Are you someone who laughs at the most inopportune times?
Perhaps you are a nail-biter, or maybe you even become energized during challenging moments.
Whether you resort to unhealthy behavior or thrive in stressful situations when things become challenging, these are just a few of the countless coping mechanisms individuals may choose or unconsciously exhibit.
These cognitive and behavioral efforts help individuals manage, tolerate, or sometimes reduce stressors. Read on to fill your toolbox with the most effective positive and healthy coping strategies.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you to effectively cope with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
What is the Meaning of ‘Coping’?
Coping is the use of one or various types of mechanisms that are intended to reduce psychological stress (Gurvich et al., 2021).
These dynamic responses may be classified into effective/ ineffective or adaptive/ maladaptive strategies, which we discuss below in great detail.
Much of the literature involving coping identifies two main coping styles: emotion-focused and problem-focused coping styles (Cho, Li, & Goh, 2020; Forster et al., 2022; Kural & Kovacs, 2021).
In contrast, Algorani and Gupta (2021) identify four major coping categories, expanding upon the original two styles with meaning-focused and social coping or support-seeking styles of coping.
Meyerson et al. (2022) and Pang and Thomas (2020) refer to a fifth coping strategy known as avoidance-focused.
Let’s look at all five coping styles.
1. Emotion-Focused Coping Style
This coping style involves reducing the emotions associated with a stressor while avoiding addressing the problem (Van den Brande et al., 2020).
In other words, the aim is to regulate one’s emotional distress by merely altering the emotional response, which may not address the actual stressor. Some assert that emotion-focused coping can be dangerous as it is affiliated with mental health problems through behavioral problems (Yang, 2021).
On the other hand, it may be beneficial to reduce the impact of stressors, which could be more beneficial in the long run for things we do not have the power to change.
If you can’t change the problem, change your outlook.
You receive a notification that they did not select you for the position to which you applied. You decide to take to your journal to reflect on the experience and how you can better prepare for a similar position in the future.
2. Problem-Focused Coping Style
In contrast to emotion-focused coping, Van den Brande et al. (2020) describe problem-focused coping as the “attempt to control work stressors by defining and interpreting them, planning solutions, and choosing a course of action.” (p. 4).
This method of coping is said to be the most effective way to tackle life’s problems; however, problem-focused coping is only effective if the individual has control over the outcome (Zaman & Ali, 2019).
You have studied hard for a quiz using flashcards, but received a poor score. You make a plan to study for the next exam using a different method, such as joining a class study group.
3. Meaning-Focused Coping Style
This particular coping style employs cognitive strategies to process and make sense of the meaning of a situation (Algorani & Gupta, 2021).
Like emotion-focused coping, this strategy is best used when one cannot control the situation (Leipold, Munz, & Michéle-Malkowsky, 2019). Religion, spiritual beliefs, beliefs about justice, values, and existential goals may influence someone’s tendency to exhibit a meaning-focused coping style.
A driver in a hurry realizes that the car he is driving has a flat tire. He may reflect on the meaning of this misfortune and attribute the flat tire to karma or perhaps that he was willed by a higher power to slow down.
4. Social Coping (Support-seeking)
When a person seeks emotional or instrumental support from the community, they are engaging in a social coping or support-seeking coping style (Algorani & Gupta, 2021).
While young children may look for their parents for support, adolescents begin soliciting the support of their peers or themselves (Leipold et al., 2019).
A young woman, amid a complicated divorce, seeks the advice of a close friend who had a similar experience and may offer compassion.
5. Avoidance-Focused Coping Style
An avoidance coping style can be described as avoiding the stressor by pursuing an alternate person or task (Meyerson et al., 2022).
Avoidance coping could also be demonstrated by seeking a distraction. Although this method involves withdrawing or dissociating from a stressful situation, Pang and Thomas (2020) assert that these strategies are related to an individual’s negative functioning.
An employee has been unable to meet his work deadlines, and his supervisor has requested a meeting with him. The employee has not replied to the meeting invitations and has found an alternative route so that he no longer has to walk past his boss’s office.
24 Unhealthy & Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Coping can be classified into maladaptive and adaptive strategies (Ye et al., 2020).
