“Life’s not fair.”
How I hated hearing that as a kid. It was a phrase trotted out by my father (and probably fathers everywhere) whenever I complained about something not going my way.
I especially hated when my brother was allowed to do something I wasn’t, or when he received some kind of treat that I didn’t get.
I would whine, “But that’s not fair!”
My father would always respond with, “Well, life’s not fair.”
At the time, I had little appreciation for the underlying truth in this most basic of statements.
Now, looking back, I see what he was trying to do – he wanted to prepare me for a life in which I would be disappointed, many times over.
The truth is, no matter how great your life may be, you will eventually deal with disappointments, setbacks, failures, and even loss and trauma. Everyone must face difficult situations, and everyone must come up with effective ways to deal with and bounce back from these situations.
This is why coping is a vital human behavior, one that is necessary for successfully navigating through the challenging and often murky obstacle course that is life.
What is Coping? A Working Definition
You likely already have an idea of what coping is – it’s a common concept in the general public. However, like most concepts and constructs, there is a definition of coping as it is understood in psychological literature that you may not know.
According to the Psychology Glossary at alleydog.com:
“Coping refers to the human behavioral process for dealing with demands, both internal or external, in situations that are perceived as threats.”
This is a good start, although to fully understand coping we probably need to expand what we think of as “threats.”
In the case of coping, threats are not the only situations in which we are in physical danger, but also situations in which a piece of our self is in danger. The ego is frequently the piece in danger, along with our sense of self, our very identity, our worldview, and our inner beliefs or faith.
These threats manifest in a wide range of situations, from dealing with a romantic rejection to dealing with the loss of your spouse. The more serious the threat, the more effective the coping must be.
Renowned stress and coping researcher Richard Lazarus works off of a slightly different definition of coping:
“Coping refers to cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage (master, reduce, or tolerate) a troubled person-environment relationship.” (Folkman & Lazarus, 1985, p. 152)
This definition of coping is a more comfortable one for psychologists. Instead of unpacking the concept of “threats,” we can simply view coping as something that follows a stressful, or “troubled” situation.
Taking elements from both definitions, we can use the following common understanding of coping:
“Coping refers to cognitive and behavioral strategies that people use to deal with stressful situations or difficult demands, whether they are internal or external.”
The internal/external distinction is an important one to make.
Sometimes we need to cope with things that happen to us, and other times we must cope with things that happen within us. Some events may require us to deal with both internal and external demands.
For example, losing your job would be an external demand. Something difficult or stressful has happened to you, and you find ways to cope with the challenges that losing your job brings.
On the other hand, dealing with depression would be an internal demand. While there is no traumatic external event to deal with, you have to address the internal challenges presented by depression.
Luckily, coping skills are generally not segregated by internal vs. external demands. Good coping skills can cover a wide range of challenges!
One last thing to note about coping skills or coping mechanisms: they are not the same thing as defense mechanisms.
Coping mechanisms are used to manage or deal with stress, while defense mechanisms are generally unconscious processes that people are unaware they are using (Good Therapy, 2016). For example, projection is a defense mechanism that involves seeing unsavory aspects of yourself in others.
Types of Coping Skills
Speaking of coping skills, there are a few things to note before we move on to the actual skills you can use to deal with life’s challenges.
Not all coping skills are created equally!
One of the distinctions between different kinds of coping skills is based on your main focus or main concern during coping.
There are two coping strategies based on the different areas of focus:
- Problem-Focused Strategy
Those using a problem-focused coping strategy will focus on the problem itself, attempting to tackle the root cause of distress. Examples include analyzing the situation, working harder, applying what you have already learned in your daily life, and talking to someone that has a direct impact on the situation.
- Emotion-Focused Strategy
Those using an emotion-focused coping strategy will focus their energy on dealing with their feelings rather than the problem itself. In this case, you may use mechanisms like brooding, imagining or magical thinking, avoiding or denying, blaming, or seeking social support (Centre for Studies on Human Stress, n.d.).
