Coping (psychology)

Coping (psychology)

Coping has been defined in psychological terms by Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus as "constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing"[1] or "exceeding the resources of the person".[2]

Coping is thus expending conscious effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress or conflict.[3][4][5] Psychological coping mechanisms are commonly termed coping strategies or coping skills. Unconscious or non conscious strategies (e.g., defense mechanisms) are generally excluded. The term coping generally refers to adaptive or constructive coping strategies, i.e., the strategies reduce stress levels. However, some coping strategies can be considered maladaptive, i.e., stress levels increase. Maladaptive coping can thus be described, in effect, as non-coping. Furthermore, the term coping generally refers to reactive coping, i.e., the coping response follows the stressor. This contrasts with proactive coping, in which a coping response aims to head off a future stressor.

Coping responses are partly controlled by personality (habitual traits), but also partly by the social context, particularly the nature of the stressful environment.[6]

Types of coping strategies

About 400 to 600 coping strategies have been identified. Classification of these strategies into a broader architecture has not yet been agreed upon. Common distinctions are often made between various contrasting strategies, for example: problem-focused versus emotion-focused; engagement versus disengagement; cognitive versus behavioral. The psychology textbook by Weiten has provided a useful summary of three broad types of coping strategies:[3]

  • appraisal-focused (adaptive cognitive),
  • problem-focused (adaptive behavioral), and
  • emotion-focused.

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 humor in a situation: "some have suggested that humor may play a greater role as a stress moderator among women than men".[7]

People using problem-focused strategies try to deal with the cause of their problem. They do this by finding out information on the problem and learning new skills to manage the problem. Problem-focused coping is aimed at changing the source of the stress.

Emotion-focused strategies involve releasing pent-up emotions, distracting oneself, managing hostile feelings, meditating or using systematic relaxation procedures. Emotion-focused coping "is oriented toward managing the emotions that accompany the perception of stress".[8]

Typically, people use a mixture of all three types of coping strategies, and coping skills 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.[9] Problem-focused coping mechanisms may allow an individual greater perceived control over their problem, whereas emotion-focused coping may sometimes lead to a reduction in perceived control (maladaptive coping).

Folkman and Lazarus identified six emotion-focused coping strategies:[10]

  • disclaiming
  • escape-avoidance
  • accepting responsibility or blame
  • exercising self-control
  • seeking social support
  • positive reappraisal

and two problem-focused coping strategies: "taking action to try to get rid of the problem is a problem-focused strategy, but so is making a list of the steps to take".[11]

Lazarus "notes the connection between his idea of 'defensive reappraisals' or cognitive coping and Freud's concept of 'ego-defenses'",[12] coping strategies thus overlapping with a person's defense mechanisms.

Positive techniques (adaptive or constructive coping)

One positive coping strategy, "anticipating a known as proactive coping."[11] Anticipation is when one "reduce[s] the stress of some difficult challenge by anticipating what it will be like and preparing for how [one is] going to cope with it".[13]

Two others are "social coping, such as seeking support from others, and meaning-focused coping, in which the person concentrates on deriving meaning from the stressful experience".[11]

Keeping fit - "when you are well and healthy, when nutrition, exercise and sleep are adequate, it is much easier to cope with stress" - and learning "to lower the level of relaxing muscles the message is received that all is well"[14] are also positive techniques.

Arguably, however, the best of all "the methods people use to cope with painful humor! You feel things to the full...but you master them by turning it all into pleasure and fun!"[15]

While dealing with stress it is important to deal with your physical, mental, and social well being. One should maintain their health and learn to relax if they find themselves under stress. Mentally it is important to think positive thoughts, value oneself, demonstrate good time management, plan and think ahead, and express emotions. Socially one should communicate with people and seek new activities. By following these simple strategies, one will have an easier time responding to stresses in their lives.[16]

Negative techniques (maladaptive coping or non-coping)

While adaptive coping methods improve functioning, a maladaptive coping technique will just reduce symptoms while maintaining and strengthening the disorder. Maladaptive techniques are more effective in the short term rather than long term coping process. Examples of maladaptive behavior strategies include: dissociation, sensitization, safety behaviors, anxious avoidance, and escape (including self-medication). These coping strategies interfere with the person's ability to unlearn, or break apart, the paired association between the situation and the associated anxiety symptoms. These are maladaptive strategies as they serve to maintain the disorder.