Maladaptive coping strategies comprise behaviors that are avoidance-based and do not ultimately benefit the individual in the long run.
Conversely, adaptive coping strategies are aligned with the stressor and aim to reduce emotional stress.
It is important to note that emotion, problem, meaning, social, and avoidance styles of coping can each be maladaptive & ineffective or adaptive & effective, depending on the outcome.
Let’s look at various scenarios where these coping mechanisms are used in an unhealthy and healthy way.
Unhealthy coping is a mechanism used to prevent stress; however, the results are deleterious to the individual.
The following coping mechanisms have been deemed ineffective and may exacerbate mental health problems. They may also be referred to as ineffective or maladaptive strategies.
1. Unhealthy emotion-focused coping
- Busyness can be defined as actively working and not in leisure time (Bellezza et al., 2017), avoiding dealing with emotions. Constant busyness may hinder your ability to cope with a stressor and be seen as an avoidance coping mechanism.
- Failing to talk about emotions can be a dangerous coping strategy (Blake, 2021). Instead, individuals should replace the suppression with acceptance for more effective coping (Nolasco, Waldman, & Vargo, 2021).
- Toxic positivity is the unhealthy tendency to only see the good side of something and the rejection or denial of stress (Satriopamungka, Yudani, & Wirawan, 2020; Sokal, Trudel, & Babb, 2020). A positive outlook is usually beneficial; however, it can be dangerous if it prevents you from validating your emotions.
2. Unhealthy problem-focused coping
- Over-analyzing the problem and being unable to make a decision can interfere with a stressor and effective coping. Overthinking, or ruminative thoughts, are generally abstract, overgeneralized, and intrusive thoughts (Flaherty et al., 2022) that do not help a situation.
3. Unhealthy meaning-focused coping
- Overthinking, as with over-analyzing, can cause catastrophic thinking. Studies suggest that rumination may predict symptoms such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorders following trauma (Flaherty et al., 2022). Instead, take a reflective approach.
4. Unhealthy social coping
- Isolation from friends and family can be a dangerous coping strategy. A little time to cool off or reflect is okay; however, isolation can be a risk factor for the development and regression of mental health symptoms (Bartel, Sherry, & Stewart, 2020).
- Venting may cause an excessive focus on the issue at hand (Marr, Zainal, & Newman, 2022). Further, ranting to the wrong person may cause additional issues and amplify the problem.
5. Unhealthy avoidance-focused coping
- Substance abuse, such as alcohol or drugs, may be used to avoid a stressful situation negatively (Nevill & Havercamp, 2019; Syed, 2020). The health consequences are destructive, and ultimately, the problem remains unsolved.
- Smoking is equally used to escape the tense situation; however, it is also a harmful practice (Syed, 2020). Again, the problem remains unsolved as with each of the avoidance strategies.
- Denial and behavioral disengagement prevent you from dealing with the stressor (Nevill & Havercamp, 2019), which may have the potential to exacerbate the situation. This may also be called “brushing it under the rug.”
- Impulsive spending is spending money without prior consideration and could also be referred to by some as retail therapy. However, if often repeated, this sudden urge to make purchases could be harmful not only to your pocket but to your underlying stressor as well (Spiteri Cornish, 2020).
- Overeating is the practice of eating a large amount of food and more than the number of calories used in one day. To some, this can bring relief and comfort during a challenging time (Kim et al., 2022. However, there are poor health consequences.
Contrary to overeating but just as disadvantageous, some individuals may under-eat, which is also used to regulate or reduce negative emotions associated with stress (González-Olmo et al., 2022).
- Self-harm is self-injurious behavior that is sometimes used for emotional regulation. Individuals who exercise self-harm report experiencing a release from negative emotions (Smith et al., 2019); however, this method is not effective in problem-solving, nor is it beneficial to one’s physical and mental health.
Finding your coping mechanism – Joseph Lewis
Contrary to unhealthy coping, healthy coping mechanisms may effectively mitigate the nature and impact of these psychological responses (Gurvich et al., 2021).