It may seem like the emotion-focused strategy is simply ignoring the problem, but this strategy is an important one. Sometimes we are not able to change our situation or influence the problem we are experiencing, and in these cases, it is essential to focus on what we can control – ourselves.
Another important distinction between coping styles is the goal that is being worked towards.
The two coping styles based on goal are:
- Active Coping
This type of coping involves an awareness of the problem or situation causing stress and conscious attempts to either reduce the resulting stress, eliminate the source of the stress, or both.
- Avoidant Coping
Avoidant coping may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of the problem, but there are no active attempts to reduce stress or eliminate the problem. Instead, those engaging in avoidant coping will ignore or avoid the problem altogether. They may be aware that there is a problem or they may be in denial about the problem (Good Therapy, 2016).
In this case, active coping is clearly the better strategy. However, there may be situations where avoidant coping is helpful. It certainly helps the person deal with their stress in the short term, and can be a good choice if the person is at risk of being completely overwhelmed.
In the long term, avoidant coping will never be the best strategy for effectively dealing with stress. Coping methods like avoidant coping may work for a time, but eventually, they will become counterproductive or produce unintended consequences (Good Therapy, 2016).
In addition to the previously noted distinctions, you can categorize different kinds of coping mechanisms by type:
- Adaptive Mechanisms
Mechanisms in these groups are positive mechanisms that help people effectively deal with their stress.
- Attack Mechanisms
These mechanisms attempt to displace the stress or discomfort a person is feeling onto another person or people.
- Avoidance Mechanisms
As the name implies, these mechanisms involve avoiding the issues that are causing stress.
- Behavioral Mechanisms
Behavioral coping mechanisms are attempts to change what the person does in order to more effectively deal with their stress.
- Cognitive Mechanisms
Unlike behavioral mechanisms, cognitive mechanisms involve a person trying to change the way he or she thinks in order to deal with stress.
- Conversion Mechanisms
These coping mechanisms are attempts to change or transform the problem into something else (e.g., focusing on the positive to make it a positive situation instead of a stressful one).
- Defense Mechanisms
These refer to the original set of defense mechanisms outlined by Freud. Some of these mechanisms are generally agreed to be accurate descriptions of the mechanisms people use, while others have little evidence to support them.
- Self-Harm Mechanisms
These are the least effective of coping mechanisms, as they result in harm to ourselves (Changing Moods, n.d.).
Finally, the most important distinction between coping mechanisms or styles is simply whether they are healthy or unhealthy.
Unhealthy coping can fall into any of the categories or groups noted above, although unhealthy coping tends to fall into the avoidant category and the attack, avoidance, defense, or self-harm groups.
In general, unhealthy coping will actually create stress or anxiety and damage self-confidence (Boyes, 2013).
The website Changing Minds (n.d.) lists many coping styles and methods that are generally unhealthy or can be unhealthy, including:
- Acting out – not coping, but giving in to pressure to misbehave (especially in children)
- Avoidance – mentally or physically avoiding potential sources of stress
- Denial – refusing to acknowledge the problem
- Displacement – shifting of intended action to a safer target
- Dissociation – separating oneself from parts of your life
- Distancing – moving away from the problem
- Emotionality – outbursts and extreme emotion
- Fantasy – escaping reality into a world of possibility
- Help-Rejecting Complaining – asking for help but rejecting it
- Idealization – playing up the good points and ignoring limitations of things desired
- Intellectualization – avoiding emotion by focusing on facts and logic (can be destructive if emotions are completely ignored)
- Passive Aggression – avoiding refusal by passive avoidance
- Performing Rituals – patterns that delay dealing with the real problem
- Projection – seeing your own unwanted feelings or characteristics in others
- Provocation – getting others to react so you can retaliate
- Rationalization – creating logical reasons for bad behavior
- Regression – returning to a child state to avoid problems
- Repression – subconsciously hiding uncomfortable thoughts
- Self-harming – intentionally physically damaging the body
- Somatization – psychological problems turned into physical symptoms
- Trivializing – making small what is really something big
These mechanisms may manifest as many different activities that do not contribute to the healthy and effective management of one’s problems. Some of these methods manifest in unhealthy habits like:
- Consuming too much caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, etc.)