Dissociation is the inability of the mind to separate and compartmentalize thoughts, memories, and emotions. This is often associated with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

Sensitization is when a person seeks to learn about, rehearse, and/or anticipate fearful events in a protective effort to prevent these events from occurring in the first place.

Safety behaviors are demonstrated when individuals with anxiety disorders come to rely on something, or someone, as a means of coping with their excessive anxiety.

Anxious avoidance is when a person avoids anxiety provoking situations by all means. This is the most common strategy.

Escape is closely related to avoidance. This technique is often demonstrated by people who experience panic attacks or have phobias. These people want to flee the situation at the first sign of anxiety. [17]

Further examples

Further examples of coping strategies include:[18]

  • emotional or instrumental support
  • self-distraction
  • denial
  • substance use
  • self-blame
  • behavioral disengagement
  • religion

Religious coping has been found to be the most common coping response, with one study reporting that 17% use religion as a coping response. Women mentioned religious coping more frequently than did men.[19]

Many people think that meditation "not only calms our emotions, but...makes us feel more 'together'", as too can "the kind of prayer in which you're trying to achieve an inner quietness and peace".[20]

Low-effort syndrome or low-effort coping refers to the coping responses of minority groups in an attempt to fit into the dominant culture. For example, minority students at school may learn to put in only minimal effort as they believe they are being discriminated against by the dominant culture.[21]

Historical psychoanalytic theories


Otto Fenichel summarized early psychoanalytic studies of coping mechanisms in children as "a gradual substitution of actions for mere discharge reactions...[&] the development of the function of judgement" - noting however that "behind all active types of mastery of external and internal tasks, a readiness remains to fall back on passive-receptive types of mastery."[22]

In adult cases of "acute and more or less 'traumatic' upsetting events in the life of normal persons", Fenichel stressed that in coping, "in carrying out a 'work of learning' or 'work of adjustment', [s]he must acknowledge the new and less comfortable reality and fight tendencies towards regression, towards the misinterpretation of reality", though such rational strategies "may be mixed with relative allowances for rest and for small regressions and compensatory wish fulfillment, which are recuperative in effect".[23]

Karen Horney

In the 1940s, the German Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney "developed her mature theory in which individuals cope with the anxiety produced by feeling unsafe, unloved, and undervalued by disowning their spontaneous feelings and developing elaborate strategies of defence."[24] She defined four so-called coping strategies to define interpersonal relations, one describing psychologically healthy individuals, the others describing neurotic states.

The healthy strategy she termed "Moving with" is that with which psychologically healthy people develop relationships. It involves compromise. In order to move with, there must be communication, agreement, disagreement, compromise, and decisions. The three other strategies she described - "Moving toward", "Moving against" and "Moving away" - represented neurotic, unhealthy strategies people utilize in order to protect themselves.

Horney investigated these patterns of neurotic needs (compulsive attachments).[25] Everyone needs these things, but the neurotics' need them more than the normal person. The neurotics' might need these more because of difficulties within their lives. If the neurotic does not experience these needs, he or she will experience anxiety. The ten needs are:[26]

  1. Affection and approval, the need to please others and be liked
  2. A partner who will take over one's life, based on the idea that love will solve all of one's problems
  3. Restriction of one's life to narrow borders, to be undemanding, satisfied with little, inconspicuous; to simplify one's life
  4. Power, for control over others, for a facade of omnipotence, caused by a desperate desire for strength and dominance
  5. Exploitation of others; to get the better of them
  6. Social recognition or prestige, caused by an abnormal concern for appearances and popularity
  7. Personal admiration
  8. Personal achievement.
  9. Self-sufficiency and independence
  10. Perfection and unassailability, a desire to be perfect and a fear of being flawed.