These methods, which may also be referred to as effective or adaptive strategies for coping, benefit the individual and do not result in damaging consequences.
They include, but are nowhere limited to, the following:
1. Healthy emotion-focused coping
- Cognitive reframing is the positive emotional and/or cognitive appraisal of a stressful situation (Wittlinger et al., 2022). This technique is especially valuable in developing resilience and adapting to adversities.
- Meditation and breathing techniques calm the mind, relax the body, and can change the amygdala (Yuliana, 2021). Often, taking a step back to take a breath and calm your physiological process help make a good decision.
- Journaling can be a therapeutic and reflective practice for individuals facing a challenge. Nückles et al. (2020) assert that practitioners should use writing as a way to develop ideas and examine one’s current understanding of the situation as opposed to direct problem-solving.
- Positive thinking and forgiveness (Kubala, 2022) are effective strategies that directly align with positive psychology. Forgiveness is an adaptive behavior in which an individual reframes a transgression, thus promoting healthy behaviors and contributing to psychological wellbeing (de la Fuente-Anuncibay et al., 2021).
- Laughter is often said to be the best medicine. It can be an outlet for negative emotions and stimulate the physiological system that decreases levels of stress hormones (Mbiriri, 2020). Further, humor eases tensions and improves moods.
2. Healthy problem-focused coping
- Determining an alternative solution is an effective method of handling dilemmas. This process involves the collection of complete information, planning, and coming up with effective decisions to deal with the challenge (Zaman & Ali, 2019). This method may also be made possible by journaling.
3. Healthy meaning-focused coping
- Finding the “good” in a bad situation, similar to positive thinking, can combat negative mental health impacts (Lai et al., 2020). This mindset would be especially beneficial when paired with mindfulness techniques. This method is particularly effective for those with strong religious beliefs.
4. Healthy social coping
- Eliciting the help of a counselor or therapist may be a helpful strategy to get an unbiased perspective. With advances in technology, counseling and therapy are even more readily available through instant messaging and video chats, which provide for anonymity and convenience (Li & Leung, 2020).
- Talking with a trusted friend or colleague may be enough to ease your stress and build stronger connections. Confiding in someone not only allows you to express your emotions, which increases wellbeing, but it increases interpersonal intimacy (Slepian & Moulton-Tetlock, 2019).
5. Healthy avoidance-focused coping
- Controlled distraction, or self-distraction, is an activity that is used to take your mind off a situation (Adasi et al., 2020). These activities may include watching TV, listening to music, shopping, or just picturing yourself in a place you feel comfortable. For example, you may try picturing yourself in your happy place while nervously waiting to deliver a presentation. Of course, it is recommended that any distraction be in moderation.
- Exercise – not only will exercise provide you with an opportunity to walk away from a problem and refocus, but the health benefits of exercise are countless. There is a link between regular physical activity, lower psychological distress, and overall positive neurobiological response (Popov, Sokić, & Stupar, 2021).
As with other coping strategies, it is important that exercise does not become excessive or compulsive. It is possible to have too much of a good thing – even exercise!
How can we employ more adaptive coping strategies?
Research by Skinner and Zimmer-Gembeck (2007) reviewed 44 studies and identified and structured common adaptive coping strategies. From this research, the Adaptive Coping Wheel was developed by our very own Hugo Alberts, Ph.D., and can be found in our Positive Psychology Toolkit©.
By reflecting on four key questions, we can elicit over 21 different types of adaptive coping strategies. But how can we use this wheel in our everyday lives?
Let’s consider coming home after a tough day. Instead of falling into a web of self-pity by binging Netflix, we can ask ourselves, “how can I comfort myself in a better way?” In answering this question, we realize talking to someone may help us feel better.
This is just one example of how the Adaptive Coping Wheel can help us better deal with problems. The wheel is a reminder of different strategies that can help us effectively cope with a situation.
Does Resilience Improve Coping Abilities?
In short, absolutely yes, resiliency improves one’s ability to cope!
Resiliency is a character trait that allows an individual to cope with or overcome perceived stress and adversities (Connor & Davidson, 2003; Luthar & Zigler, 1991; Ye et al., 2020).
