Coping: The Psychology of What Works

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Here I highlight issues with emotion-focused coping and three major gaps in the original formulation pertaining to future orientation, religious and spiritual coping, and interpersonal coping. Problems with the formulation of emotion-focused coping became evident when self-report measures were developed to measure it.

These problems are p. Briefly, one problem was caused by the heterogeneity of questionnaire items asking about emotion-focused coping. This problem had its origin in a major tenet of stress and coping theory: The evaluation of the appropriateness of a given coping strategy should be made in the context of the stressful encounter. Distancing, for example, is appropriate in a situation where there is nothing that can be done as when waiting for the outcome of an exam , but it is inappropriate when action is called for as when preparing for the exam.

This tenet resulted in measures of emotion-focused coping that combined what on face value appeared to be maladaptive e. Nevertheless, many researchers still collapse diverse categories into one emotion-focused scale and one problem-focused scale, so the problem persists. Another major tenet of stress and coping theory held and still holds that coping, both in its definition and its measurement, had to be independent of outcomes. Nevertheless, as Stanton Chapter 18 points out, self-report questionnaire items assessing the regulation of emotion were often confounded with outcomes, especially mood outcomes.

Work with this measure has led to important contributions about the regulation and expression of emotions during stressful encounters, as summarized by Stanton in her chapter. The care with which the EAC was developed is exemplary, and it is a valuable addition to the assessment of emotion regulation under conditions of stress. Although I agree with Stanton about the problems with emotion-focused coping, I do not think those problems negate the importance of assessing the regulation of emotion along established dimensions such as distancing, cognitive reframing, or seeking emotional support.

What is needed is a careful review of questionnaire items to assure they are not confounded with outcomes, and careful classification processes that meet both empirical and theoretical standards for coherence. Fortunately, this situation is improved substantially with the contributions of Wrosch Chapter 16 and Aspinwall Chapter The pursuit of meaningful goals is by definition future-oriented; it is also central to well-being.

However, not all goals are feasible, nor do all goals retain their value over time. Adaptive coping requires that people recognize when goals are no longer tenable or valuable and then disengage from those goals and re-engage in alternative goals that are realistic and meaningful. Although Lazarus and Folkman discuss goals, they did not elaborate the process of goal revision. Wrosch Chapter 16 provides an excellent review of theory and research on goal revision with very helpful discussion of the details of the disengagement process, including withdrawing both effort and commitment, and the re-engagement process, including identifying, committing to, and pursuing alternative goals.

A major question, however, still needs explication: How do we decide when to give up a goal? We tend to value persistence in pursuit of socially approved goals. Our heroes are athletes who overcome physical handicaps in pursuit of gold medals, entrepreneurs who invest all their resources in a zany new concept, scientists who pursue a hypothesis that is judged by peers to be absurd.

When does persistence turn into counterproductive obstinacy? How do we know when to quit? I hope that Wrosch and others who are studying goal processes pursue this perplexing question.

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Another form of future-oriented coping is proactive coping, which is based on the assumption that one can proactively minimize or prevent future stress and promote favorable outcomes. Aspinwall Chapter 17 , who has done a great deal to develop the theory and research in this area, provides an excellent overview. Some might question whether it is possible to have coping in the absence of stress.

I think of proactive coping as preventive coping, and consider it an important addition to the stress and coping model. It is theoretically sensible to ask whether proactive coping at Time 1 affects the frequency of unwanted events or states that are the object of the proactive coping at Time 2. The proactive coping research related to health outcomes reviewed by Aspinwall is a case in point. Below I comment on the challenges involved in establishing causal links between coping with ongoing stress and future outcomes.

Although Lazarus and Folkman mention religious and spiritual beliefs in relation to coping resources, very little is said about the use of religion and spirituality for coping. Pargament not only provided a framework for research on religious coping, but he also seems to have legitimized the study of religious coping for many psychologists who had previously been squeamish about researching this topic.

In the intervening years research on religious and spiritual coping has burgeoned, as summarized by Pargament Chapter 14 and Ironson and Kremer Chapter Religious coping appears to be distinct from secular coping, adding an important dimension to the coping process. The effects of religious coping cannot be fully explained by more basic social, physiological, and psychological variables, although Ironson and Kremer suggest a process through which spirituality can confer benefits, especially in the case of serious illness.

However, like its secular counterpart, religious coping can have both beneficial and harmful effects on mental well-being and physical health. Clearly, assessments of religious and spiritual coping should be included along with assessments of secular coping. Any recommendation that is offered independently by multiple authors in this volume deserves close attention. Helgeson Chapter 4 discusses co-rumination; Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck Chapter 3 talk about social processes involved in the acquisition of mastery coping.


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Aspinwall Chapter 17 offers compelling reasons for exploring interpersonal aspects of proactive coping, as does Park Chapter 12 with respect to meaning-making. Stroebe Chapter 8 points to the importance of clarifying features of pre-bereavement relationships in explaining the subsequent adjustment of the surviving partner, presumably including the ways in which they coped with their shared stressors. Pargament Chapter 14 recommends that we turn to interpersonal religious coping. Revenson and DeLongis Chapter 6 have developed special expertise in dyadic coping, a topic to which they devote their chapter.

Susan Folkman

In dyadic coping, the members of the couple participate in an interactive coping process that plays out in a context of psychological interdependence, or mutual influences. Revenson and DeLongis review a bevy of theoretical models of dyadic processes, and it does not take long to realize that the study of these processes confronts the researcher with formidable challenges. Questions raised by Revenson and DeLongis, such as what are the roles of empathy, engagement, and congruence in dyadic coping, point both to the complexity of the interactive coping process and to the rich insights it can provide regarding the ways in which the couple as a dyadic unit confront stressors in their lives.