In Compliance, also known as "Moving toward" or the "Self-effacing solution", the individual moves towards those perceived as a threat to avoid retribution and getting hurt, "making any sacrifice, no matter how detrimental."[27] The argument is, "If I give in, I won't get hurt." This means that: if I give everyone I see as a potential threat whatever they want, I won't be injured (physically or emotionally). This strategy includes neurotic needs one, two, and three.[28]

In Withdrawal, also known as "Moving away" or the "Resigning solution", individuals distance themselves from anyone perceived as a threat to avoid getting hurt - "the 'mouse-hole' attitude...the security of unobtrusiveness."[29] The argument is, "If I do not let anyone close to me, I won't get hurt." A neurotic, according to Horney desires to be distant because of being abused. If they can be the extreme introvert, no one will ever develop a relationship with them. If there is no one around, nobody can hurt them. These "moving away" people fight personality, so they often come across as cold or shallow. This is their strategy. They emotionally remove themselves from society. Included in this strategy are neurotic needs three, nine, and ten.[28]

In Aggression, also known as the "Moving against" or the "Expansive solution", the individual threatens those perceived as a threat to avoid getting hurt. Children might react to parental in-differences by displaying anger or hostility. This strategy includes neurotic needs four, five, six, seven, and eight.[30]


Heinz Hartmann focused on the adaptive progression of the ego "through the mastery of new demands and tasks".[31] In his wake, ego psychology further stressed "the development of the personality and of 'ego-strengths'...adaptation to social realities".[32]

Object relations

Emotional intelligence has stressed the importance of "the capacity to soothe oneself, to shake off rampant anxiety, gloom, or irritability....People who are poor in this ability are constantly battling feelings of distress, while those who excel in it can bounce back far more quickly from life's setbacks and upsets".[33] From this perspective, "the art of soothing ourselves is a fundamental life skill; some psychoanalytic thinkers, such as John Bowlby and D. W. Winnicott see this as the most essential of all psychic tools."[34]

Object relations theory has examined the childhood development both of "[i]ndependent coping...capacity for self-soothing", and of "[a]ided coping. Emotion-focused coping in infancy is often accomplished through the assistance of an adult."[35]

Gender differences

Gender differences in coping strategies are the ways in which men and women differ in managing psychological stress. There is evidence that males often develop stress due to their careers, whereas females often encounter stress due to issues in interpersonal relationships.[36] Early studies indicated that "there were gender differences in the sources of stressors, but gender differences in coping were relatively small after controlling for the source of stressors";[37] and more recent work has similarly revealed "small differences between women's and men's coping strategies when studying individuals in similar situations."[38]

In general, such differences as exist indicate that women tend to employ emotion-focused coping and the "tend-and-befriend" response to stress, whereas men tend to use problem-focused coping and the "fight-or-flight" response, perhaps because societal standards encourage men to be more individualistic, while women are often expected to be interpersonal. It is however also important to note that the strictly genetic component of these differences is still debated, and that gender preferences for coping strategies are the result of social conditioning and child-rearing: for instance, males are often encouraged to be independent, while females are expected to comply, which may influence each gender's choice of coping mechanism.[39]


Both men and women sometimes employ maladaptive mechanisms, such as avoidance and self-punishment, to handle daily hassles.[40] Stress is often a primary factor in models of illness and disease;[36] and research has shown that people under extreme amounts of stress often exhibit cognitive deficits, illness, increased levels of depression and anxiety, lower self-esteem, bad health, and lack of sleep.[40]

However, college students of both genders who employ problem-solving strategies have better health and increased self-esteem.[40]


Hormones also play a part in stress management. Cortisol, a stress hormone, was found to be elevated in males during stressful situations. In females, however, cortisol levels were decreased in stressful situations, and instead, an increase in limbic activity was discovered. Many researchers believe that these results underlie the reasons why men administer a fight-or-flight reaction to stress; whereas, females have a tend-and-befriend reaction.[41] The "fight-or-flight" response activates the sympathetic nervous system in the form of increased focus levels, adrenaline, and epinephrine. However, the "tend-and-befriend" reaction refers to the tendency of women to protect their offspring and relatives. Although these two different reactions are generally associated with their respected genders, one should not assume that females cannot implement a "fight-or-flight" behavior or that males cannot implement a "tend-and-befriend" behavior.

