Coping (psychology)

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The psychological definition of coping is, the process of managing taxing circumstances, expending effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimize, reduce or tolerate stress or conflict.

In coping with stress, people tend to use one of the three main coping strategies: either appraisal focused, problem focused, or emotion focused coping. (Weiten, Lloyd, 2006)

Appraisal-focused strategies occur when the person modifies the way they think, for example: employing denial, or distancing oneself from the problem. People may alter the way they think about a problem by altering their goals and values, such as by seeing the humour in a situation.

People using problem focused strategies try to deal with the cause of their problem. They do this by finding out information on the disease, learning new skills to manage their disease and rearranging their lives around the disease.

Emotion focused strategies involve releasing pent-up emotions, distracting one-self, managing hostile feelings, meditating, using systematic relaxation procedures, etc.

People may use a mixture of these different types of coping, and coping mechanisms will usually change over time. All these methods can prove useful, but some claim that those using problem focused coping strategies will adjust better to life.

Men often prefer problem focused coping, whereas women can often tend towards an emotion focused response. Problem focused coping mechanisms may allow an individual greater perceived control over their problem, while emotion focused coping may more often lead to a reduction in perceived control. Certain individuals therefor feel that problem focused mechanisms represent a more effective means of coping.(Nicholls & Polman, 2006)

RS Lazarus was co-inventor of the theory of coping.

To be human is to experience crisis. Some will be caused by societal tragedies such as the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech. Some will be caused by natural disaster such as earthquake, hurricane or some other large magnitude act of nature beyond our control. And some will be caused by more personal experiences such as illness, death, or another difficult experience that comes to know on our door. Everyone will react differently to the same crisis. The emotional experience is as individual as the other characteristics of the person. Even more confusing to ourselves and to those around us is the changing nature of crisis response. Psychologically we are equipped to deal with various aspects of a crisis at different times and our reactions can run the gamut over time.

Reactions to crisis

Some of the appropriate reactions to a crisis are the following:

  • Fear -- It is very common to be afraid when things are happening to us that are completely outside of our normal experience. Our safety has been shattered and our future is unsure. This insecurity can rock our foundation and cause fear.
  • Stress -- We all know that there is good stress and bad stress. Good stress may come from a challenging project with a tight deadline at work or the case of the jitters that may accompany us down the aisle on our wedding day. But bad stress comes from traumatic events that make us feel unsafe. Bad stress can contribute to many emotional and physical problems. There are some who would say that stress creates all disharmony within our bodies and creates all illness as well. Whether we choose to believe that stress is that powerful, for those of us who have experienced it, we can say it can be very unpleasant.
  • Guilt, Shock, and Disbelief -- We may be absolutely floored by some particularly bad news. It may take some time to process the actual meaning of some crisis situations and their long term affects. Imagine finding out that your spouse has been having an affair. In most cases we will be shocked. We may not want to accept the facts and choose to disbelieve for some period of time. Guilt comes into play when we blame ourselves as the cause of the crisis event. We also feel guilty that we are not experiencing the crisis personally but supporting someone who is close to us through their crisis. We are guilty that a friend's spouse has cancer but our spouse if fine. We are guilty that our neighbor's child is addicted to crack but our child is fine.
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- This is a very common term in today's world of crisis management. Many situations that we experience today bring back painful memories from past events in our lives. Or, our emotional and physical state was solid while we were dealing with a crisis but once that situation improved our emotional and physical state collapsed. It often takes some time to connect with the actual damage that a crisis situation can do to use.
  • Anger -- Crises bring out anger in people because we need to express our rage or unrest over what is happening. Anger comes in many shapes and form. As an emotion, anger is a good thing, when expressed appropriately. However, when we are in the midst of a crisis our anger often comes out in self-destructive ways. We may take our anger out on loved ones because they are easy targets. We may take our anger out on our children because they are weaker than we are.

As in the grieving process, the crisis response process has definite phases. Not everyone goes through each phase and not everyone goes though the phases in order. But be aware than the phases are common and you or your loved ones may experience them.

  • Shock -- At first we are in shock and disbelief that something of a crisis nature can be happening to us. This shock can allow us to be in a state of denial for quite some time until we are ready to deal with the crisis.
  • Denial - How many times have you said, "This can't be happening to me." Or, when the doctor has given you bad news about a loved one haven't you heard someone say, "This cannot be correct. Let's get another opinion."
  • Overwhelming thoughts or emotions -- As we get over the shock and denial of the situation we are ready to flood our mind with overwhelming thoughts. We may have day dreams, fantasies, depression, shame, or anxiety. We often cannot control the repetitive nature of these thoughts.
  • Acceptance -- After time we often become more accepting of what is happening and we are ready to work through the problems and all of their ramification and impacts on our lives.
  • Conclusion -- One way or another each crisis does have a conclusion. After we deal with the other stages we are left with a desire to see things to their conclusion. Even if we are dying we may eventually accept this and move towards a peaceful exit from this world.

If we happen to be in the support role there are some very definite actions we can take to help our loved one move through a crisis. Here are some tips to be excellent supporters.

  • Communication is most important -- Here is when all of your listening skills will be called into play. Your loved one needs to know that you will be there to listen to them and to react appropriately. This is not the time for judgments and criticism. This is the time for listening, comforting and supportive dialogue.
  • You are not alone -- It is important for the person going through the crisis to understand that they are not the first person to go through this situation. It's helpful to tell your loved one to take things slowly; one day at a time. It is also important to see if any support groups exist for the crisis being experienced.
  • Share Feelings -- Let your friend talk and express their emotions. Do not be afraid of emotions and back away. Your friend will sense your discomfort and may stop talking to you.
  • Take steps -- Find some definitive steps that can be taken to relieve some of the stress related crisis. Often by taking positive action some of the panic or pain can be relieved, even if only for awhile.

See also



  • Weiten, Wayne & Lloyd, Margaret A. (2006) Psychology Applied to Modern Life. Thomson Wadsworth; Belmont California. ISBN 0-534-60859-0 - information and resources to aid in dealing with a crisis.

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