Coping usually involves adjusting to or tolerating negative events or realities while attempting to maintain your positive self-image and emotional equilibrium. Coping occurs in the context of life changes that are perceived to be stressful. Psychological stress is usually associated with negative life changes, such as losing a job or loved one. However, because all changes require some sort of adaptation, even positive changes, such as getting married or having a child, can be stressful.
Changes are stressful because changes require us to adjust and to adapt. Experiencing too many changes within a brief time period often creates a perception that we are not in control of important events. This perception contributes to low self-esteem and may even contribute to the development of anxiety or depression. In some cases, physical illnesses may develop or be exacerbated when a person's capacity to adapt to change is overwhelmed by too much change.
Coping involves adjusting to unusual demands, or stressors, and thus requires the mobilization of greater effort and the use of greater energy than is required by the daily routines of life. Prolonged mobilization of effort can contribute to elevated levels of stress-related hormones and to eventual physical breakdown and illness.
Stressors that require coping may be acute, such as a change in residence or onset of marital problems. Stressors also occur that are of longer duration, such as chronic pain, chronic illness, or enduring financial problems.
The effect of many acute stressors that occur within a relatively brief period of time may be cumulative and profound. Thus, the individual who experiences a marital separation, the death of an aging parent, and a change in his or her job within a brief period of time may find himself or herself struggling to adjust to maintain his or her physical and emotional health.
What are some common coping strategies?
Some common coping mechanisms include:
- Lowering your expectations
- Asking others to help or assist you
- Taking responsibility for the situation
- Engaging in problem solving
- Maintaining emotionally supportive relationships
- Maintaining emotional composure or, alternatively, expressing distressing emotions
- Challenging previously held beliefs that are no longer adaptive
- Directly attempting to change the source of stress
- Distancing yourself from the source of stress
- Viewing the problem through a religious perspective
Experts agree that coping is a process rather than an event. Thus, an individual may alternate between several of the above coping strategies in order to cope with a stressful event.
Individuals differ in particular styles of coping or preferences for using certain coping strategies over others. These differences in coping styles are usually reflective of differences in personality. Rigidity in coping is less likely to produce a desirable outcome than is flexibility in coping, or being able to fit the most appropriate coping strategy to the demands of different situations.
It should be noted, however, that some situations that require coping are likely to elicit similar coping responses from most people. For example, work-related stressors are more likely to elicit problem-solving strategies. Stressors that are perceived to be changeable are more likely to elicit problem-solving strategies while stressors perceived to be unchangeable are more likely to elicit social support seeking and emotion-focused strategies.
What can we do to protect ourselves against stress and therefore enhance our prospects for successful coping? Perhaps the most important strategy is to maintain emotionally supportive relationships with others. A vast field of research demonstrates that emotional support buffers individuals against the negative impact of stress.
It is especially important to evaluate your overall lifestyle when encountering significant stress. Engaging in stress-reducing activities can also be a helpful overall approach to coping with stressors. Examples include:
- Getting enough good quality sleep
- Eating a well-balanced diet
- Exercising on a regular basis
- Taking brief rest periods during the day to relax
- Taking vacations away from home and work
- Engaging in pleasurable or fun activities every day
- Practicing relaxation exercises such as yoga, prayer, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation
- Avoiding use of caffeine and alcohol