Have you ever watched in amazement as a family member or acquaintance overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles with strength and courage?
Coping with life’s challenges is what epic history is made of. Abraham Lincoln overcame crippling depression, then called melancholia, to become president of the United States.
What choices did Lincoln make that changed his life trajectory?
Is it possible to think of adversity as an opportunity to rise above it and become what you were made to be?
Deepak Chopra said, “When you make a choice, you change the future” (as cited in Franklin, 2019, p. 107).
Perhaps these amazing people decided to build up their healthy coping mechanisms before a crisis hit.
This article will examine healthy coping mechanisms and the strategies needed to cope effectively with adversity and challenges.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you the tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.
According to Algorani and Gupta (2021, p. 1), coping is described as “thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations.”
Coping is a cognitive and behavioral adaptation that reduces unpleasant emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger regardless of emotional intensity (Stallman, 2020).
Adaptive coping strategies include actions and behaviors such as active planning and positive reframing to work through stress, resulting in improved outcomes (Gloria & Steinhardt, 2016). In contrast, maladaptive strategies, such as denial, venting, and substance abuse, often result in undesirable consequences.
Some healthy coping strategies include self-soothing, various self-relaxing or distracting activities, and support through social interactions or professional help.
Hope supports coping
Susan Folkman embarked on a study of the relationship between coping and hope. She looked at the consequences of hopelessness, stating it can result in “a dire state that gives rise to despair, depression, and ultimately loss of the will to live” (Folkman, 2010, p. 901).
Folkman (2010, p. 901) posits that hope is not an “automatically self-renewing resource.” Instead, she says hope must be nurtured and have something from which to spring and something to spring toward.
Snyder et al. (2005, p. 257) posit, “hopeful thought reflects the belief that one can find pathways to desired goals and become motivated to use those pathways.”
Pathways thinking denotes one’s ability to generate effective means to achieve their desired goals. This thinking is often signified by affirming self-talk (Snyder et al., 2005).
High-hope people perceive themselves as able to find alternative ways to reach their goals and are quite effective at doing it.
Thus, the appraisal of the stressor is integral to forming a coping response. Then, outcomes are determined by the degree of control over the result and the person’s physical, psychological, material, and spiritual resources.
Coping and hope are dynamic and reciprocal (Folkman, 2010). Coping is critical to fostering hope when confronted with a threat, and hope is at a low ebb. In turn, hope can sustain coping as the threat is dealt with.
How to Foster Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Few people possess the natural gifts necessary to navigate stress and trauma adeptly.
Often, unproductive coping strategies are learned by watching others with limited skills.
Let’s look at ways to foster healthy coping mechanisms.
Coping and positive emotions
In Positivity, Barbara L. Fredrickson discusses personal upward spirals. She says, “People who enjoyed more positivity in their lives were more able to cope with adversity in an open-minded way. They saw more solutions” (Fredrickson, 2009, p. 61).
She posits that openness is the gateway to finding solutions that aid coping. This, in turn, strengthens positivity, creating a bidirectional relationship. This upward spiral, triggered by positivity consisting of a range of positive emotions such as appreciation, joy, love, gratitude, and more, also leads to other positive outcomes (Fredrickson, 2009).
Fredrickson’s (2009, p. 62) work showed “upward spirals–fueled by positivity–and linked them not only to changes in open-minded coping but also to changes in all kinds of effective ways to cope with trying times.”
According to Fredrickson, daily practices that foster positivity include the following:
Find positive meaning.
Count your blessings.
Follow your passions.
Apply your strengths.
Connect with others.
Connect with nature.
Open your mind.
Open your heart.
Resilience levels can be boosted by raising positivity ratios, which happens when one is more open minded in the face of hardship.
Let’s look at coping and resilience.
Resilience affects stress and anxiety
Gloria and Steinhardt’s (2016, p. 146) research revealed “evidence showing that individual resilience can moderate the impact of stress on anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
Greater frequencies of positive emotions improve our ability to see a broader range of possibilities for coping, enabling us to address stress, thereby achieving greater levels of resilience more effectively (Gloria & Steinhardt, 2016).
Gloria and Steinhardt concluded that there is a positive correlation between positive emotions and resilience and that healthy coping strategies partially served as a bridge linking the two.
Let’s look at some specific positive coping strategies.
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6 Types of Positive Coping Strategies: A List
A comprehensive approach to anxiety and stress recovery can include life dimensions such as the physical, mental, emotional, whole self (self-esteem), behavioral, interpersonal, or existential and spiritual (Bourne, 2015).
Below are various healthy coping mechanisms including the dimensions in which they are helpful.
1. Relaxation – Physical, mental, emotional, existential, and spiritual
Relaxation isn’t just unwinding in front of the television. Effective relaxation is a regular, daily practice of deep relaxation, which refers to a “distinct psychological state that is the exact opposite of the way your body reacts under stress” (Bourne, 2015, p. 88).
Relaxation has many benefits, including decreased heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, muscle tension, and analytical thinking. In addition, relaxation helps with anxiety, cumulative stress, energy, concentration, insomnia, and psychosomatic disorders such as headaches, asthma, and ulcers (Bourne, 2015).