Revenson and DeLongis also provide very helpful direction regarding measurement and analysis.

Problem-focused Coping

The work on dyadic coping is an important contribution to the field. A dramatic shift in thinking about the stress process began to appear in the mids. The sea change had a number of sources: interest in the adaptive functions of positive emotions with p. Zautra and Reich Chapter 9 place the concept of resilience at the vortex of this swirl of observations.

Resilience is another of those ideas touched upon independently by several authors, including Litt, Tennen, and Affleck Chapter 19 , Lyubomirsky Chapter 11 , Park Chapter 12 , Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck Chapter 3 , and Tugade Chapter 10 , reflecting the widespread interest in this response to stress. Despite the number of different discussions about resilience, Zautra and Reich point out that there is widespread agreement that resilience includes recovery, sustainability, and growth. Until recently, resilience has been studied primarily in terms of stable aspects of personality and social network, with reference also to genetic and neural underpinnings Lyubomirsky, Chapter 11 ; Tugade, Chapter 10 ; Zautra and Reich, Chapter 9.

Tugade, for example, reviews evidence of neural and autonomic correlates of resilience, and there is substantial support for the notion of resilience as a trait. Now researchers are turning their attention to actual coping processes that sustain positive well-being, promote recovery, and provide opportunity for growth. The past 10 years have seen a surge of interest in meaning-making coping strategies for wresting something good from something bad. Meaning-making coping typically draws on values, goals, and beliefs, both global and situational Park, Chapter This coping category is explored in chapters on meaning-making and made meaning Park, Chapter 12 , benefit-finding and sense-making Pakenham, Chapter 13 ; Tugade, Chapter 10 , religious coping Pargament, Chapter 14 , and goal processes Wrosch, Chapter Not all meaning-making processes support positive emotions, but many do, such as finding resolution, reappraising the meaning of the stressor, perceiving growth or positive life changes, and pursuing meaningful goals.

I have hypothesized that meaning-focused coping becomes especially important in stressful situations that are prolonged or chronic, where problem- and emotion-focused coping fail to make things better. Moskowitz Chapter 20 , for example, notes that the more distressed the person is, the more meaning-focused interventions boost positive affect.

This boost can in turn motivate subsequent coping. This is another feature of the coping process that should be taken into account, especially when studying coping with chronic stress. Lyubomirsky Chapter 11 comments that there is a natural process through which people adapt to both positive and negative life changes with fading of the p. In short, positive emotions, or for that matter negative emotions, do not sustain themselves. These observations lead directly to the question of how to keep positive emotions alive while dealing with a stressor.

Tugade Chapter 10 comments that resilient people may actively cultivate positive emotions to downregulate distress and describes several practices for this purpose. One general strategy Lyuobmirsky recommends is to actively try to generate, or be open to, unexpected and variable experiences.

New research identifies best coping strategies for kids

Another is to engage in practices that delay adaptation to positive emotions once they occur. Examples of such practices include gratitude meditations; appreciative attention, as in savoring a positive moment; and positive thinking. Moskowitz Chapter 20 reviews the rapidly expanding literature on these and other practices, including acts of kindness, forgiveness, reminiscence therapy, positive reappraisal, positive affirmations, goal-setting, yoga, meditation, and exercise, in her comprehensive review of interventions to boost positive affect.

An important reason for studying coping is its hypothesized role as a mediator of the effects of stress on mental and physical health. The case for a relationship between coping and psychological outcomes is substantial. Virtually every chapter in this volume provides evidence of this robust connection.

Stress And Coping (SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY) - IResearchNet

The connection between coping and physical health is less well documented, except in the instances described earlier in which coping is directly health-related. The model did not specify causal mechanisms. Investigations of this question tend to be formulated ad hoc , without much attention to approaches that can help forge links among studies. The ultimate demonstration of a cause-and-effect relationship is a randomized controlled clinical trial.

Such a trial has the advantages of randomization and a control condition to help rule out alternative hypotheses regarding cause-and-effect relationships. Fortunately, coping lends itself to intervention. Coping skills can be taught along the lines of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and the chapters in this volume provide many examples e. Two tasks must be addressed to determine whether coping affects outcomes: 1 There needs to be a way to determine whether coping has changed, and 2 There needs to be a plausible map showing pathways through which coping can affect outcomes.

Litt et al. Chapter 19 comment that the best way to show that coping influences outcomes is to show that changes in coping are related to changes in outcomes. This objective is best achieved by assessing coping that pertains substantively to both the stressful context and the outcome of interest. Based on their review, they developed coping measures tailored to the nature of the stressor and the outcome of interest, such as thoughts and actions related to drinking in response to the offer of a drink in the case of alcohol addiction.

By tailoring the assessment of coping to the context and a specific outcome in the case of alcohol addiction, did the p. No matter how you choose to define it, problem-focused coping targets the cause of the stress instead of the stress itself. The understanding is that by reducing or eliminating the stress causing agent. Then the stress itself will be reduced or eliminated. The main questions arise when contemplating this method are things like: is this the best method, and if not, when should I use it and when should I avoid it?

We will look at these questions and more to give you a better understanding of when and how to use problem-focused methods to reduce your stress. If you find a stress relieving method that works well for you, great!

Stick with it and continue to use it. However, if you find that the same stress continues to come back time and again. Then you may want to consider a new option. The problem focused coping method works by eliminating the cause of the stress or at a minimum reducing its impact on you which, many agree, is the best method. Many consider this method the best because it provides a long-term solution rather than a quick relief that reoccurs later on. Some, however, think that because the method takes longer, the stress lingers more and can cause more problems.

The final choice is up to you, and what works for you is what you should use.