SEMEL INSTITUTE

How Do You Cope?

How People Cope With Stressful Situations

Coping occurs in response to psychological stress—usually triggered by changes—in an effort to maintain mental health and emotional well-being. Life stressors are often described as negative events (the death of a loved one, loss of a job, divorce, etc.); however, positive changes in life (marriage, birth, moving, a new job, etc.) can also constitute life stressors, thus requiring the use of coping skills to adapt. Coping strategies are the behaviors, thoughts, and emotions that you use to adjust to the changes that occur in your life.

Coping Styles

There are many coping styles that people use, and some may prove more effective than others, depending on the nature of the stressful situation and the person who is employing them. Ineffective coping mechanisms, also referred to as maladaptive coping, may also be applied to stressful events or internal conflict, often unconsciously. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are counterproductive.

Among researchers, coping styles are commonly assigned broad categories that draw distinctions between methods. For example, instrumental coping (referred to as problem-solving) focuses on ways to tackle the issue in order to reduce stress around a given situation, while emotion-focused coping gathers tools to nurture one's emotional health during the stressful period. Additionally, coping is identified as being either active or avoidant. Active coping strategies involve an awareness of the stressor, followed by attempts to reduce the negative outcome. By contrast, avoidant coping is characterized by ignoring the issue, often resulting in activities that aid in the denial of the problem (e.g., drinking, sleeping, isolating).

Specific Coping Strategies

Now that we've examined common styles of coping, let us take a look at specific coping strategies:

  • Humor. Pointing out the amusing aspects of the problem at hand, or "positive reframing," is thought to help deal with small failures.
  • Seeking support. Asking for help, or finding emotional support from family members or friends, can be an effective way of maintaining emotional health during a stressful period.
  • Problem-solving. As described above, problem solving is an instrumental coping mechanism that aims to locate the source of the problem and determine solutions. This coping mechanism is often helpful in work situations.
  • Relaxation. Engaging in relaxing activities, or practicing calming techniques, can help to manage stress and improve overall coping.
  • Physical recreation. Regular exercise, such as running, or team sports, is a good way to handle the stress of given situation. This may involve yoga, meditating, progressive muscle relaxation, among other techniques of relaxation.
  • Adjusting expectations. Anticipating various outcomes to scenarios in life may assist in preparing for the stress associated with any given change or event.
  • Denial. Avoidance of the issue altogether may lead to denying that a problem even exists. Denial is usually maintained by distractions, such as excessive alcohol consumption, overworking, or sleeping more than usual.
  • Self-blame. Internalizing the issue, and blaming oneself (beyond just taking responsibility for one's actions), leads to low-self esteem and sometimes depression.
  • Venting. An externalizing coping technique, venting is the outward expression of emotions, usually in the company of friends or family. In moderation it can be healthy; however, ruminating on the negative can lead to strained relationships over time.

How Coping Mechanisms Are Related To Addiction

People who struggle with addictions often employ maladaptive coping mechanisms; some addicts remain in denial (or don’t know how to cope with stress in a healthy way), and others may be blaming themselves for a negative past experience—either of which may lead to using a substance or behavior to escape. The UCLA Dual Diagnosis Clinic can equip addicts with numerous healthy alternatives for coping with stress. Take the first step toward help and make the call now.