Relaxation ideas include abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, yoga, listening to calming music, grounding, physical exercise, and time management such as regularly scheduled downtime (Bourne, 2015).
This guided meditation is highly recommended and is often used to start classes if students are stressed.
Guided meditation "5 minutes off" by PeacefulPause.com - Ovia
Coping statements are directed toward anxious feelings, whereas positive self-talk involves “writing down and rehearsing positive statements that directly refute or invalidate your negative self-talk” (Bourne, 2015, p. 195).
It helps the client see thinking errors that accompany negative self-talk. Positive self-talk is best when it’s personal, positive, powerful, and present. It helps dispute thoughts that are neither true nor evidenced-based.
4. Community support – Interpersonal, behavioral, emotional
Talking to an empathetic, supportive person can help clients feel safe and validated (Bourne, 2015).
5. Attitude and outlook – Emotional, mental, existential, spiritual
Strategies that affect our mindset include seeking enjoyment, laughter, and humor. Other techniques include positive thinking, gratitude, reframing, and a realistic perspective of the situation (Finlay et al., 2021).
6. Religious practices – Emotional, existential, spiritual
Religious traditions include prayer, reading scripture, and watching or participating in faith services (Finlay et al., 2021).
This insightful article provides a comprehensive analysis of coping styles including emotion-focused, problem-focused, meaning-focused, social, and avoidance-focused coping.
Adaptive Coping Strategies
Even if you’re not in crisis now, there’s a strong chance you’ll encounter one in the future.
We can choose to think now about how to prepare for it. Consider the following concepts.
Coping is a critical point of entry that can protect mental and physical health in the face of harm (Frydenberg, 2020).
Proactive coping involves the “appraisal of demands as challenges and consists of active coping, self-efficacy, anticipatory behavior, and planning and utilizing social resources” (Frydenberg, 2020, p. 88).
Crucial aspects of healthy development in coping include positive appraisal of the stressor and supportive environments (Frydenberg, 2020). This is the person who views a life-changing diagnosis as an opportunity for growth and surrounds themself with supportive people.
Coping and awe
This alternative strategy includes nurturing feelings of awe to cope with future stressful events.
Awe can be cultivated through natural wonders and landscapes, paranormal phenomena, art, and artifacts (Sun et al., 2023). It is an emotional state that arises when we are exposed to something vast, immense, and beyond our current worldview.
Awe inspires the realization that there is something larger or more powerful than the self, causing an adjustment to existing beliefs.
The process produces what the authors call the small self, reducing the focus on the self in light of the vastness of the new stimuli. The result is a new appraisal, shifting attention from self to more extraordinary things, thus alleviating negative emotions (Sun et al., 2023).
Coping ahead is a skill within Dialectical Behavior Therapy. Coping ahead helps clients expect and plan for emotional circumstances associated with stressful situations (Linehan, 2015).
Cope ahead skills include awareness of an upcoming situation and the anticipated uncomfortable emotions. The client decides which coping mechanism to use to deal with the situation and vividly imagines themselves managing effectively. This YouTube video walks you through the process.
DBT emotion regulation #10: coping ahead
2 Real-Life Examples of Positive Coping Skills
Below are two inspirational people who have overcome extreme odds using positive coping strategies.
Tabatha Doherty was diagnosed at birth with complex congenital heart disease. Her heart was positioned on the right side of the chest instead of the left, along with other complications.
At two weeks old, Tabatha endured her first heart surgery. She has undergone seven surgeries and countless medical procedures. Her journey is detailed in medical journals, including her experience as a Fontan patient (Goff et al., 2000).
As a child, she was limited in her physical activities, so she coped through religion and distractions such as television and movies.
As an adult, Tabatha has accumulated an impressive coping toolbox that includes compartmentalization, humor, and travel. She has fought back after surgeries to enjoy hobbies such as paddle boarding and yoga.
She is also a firm believer in community support. This includes spending time with family and friends and working to overcome the limitations of HIPAA laws that prohibit her and others with similar conditions from connecting and creating a supportive community.
Tabatha uses deep breathing throughout her day and during stressful times and recommends it as a coping mechanism. Her breath is a miracle to those who know her.
John Bienvenu was diagnosed with stage four aggressive brain cancer at age 28. At diagnosis, doctors gave him only a few months to live.
He woke up from surgery, and his son was placed on his lap. He then decided to keep going to show his son how to live.
His family decided that despite radiation and chemotherapy, they would live each day as if it were exceptional. They refused to accept the diagnosis and focused on hope and religion.
Although only 5% of people with glioblastoma survive five or more years, John’s scans remain cancer free six years out. John defines his purpose as showing “others that love triumphs above all else” (Begnaud et al., 2023, p. 1).
6 Healthy Coping Worksheets
Below are worksheets that help clients cope.
Some worksheets are complementary to the adaptive coping strategies mentioned above. Working on these will help create healthy coping habits before a crisis hits.
1. Coping Stressors and Resources
This Coping Stressors and Resources worksheet helps clients identify past, current, and anticipated sources of stress and anxiety. They can then create a plan to cope effectively. It works well with coping ahead, as discussed above.
