What Is Coping?

Coping is anything we do to either change the situation that is causing us stress or to change the way we think and feel about the situation.

Coping mechanisms can be either problem focused or emotion focused.

One of the key issues with stress is that we typically feel out of control because we believe we don’t have the resources to meet the demands of the situation.

One of the cornerstones of coping is recognising what is within our control. Sometimes it will be within our power to alter the situation which is bothering us.

For example, a single father who finds it stressful having to organise both himself and his children before he leaves for work in the mornings may be able to wake up earlier, organise for a childminder to come to the house to help in the mornings or negotiate a later start time at work. These would be examples of problem-focused coping mechanisms.

However he may find that he has implemented some or all of the above and yet one morning he is stuck in traffic due to a road accident. In this situation he may start to worry about what his boss will say if he is late for work and start to feel stressed. However, there is little he can do practically to change the situation since the traffic conditions are not within his control. In this situation he might use emotion focused coping mechanisms.

When people are feeling negative emotions they are more likely to think negative thoughts. Thinking negative thoughts, in turn, intensifies the negative emotions and the body’s physical response.
Recognising unhelpful negative thoughts when we are stressed and consciously changing them can help us to feel better and switch off the body’s stress response.

Likewise, relaxing our bodies can also help us to think more clearly and therefore to feel better.
Engaging in activities which promote positive emotions can also help to relax the body and enable the mind to find more creative solutions to challenges.

positive energy diagram

So the man who is stuck in traffic might catch himself worrying that he will lose his job if he is late and remind himself that this is not likely and that his boss may well be stuck in traffic too. He may take a few moments to slow his breathing and stretch his tense muscles to relax himself physically. He might then sing along to some music he enjoys or find a radio station broadcasting something funny to help to shift himself into a more positive emotional state.

Coping can occur prior to a stressful situation, in which case it is known as anticipatory coping, or as a reaction to a current or past stressor.

Some coping behaviours are successful both at reducing the adverse impact of the current stressor and at promoting long-term health (e.g. exercise and meditation) or reinforcing helpful behaviours (seeking support and time management). These are sometimes referred to as adaptive coping mechanisms.

Other coping strategies may also successfully relieve stress in the short term, but have adverse effects on health and/or reinforce unhelpful behaviours in the long-term e.g. smoking, drinking excessive alcohol and overworking. These are sometimes called maladaptive coping mechanisms.
Some maladaptive coping mechanisms can be self-perpetuating e.g. a shy person avoiding social situations. This reduces the anxiety associated with interacting with others in the short term but also means that the person does not have the opportunity to practise social skills and so perpetuates the shyness.

People who cope well with stress typically use a range of different coping mechanisms. They are good at recognising what is within their control and taking appropriate problem focused steps to resolve the situation. They also tend to be good at recognising when they don’t have external control of a situation and taking appropriate steps to modify their emotional response.

The good news is that coping with stress is a skill that can be learnt and anyone can become better at it with self – awareness, reflection and practise.

The template here is designed for you to develop your own personalised stress management plan. It is completely free to download and you are very welcome to share it with anyone who may find it useful.

If you are really struggling to manage stress on your own there are many professionals who can help you. Your GP may be able to refer you to a counsellor or cognitive behavioural therapist on the NHS although there can be a long wait for these services in some areas.

You might also consider working privately with a counsellor or coach. Alternatively you might learn mindfulness or take up yoga. The important thing is to do something. If stress is making you feel really bad, please take action – there will be something you can do that will help you to feel better.