Coping Mechanisms – Coping with Stress

When dealing with stress, we use different coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms are, simply put, the way we handle stressful events. When something causes you stress, what do you focus on? Do you try and solve the problem? Do you focus on battling the emotions you experience from the stress? Or do you seek help from others, like friends and family, to help handle your stress?

The ways described make up the three most common coping mechanisms and ways of coping with stress we use. We will here discuss different coping mechanisms, what they focus on, and when you should use them.

Three different coping mechanisms

Usually, coping mechanisms are divided in to three different types; A) problem focused coping, B) emotionally focused coping and C) coping through social support. These three coping mechanisms all provide different ways of coping with stress, through focusing on different things.

A brief note before we discuss them individually: it is important to note that these coping mechanisms are in no way excluding each other. In fact, you can very well use both problem focused coping and emotionally focused coping with stress, and at the same time make use of social support.

However, these three coping mechanisms work well on different types of situations and problems. This means you need to understand what they are, how you should use them and most importantly, when you should use them.


Problem focused coping – dealing with what’s causing you stress

Much like the name gives away, this way of coping with stress deals with the actual problem at hand. For instance, if what’s causing your stress is your upcoming exam, forcing yourself to study for the exam is a way to use problem focused coping. You simply focus on dealing with what’s actually causing you stress, attacking the problem at its root.

Examples of problem focused coping:

  1. You’re stressed over your upcoming exam. Craft a plan over how you will study until the exam. Arrange studying with classmates. Make flashcards and quiz yourself and your classmates.

  2. You’re stressed over your friend being mad at you. Ask whether something is bothering your friend. If you sense there is, but your friend doesn’t want to talk about it right now, there’s really not much you can do.

  3. You’re stressed over not spending enough time with your family. Talk to them, make sure that you’re not prioritizing work over them. Plan specific quality time and events for just the family. Put work aside during these opportunities and just focus on the moment. Make sure they understand how you feel, and that you want to be with them.

This kind of method of coping with stress is widely regarded as the absolutely best one. By figuring out what’s actually causing you stress, and then focusing your efforts on dealing with that problem, you’re actively working towards removing the entire source of the stress from your life.

However, there are situations where you perceive you have no real way of influencing or dealing with the problem itself. These kinds of situations makes coping with stress through problem focused coping impossible. This leads to the second of the three coping mechanisms – emotionally focused coping.

Emotionally focused coping – dealing with how you feel from stress

When there’s no way of influencing the situation or actual problem that’s causing you stress, you should switch your focus to coping with stress through dealing with the emotions that the stress is causing you. If a relative or other person close to you gets sick and hospitalized, there is little you can do about the situation but deal with how you feel.

Science has shown repeatedly that emotionally focused coping is less useful than problem focused coping with stress, but in certain situations, you do not have a choice. This makes emotionally focused coping a well needed asset in your arsenal of tools for coping with stress.

Examples of emotionally focused coping:

  1. Your friend is hospitalized and very sick. Focus on how you’re feeling. Take action to let off steam, process your thoughts and worries, keep busy. But do not focus on trying to solve the situation by Googling treatments or similar – let the medical practitioners do their job. Focus on your own emotional well-being. Anything else is out of your hands.

  2. A colleague is causing you stress. If you are unable to influence how the colleague behaves, focus on dealing with how your colleague makes you feel. Why is your colleague causing you stress? Do you really have to care? Do you need to take it personally?

Like stated above, this kind of method for coping with stress is not the best one. There are however situations where this approach is more effective than focusing on the problem causing you stress. Learn to identify and realize when a situation or problem is in your hands, and when it’s not.

Coping through social support – seeking help from others

Social support is perhaps the easiest to explain, and examplify, out of the three coping mechanisms. It’s simply seeking support from other people in your life. This is most commonly done through seeking advice from your friends or family about how to deal with a stressful situation, or calling your friend to vent an issue you have.

Coping with stress through social support is perhaps the easiest of the coping mechanisms to use – but it is also the least effective. It’s worth remembering that social support can be very efficient when used together with problem focused and emotionally focused coping with stress (or even both!), but by itself, it’s not effective at all. This might sound a bit contradictory, as social support is usually perceived as a type of emotionally focused method of coping with stress, but fact is, if all you’re doing is calling your friends and family talking about your stress, you’re doing nothing in terms of actually dealing with it.

It is very important to remember that what counts is action, when talking coping mechanisms and ways of coping with stress in general. Problem focused coping is good because it makes you actively take action to solve the problem that is causing you stress. Emotionally focused coping is good because it makes you actively take action to deal with the emotions that the stress is causing you. Using social support is good when used in addition to either of the other coping mechanisms, as using it by itself is effectively doing nothing in terms of taking action.

Taking action is the only thing that matters.

When should I use the different coping mechanisms?

The question on everyone’s lips. Like you’ve probably noticed on this page, the different coping mechanisms are good for different situations, and bad for others. To try and condense the answer to the question in this headline some, we’ve written four basic guidelines for when to use which of the coping mechanisms.

  1. Learn to identify what situations and problems you can control, and which you cannot. Ask yourself whether you really can influence or control this problem or situation.

  2. When you can control the situation or problem, use problem focused coping. When you’ve identified a situation or problem you can control, focus on solving that, and not on the emotions it is causing you only.

  3. When you can’t control the situation or problem, use emotionally focused coping. When there’s a situation or a problem you can’t control, don’t try and solve it. Instead, focus on handling your emotions.

  4. Use social support, but only if you’re actively doing something other to cope with the stress too. Don’t just talk. Talk as a supplement to actively taking action, but never get stuck only seeking support from your friends and family, without actually doing anything actively to cope with your stress.

Further reading

Knowing which of the coping mechanisms to use, and when to use them, is essential to handling your stress properly. Here follows a few links to other articles you might find interesting in relation to coping mechanisms.