Said another way, it is the ability to adapt and persevere through adverse experiences (Nevill & Havercamp, 2019).
Further, attributional and explanatory styles may affect a person’s choice of coping style. For instance, an optimistic explanatory style results in many positive life outcomes (Jose et al., 2018).
Therefore, someone who encompasses this style or an optimistic attributional style may turn to effective coping styles.
For more on the fascinating terms, please refer to our article What are Attributional and Explanatory styles in Psychology?
Resilience Resources from PositivePsychology.com
PositivePsychology.com has an excellent selection of resources to improve resilience, and foremost is the Realizing Resilience Masterclass©. This is a 6-module training template for practitioners and includes all the materials you need to deliver science-based resilience training.
If you are looking for more of a scientific approach to coping, including information concerning the Coping Wheel, you will want to explore our article entitled The Science of Coping: 10+ Strategies & Skills.
Do you think you may be exhibiting maladaptive coping mechanisms? Review this article to determine if your coping is harmful and how to cease the pattern: Maladaptive Coping.
Our article Humor in Psychology: Coping and Laughing Your Woes Away may interest you if you agree that laughter is the best medicine.
If you are searching for helpful worksheets to use with your clients, Coping Skills Worksheets for Adults and Youth will be an excellent resource.
A Take-Home Message
In this piece, we explored various coping styles, described different kinds of coping mechanisms and skills, and provided a multitude of coping ideas.
Stress is everywhere and unavoidable. Ultimately, we hope these strategies will benefit both you and your clients and lead to better stress management, as improved stress management will lead to happier, healthier lifestyles.
Perhaps, you may even be able to turn stressors around into positive self-growth.
What is your experience with coping? Do you have a preferred coping style? Can you share additional coping strategies? Let us know in the comments!
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.
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What our readers think
The article is very informative and helpful.
I have been married for 2 years and six months.
My husband has 2 children from a previous marraige(not his own).
He does not work , I am the sole breadwinner. And this means he stays at home with the kids.
And will ask them do stuff for and with him.
From the start of the marraige t, henhas always relied on the children to do everything dor and with him.
I feel that i am not missed, valued or supported by him and this causes a lot of tension in the house.
He sees it as being jealous.
I have asked him for councelling but he said I have to go alone and He has to do counceling alone.
I cant cope anymore. And i normally lash out, cry then see the children as enemy.
What can i try to do cope…. to save my marraige.
I’m sorry to read that you’ve been struggling with your marriage, but good on you for seeking support.
I’ll note that this comment section is no substitute for the support of a professional counsellor who is trained in the appropriate methods to support you. I believe this is the best thing you can do to support yourself in your efforts to cope, even if you must do so alone. That way, you can share your concerns with someone who can listen, validate your experience, and provide guidance regarding your marriage — I imagine this could be a huge relief for you. You can find a directory of licensed therapists and counsellors here.
In the meantime, consider speaking with others you trust about your feelings, such as your family or friends, and they can hopefully provide you with validation and support too.
I sincerely wish you all the best, and take care.
– Nicole | Community Manager
Great article Thank you
I am frustrated about my course. Every time I go to class, it’s like the lecturers are speaking things which I don’t know where they come from, or what they are supposed to do. Class after class.
But when exams come, I don’t know what to do. I feel like I should study, but there are so many things they talk about, its overwhelming looking for information. I feel like a failure. This is because I feel like I don’t have any skills or knowledge. Both of the course, and in general. I love programming, which is not the core of what I’m studying, but everything I’m currently is just so frustrating (because I don’t know what to do).
Whenever I’m in class, I just feel like leaving. I’m constantly thinking of other things, because the classes are not engaging. But when the class is over and we are out, there’s nothing to do, because I am not motivated to study, or to even do anything. Everything has lost it’s excitement. There’s no purpose anymore.
Amazing to find so many points I recognize and have gone through in the past and recently. I lost my Husband almost 2 years ago, (he passed away suddenly) and dealing with the constraints of COVID-19 regulations, some of the basic things we take for granted have been taken away. Coping mechanisms are something I have advocated for many years having learned to use them when suffering with Post Viral Depression over 30 years ago.