- Drinking to excess
- Compulsive spending
- Emotional eating (Scott, 2017)
Other unhealthy coping methods may be acted out through:
- Avoiding actions that trigger painful memories from the past.
- Trying to “stay under the radar” to keep their “defects” from being found.
- Avoiding reality testing your thoughts, especially if you’re scared of the results.
- Trying to avoid the potential for people being mad at you because you are anxious about rejection.
- The tendency to stop working on a goal when an anxiety-provoking thought comes up (like “This is too hard.”).
- Avoiding feeling awkward whenever you can, to the point of pathologically avoiding awkwardness.
- Avoiding starting a task if you don’t know how you’re going to finish it.
- Avoiding certain physical sensations, especially to avoid panic attacks.
- Avoiding entering certain situations that may trigger thoughts like “I’m not the best – other people are better than me” (Boyes, 2013).
Finally, this web pageon coping and student success lists some of the other ways people may cope in destructive ways:
- Acting violently
- Yelling at someone
- Not eating for long periods of time
- Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
- Drinking lots of coffee
- Smoking tobacco
- Kicking something
- Throwing something
- Driving too fast in a car (or another vehicle)
- Pacing up and down
- Biting your fingernails
- Taking tranquilizers
- Taking Valium or other drugs
These coping mechanisms are all distinct ways to deal with one’s problems, but they all result in added stress, pain, or difficulty. Some of them may help in the short-term, but practiced over a long period of time, they will not help the individual effectively deal with their problems or reduce their stress.
On the flip side, positive coping refers to coping styles or mechanisms that result in less stress, increased well-being, and effective handling of one’s problems. Often, positive coping involves changing one’s perspective or reframing the situation to view it as an opportunity instead of a problem (Changing Works, n.d.). Positive coping generally requires a certain level of maturity and an ability to accept one’s own faults without resorting to self-blame.
It is possible to come out of stressful and difficult situations with greater ability to deal with stress and enhanced capacity for turning the negative into the positive – and positive coping is how this can be accomplished.
Positive coping styles include:
- Immediate problem-solving, to fix the immediate cause of the stress
- Root-cause solving, or seeking to fix the underlying problem for good
- Benefit-finding, or looking for the good amidst the bad
- Spiritual growth, finding ways to turn the problem into a way to grow spiritually or emotionally (Changing Works, n.d.)
Mechanisms that can contribute to this positive coping include:
- Adaptation – the human ability to adapt to different situations
- Aim Inhibition – lowering one’s sights to what seems more achievable
- Altruism – helping others to help the self
- Compartmentalization – separating conflicting thoughts into separated compartments
- Compensation – making up for a weakness in one area by gaining strength in another
- Conversion – subconscious conversion of stress into physical symptoms
- Crying – tears of release and seeking comfort
- Identification – copying others to take on their characteristics
- Post-Traumatic Growth – using the energy of trauma for good
- Sublimation – channeling psychic energy into acceptable activities
- Substitution – replacing one thing for another
Not all of these mechanisms are necessarily positive, but they can be used in either positive or negative ways, and using them in positive ways may result in effective coping and personal growth.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms and Tools
You may be looking at these coping methods and styles and thinking, “But how do I translate these into activities that actually relieve stress?”
Luckily, there are many ways to put these methods and styles for effective use.
A great source of positive coping ideas comes from this web page dedicated to student success, which includes learning how to positively and effectively cope.
