also shape coping responses, largely by way of the values that are reinforced in those contexts and the resources that are available. For example, in neighborhoods with high levels of collective efficacy—that is, where neighbors support one another and share child discipline— individuals are more likely to seek tangible support to cope with specific problems. In contrast, support seeking is less likely to occur in neighborhoods lacking cohesiveness.

Culture influences how parents socialize their children’s coping, but it also has independent effects via the values it espouses. For example, cultures that value the needs of the group over the needs of the individual are more likely than other cultures to support coping efforts that take group needs into account.

In addition, the environment, including culture, provides tangible (e.g., money, information or specific help) and emotional coping resources. The availability of coping resources influences individuals’ perceptions of the coping options that are open to them.

Future Directions

Psychologists regard an understanding of coping as critically important in their efforts to help people improve their lives. Research on coping will continue to investigate how coping should be conceptualized, the ways in which coping relates to appraisal, how the coping process unfolds, individual and environmental contributions to coping, and the contexts in which particular coping behaviors are adaptive or maladaptive. The next decade is likely to see increased attention given to ways of assessing coping that capture individuals in their daily experience, and to qualitative assessments of coping.

References:

  1. Aspinwall, L. G., & Taylor, S. E. (1997). A stitch in time: Self-regulation and proactive coping. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 417—136.
  2. Connor-Smith, J. K., Compas, B. E., Wadsworth, M. E., Thomsen, A. H., & Saltzman, H. (2000). Responses to stress in adolescence: Measurement of coping and involuntary stress responses. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 976-992.
  3. Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.
  4. Skinner, E. A., Edge, K., Altman, J., & Sherwood, H. (2003). Searching for the structure of coping: A review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 216-269.
  5. Wolchik, S. A., & Sandler, I. N. (Eds.). (1996). Handbook of children’s coping: Linking theory and intervention. New York: Plenum.

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