2. Coping With Stress
The Coping With Stress worksheet is a two-part plan for identifying triggers that can then be linked to strategies. Once triggers are identified, clients recognize the impact these triggers have and find new, adaptive coping strategies.
3. Anchor Breathing
This Anchor Breathing worksheet is a simple seven-step process that is easy for anyone to follow and can be used for those just beginning breathwork.
Using the analogy of a boat anchored in the water, clients begin breathwork to focus on and attach to a calm and happy place.
4. Positive Replacement Thoughts
Mindsets are crucial when we’re dealing with stressors. This Positive Replacement Thoughts worksheet walks clients through taking control of negative thought spirals.
Awareness of critical and negative thoughts becomes an opportunity to practice this skill by identifying and writing down countering positive thoughts or people, resulting in changed feelings and moods.
This is a great exercise to incorporate whenever negative or self-critical thoughts affect our mood.
5. Managing Panic
The Managing Panic worksheet encourages clients to identify common anxiety-related patterns and triggers.
This worksheet walks clients through identifying thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that lead to panic attacks.
6. Adopting a Growth Mindset
Adopting a growth mindset helps clients reframe stressful situations into opportunities to learn and grow, allowing them to cope better.
The Adopting a Growth Mindset worksheet works well with proactive coping in that both encourage a reappraisal of the stressor as an opportunity for growth and change.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
PositivePsychology.com offers a variety of resources to help clients cope with difficult situations. Below are just a few.
Realizing Resilience – A coaching masterclass
Why do some people endure and even thrive during challenging situations? This coaching masterclass looks at resilient people who bounce back from and adapt well throughout adversity.
In this six-module course, participants learn the foundations of resilience and the skills and abilities that promote resilience. This masterclass is an excellent resource for clients learning to cope and seek positive outcomes.
Coping Skills Inventory
The Coping Skills Inventory provides clients with six coping strategies that can be applied to deal with stressful situations.
This exercise provides specific coping skills to use and encourages participants to identify which stressful situations the skills can be applied to. Several of the skills have been outlined in this article. Also included are a couple of pleasant surprise strategies.
Making use of healthy coping mechanisms can help us thrive despite life’s challenges, pandemics, and ill health. We have a range of excellent articles that look at coping from different angles, and you might be interested in any of the following.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, check out this collection of 17 validated resilience and coping exercises. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.
A Take-Home Message
Often, we have no control over the circumstances that affect our lives and leave us seemingly paralyzed. We must adapt, make decisions, and change to get through it.
Everyday choices define who we are.
Knowing adversity will come and choosing to think of it as an opportunity or challenge provides a safe space and the impetus to begin establishing daily practices that support healthy coping mechanisms.
The time and effort invested now can spare you from unnecessary stress and anxiety.
Algorani, E. B., & Gupta, V. (2021). “Coping mechanisms.” StatPearls. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559031/.
Begnaud, D., Novak, A., & Weicher, C. (2023, July 21). Beating the odds: Glioblastoma patient thriving 6 years after being told he had 6 months to live. CBS News. Retrieved July 11, 2023, from https://www.cbsnews.com/amp/news/glioblastoma-patient-thriving-6-years-after-being-told-6-months-to-live-beating-the-odds/.
Bourne, E. J. (2015). The anxiety & phobia workbook. New Harbinger.
Finlay, J. M., Kler, J. S., O’Shea, B. Q., Eastman, M. R., Vinson, Y. R., & Kobayashi, L. C. (2021, April). Coping during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative study of older adults across the United States. Frontiers in Public Health, 9.
Folkman, S. (2010). Stress, coping, and hope. Psycho-Oncology, 19(9), 901–908.
Franklin, M. (2019). The HeART of laser-focused coaching: A revolutionary approach to masterful coaching. Thomas Noble Books.
Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3-to-1 ratio that will change your life. Harmony/Rodale.
Frydenberg, E. (2020). Coping research: Historical background, links with emotion, and new research directions on adaptive processes. Australian Journal of Psychology, 66(2), 82–92.
Gloria, C. T., & Steinhardt, M. A. (2016). Relationships among positive emotions, coping, resilience and mental health. Stress and Health, 32(2), 145–156.
Goff, D. A., Blume, E. D., Guavreau, K., Mayer, J. E., Lock, J. E., & Jenkins, K. J. (2000). Clinical outcomes of fenestrated Fontan patients after closure: The first 10 years. Circulation, 102(17), 2094–2099.
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT skills training manual. Guilford Press.
Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2005). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 257–276). Oxford University Press.
Stallman, H. M. (2020). Healthy theory of coping. Australian Psychologist, 55(4), 295–306.
Sun, Z., Hou, Y., Song, L., Wang, K., & Yuan, M. (2023). The buffering effect of awe on negative emotions in self-threatening situations. Behavioral Sciences, 13(1), 44.
About the author
Dr. Chris Wilson holds a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution and specializes in relationships, boundaries, and self-limiting mindsets as a coach. She’s passionate about people and partners with them to figure out how to change what isn't working and move toward a life of fulfillment.