Positive coping activities include:
- Engaging in progressive muscle relaxation
- Listening to music
- Aerobic exercise
- Watching television
- Going to the movies
- Working on puzzles or playing games
- Going for a leisurely walk
- Going to a health club
- Relaxing in a steam room or sauna
- Spending time alone
- Going fishing or hunting
- Participating in some form of recreational activity you enjoy
- Doing some yard work
- Socializing with friends
- Sitting outside and relaxing
- Engaging in a hobby you enjoy
In addition to these positive coping mechanisms, self-care is a valuable method of coping with stress. There are many ways to practice self-care, but some of the most popular types of self-care activities include:
- Sensory self-care
o Getting a breath of fresh air
o Snuggling under a cozy blanket
o Listening to running water
o Sitting outdoors by a fire pit
o Taking a hot shower or a warm bath
o Getting a massage
o Cuddling with a pet
o Paying attention to your breathing (practicing mindfulness /meditation)
o Burning a scented candle
o Walking through tall grass in bare feet
o Staring up at the sky
o Lying down where the afternoon sun streams in through a window
o Listening to music
o Taking yourself out to eat
o Being a tourist in your own city
o Watching a movie
o Making art, or doing a craft project
o Walking your dogs (or going to a shelter to walk dogs without a family)
o Going for a photo walk (taking photos on your walk)
- Mental / Mastery
o Cleaning out a junk drawer or a closet
o Taking action (one small step) on something you’ve been avoiding
o Trying a new activity
o Driving to a new place
o Making a list
o Immersing yourself in a crossword puzzle
o Doing a word search
o Reading something on a topic you normally wouldn’t
o Attending church
o Reading poetry or inspiring quotes
o Lighting a candle
o Writing in a journal
o Spending time in nature
o Listing five things you’re grateful for
o Accepting your feelings / being okay with your feelings
o Writing your feelings down
o Crying when you need to
o Laughing when you can ( laughter yoga may help!)
o Practicing self-compassion
o Trying yoga
o Going for a walk or a run
o Going for a bike ride
o Ensuring you get enough sleep
o Taking a nap
o Going on a lunch date with a good friend
o Calling a friend on the phone
o Participating in a book club
o Joining a support group (Markway, 2014)
Finally, this list of positive coping strategies from Australia’s Reach Out organization includes some great ways to deal with stress, especially stress relating to mental health issues:
- Asking a trusted friend or family member for help and support, or sharing your thoughts with someone you trust.
- Writing down or journaling how you feel.
- Prioritizing self-care (like exercising, meditating, and listening to music).
- Taking time out from situations that make you feel stressed or angry.
- Using positive self-talk to overcome negative thought patterns.
- Reducing your load, whether that load is physical, mental, or both.
- Considering the big picture – will the situation you’re dealing with really matter in the long run?
- Learning to forgive, which will help you move on from negative feelings like resentment, hurt, and anger.
- Honing your communication skills to halt conflict from escalating.
- Building your optimism to focus on the positive.
- Practicing gratitude, even if it’s only five minutes a day to identify three good things from your day.
While this section has provided dozens of different ways to positively cope with your problems, it is hardly an exhaustive list. You know yourself better than anyone else could, and you know what activities or practices would help you when you’re feeling overwhelmed or especially blue.
Maybe you enjoy working out, in which case there are dozens of different ways to work on your fitness. Perhaps you are more of an intellectual type – luckily, there are more books in the world than anyone could read in a hundred lifetimes. If you’re a social butterfly, try any number of activities that are done in groups.
There are nearly infinite ways to help you deal with your stress and pain, it’s simply a matter of finding which ones work for you, and in which situations they are most effective.
A Take Home Message
In this piece, we defined coping, described different kinds of coping styles and methods, and listed dozens of examples of ways to positively address your stress.
My hope is that at least a few of these coping mechanisms are new additions to your coping skill repertoire. While dealing with stress, pain, and suffering is unavoidable in this life, being dragged down by these situations is not. Believe in your own ability to deal with stress, give a couple of these coping mechanisms a try, and see if you can turn a negative situation into an opportunity for positive growth.
What are your thoughts on coping? Did we miss any valuable coping mechanisms? Which ones work best for you? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and happy coping!