See also


  1. ^ E. M. Cummings et al, Life-span Developmental Psychology (1991) p. 92
  2. ^ R. S. Lazarus & S. Folkman, Stress, Appraisal, and Coping (1984) p.141. ISBN 0826141919
  3. ^ a b Weiten, W. & Lloyd, M.A. (2008) Psychology Applied to Modern Life (9th ed.). Wadsworth Cengage Learning. ISBN 0495553395.
  4. ^ Snyder, C.R. (ed.) (1999) Coping: The Psychology of What Works. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195119347.
  5. ^ Zeidner, M. & Endler, N.S. (editors) (1996) Handbook of Coping: Theory, Research, Applications. New York: John Wiley. ISBN 0471599468.
  6. ^ Carver, C. S.; Connor-Smith, J. (2010). "Personality and coping." Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 679 - 704.
  7. ^ J. Worell, Encyclopedia of Women and Gender Vol I (2001) p. 603
  8. ^ Brannon, Linda; Feist, Jess Health Psychology (7th ed.) (2009). Wadsworth Cengage Learning, p. 121
  9. ^ Taylor, S.E. (2006). Health Psychology, international edition. McGraw-Hill Education, pg. 193
  10. ^ Jenifer Robinson, Deeper than Reason (2005) p. 438
  11. ^ a b c Brannon, p. 121
  12. ^ Robinson, p. 438
  13. ^ Robin Skynner; John Cleese, Life and how to survive it (London 1994) p. 55
  14. ^ Jane Madders, Stress and Relaxation (1981) p. 24-5
  15. ^ Skynner/Cleese, p. 53-6
  16. ^ "Adaptive Coping Strategies". Retrieved 25 July 2011. 
  17. ^ Jacofsky, Matthew. "The Maintenance of Anxiety Disorders: Maladaptive Coping Strategies". Retrieved 25 July 2011. 
  18. ^ Stoeber J., Janssen D. P. Perfectionism and coping with daily failures: positive reframing helps achieve satisfaction at the end of the day. Anxiety Stress and Coping (2011, online, Mar 18
  19. ^ H. G Koenig et al, Handbook of Religion and Health (2001) p. 23
  20. ^ Skynner/Cleese, p. 355
  21. ^ Ogbu, J. U. (1991). "Minority coping responses and school experience." Journal of Psychohistory, 18, 433 - 456.
  22. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 41-2 and p. 53
  23. ^ Fenichel, p. 554
  24. ^ Bernard Paris, Horney-Danielson, Karen (1885-1952)
  25. ^ "The Neurotic Needs According to Karen Horney". Retrieved 25 July 2011. 
  26. ^ Boerre, George. "Karen Horney". Retrieved 29 June 2011. 
  27. ^ Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (London 1977) p. 120
  28. ^ a b Boeree, George. "Karen Horney". Retrieved 29 June 2011. 
  29. ^ Karen Horney, New Ways in Psychoanalysis (London 1966) p. 254-5
  30. ^ "Karen Horney". Retrieved 29 June 2011. 
  31. ^ Quoted in Ruth L. Munroe, Schools of Psychoanalytic Thought (1957) p. 101
  32. ^ Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind (Oxford 1987) p. 270
  33. ^ Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) p. 43
  34. ^ Goleman, p. 57
  35. ^ Cummings, p. 93-4
  36. ^ a b Davis, M.C.; Matthews, K.A.; Twamley, E.W. (1999). "Is life more difficult on Mars or Venus? A meta-analytic review of sex differences in major and minor life events." Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 21(1), 83–97.
  37. ^ Billings, Andrew G.; Moos, Rudolf H. (1981). "The role of coping responses and social resources in attenuating life events." Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 4(2), 139–157.
  38. ^ Brannon, p. 125
  39. ^ Washburn-Ormachea, Jill M.; Hillman, Stephen B.; Sawilowsky, Shlomo S. "Gender and gender-role orientation differences on adolescent's coping with peer stressors." Journal of Youth and Adolesence, 33(1), 31–40.
  40. ^ a b c Brougham, Ruby R.; Zail, Christy M.; Mendoza, Celeste M.; Miller, Janine R. (2009). "Stress, sex differences, and coping strategies among college students." Current Psychology, 28, 85–97.
  41. ^ Wang, J.; Korczykowski, M.; Rao, H.; Fan, Y.; Pluta, J. (2007). "Gender difference in neural response to psychological stress." SCAN 2, 227–239.

Further reading

  • Susan Folkman and Richard S. Lazarus, "Coping and Emotion", in Nancy Stein et al. eds., Psychological and Biological Approaches to Emotion (1990)

External links

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