Common Coping Strategies

When we are dealing with a personal or interpersonal problem, ‘coping’ means to invest effort to manage these situations, or even just with life in general. We develop coping strategies to tolerate and overcome the stress and conflict that inevitably pops up.

There are academic debates about the differences between ‘defences’ and ‘copings’, and many scientists believe that the main difference is that defences are unconscious, while copings are conscious strategies in which there is a moment of choice before the action. For example, going to work and exhausting yourself to the point of fatigue, is more of a coping strategy than a defence strategy.

Let’s explore the most common coping strategies below.

#1 Resistance

As the name implies, resistance occurs when you try to resist the change by keeping active and pushing for a different outcome. By resisting, you are not accepting the current situation and try to challenge it. You may become terrified that if you pause, you will have time to dwell and have to face the reality of the unwelcome situation. This kind of coping strategy is also known as ‘Rescue’.

While having this much energy is usually a positive thing because it pushes you into action, the intention behind resistance is reactive and unsettled. You hope to change the situation by using force and actively resisting difficulties but may not have any goal behind all of this action. You may be impulsive and spend a huge amount of effort without getting any closer to a solution. You just run around in circles of constant action and waste your time.

However, it’s not all bad news - studies have shown that actively confronting hardships lowers the risk of developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). If something bad happens to you and you actively resist this bad thing, then you are statistically more likely to recover from the psychological consequences later. If you can actively resist the situation, you will find recovery easier than those who, due to various factors, only react passively.

#2 Distancing or Avoidance

When we distance ourselves, we are consciously restricting access from what is causing distress and removing ourselves from the situation - we avoid it. This type of coping also involves devaluation of the problem, that is, reducing its importance, and like switching your attention to something else, or even using humour to deflect from the main issue.

The good thing about this type of coping is that the intensity of emotions is reduced. Strong emotional reactions can be downgraded, and it can be useful to distance yourself from the situation to avoid feeling all of the harsh negative feelings that would otherwise come up.

The flip-side of this is that you can end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as the saying goes. Yes, you are avoiding feeling bad, but you can miss out on some of the valuable lessons or silver linings in the “bad” situation.

It is not uncommon for people to accidentally overdo it with devaluation and equate everything to zero, that they behave as though everything that happens is not important. It’s dangerous because you could lose your internal system of what is important to you, and things that do deserve a reaction.

#3 Control / Self-control

If there is something that they can control in a situation, people with this coping strategy will find it. This includes planning, restraining emotions, and presenting their best poker face to the outside world. Often, when someone controls themselves as a way of coping, they do not lose their composure, they do not get hysterical, and they are always very calm and collected. Yes, they can be tense, because it is difficult to keep yourself under control all the time, but nevertheless they do not lose their temper even with great tension.

In theory, this is a positive way of responding, because there is little impulsive behaviour, or strong emotions, so the risk of outbursts can be prevented. The chances of you having a quarrel or doing something in the heat of the moment is minimal, so you grant yourself the moment of pause between emotion and action and can think clearly and effectively.

Like all of these strategies, there are also negative aspects to using control as a way of coping. You may experience difficulties with feelings, and isolation of emotions. Unfortunately, if they are always in control, then you cannot freely experience and feel. You run the risk of keeping everything inside for so long that it is bound to erupt one day, undoing all of the control you have had up until that point – all of that suppressed energy needs somewhere to go!

#4 Seeking Support

People with this coping style love to talk and gain outside help with their problem, because it really makes them feel better. In fact, since you are reading this article right now, you can probably count yourself as a support-seeker (you’re in good company!).

People who lean on this coping strategy also enjoy reading self-help books and listening to stories in which someone describes their experience. They easily take from other people's experiences lessons for themselves and help someone else just as willingly as they seek help - people are a big support network for them. All sorts of emotions and useful actions circulate in this network: attention, sympathy, advice, interchange, listening, empathy, etc.

The positive aspect of this is the ability to effectively lean on each other for support and understanding. In general, people are very helpful to each other in a crisis, talking and receiving mutual support really helps to draw the "bad energy" out of a situation.

The negative side of this coping strategy is that the person can become overly dependent and have thoughts like, “I cannot live without people, and if they don’t help me, then I will not be able to cope”. This risk is especially high for those who are already prone to addictive behaviours, do not feel strong enough on their own and rely too much on others. Seeking support is also overly reliant on the other person, who may have their own problems to deal with, or is not the best person to be giving out advice in the first place – we are all human, after all!

#5 Taking Responsibility

Unlike being blamed for something, people who are willing to take responsibility have the outlook of “okay, this has happened, and what am I going to do now? What is my role in all of this? What is my contribution to what I feel bad and what can I change? What should I not change?" It plays out like having a kind of impartial general manager in your head.

The good thing about this style of coping is that you are willing to look at the situation as a whole and identify any behaviours or actions that you could change to avoid this negative outcome in the future. It is a very mature way of responding to conflict.

The downside to this coping strategy is that it often leads to excessive self-criticism and taking on responsibility which could belong to someone or something else. It may seem easier to let all of the responsibility fall on you, but all of that can be heavy, especially if it isn’t all yours to carry! It also doesn’t account for those times in life when the situation arose out of pure chance or misfortune, and you’re making yourself feel guilty when you shouldn’t.

#6 Escape

When we use the strategy of escape, we deviate from reality, fantasise about being elsewhere, and get distracted easily. Often, people will daydream to detach from the uncomfortable reality that they are in or procrastinate to avoid making a decision that will move them forward.

Using escapism can actually reduce stress if you are able to distract yourself and forget what is happening, if only to avoid becoming totally consumed in the moment.

The negative side to this coping strategy is that the problems remain unsolved, and you are just wasting time. The more you escape what is happening and avoid facing it, the further delayed the solution to your problem will be.

#7 Positive Revaluation

Positive revaluation is looking for something good in a situation. In the midst of a crisis silver linings can be difficult to see, but it does work for some people and they rely on it for comfort. People who lean into positive revaluation tend to seek positivity in their daily lives, so looking for the good in something tends to come naturally to them.

The positive in this coping strategy is that it is an opportunity to quickly emerge from the negative and reduce the consequences to a minimum. It puts the ‘problem’ into a new perspective and helps us to feel grateful that it isn’t as bad as it could be.

However, in the process of positive overestimation the damage can be underestimated, and denial of reality can arise. If we immediately switch to positive thinking, then we may not register how much it hurt us, and ignoring those strong emotions means that you’re not acknowledging and dealing with them properly before moving on.

So, which of these coping strategies should we try to use? Are any better than the others? Our answer is that they are all normal. All coping strategies can be used, but the power is in understanding the positives and negatives of each, so that you know what to expect in the short- and long-term.

For example, distancing or escaping won’t solve problems, but you can use them to relieve stress if you are finding your situation too hard to deal with right now. As long as you have the knowledge that sometime later you will have to move on to other methods to heal and move forward, each strategy can serve a purpose and be helpful. In some extremely scary or harmful situations, short-term coping strategies like escape and fantasising might be the best options to get you through the initial hurt.

Having your own defences and way of coping is not a sign of weakness, but of overprotection. In a crisis, your psyche will not invent anything new, but look to the characteristics that you have in everyday life as a guide on what to do next.

Neither are positive or negative, they are just profiles, in the same way that someone might identify as being an extrovert or introvert – it’s just a parameter.

From Sigitova E. 2021. The Ideal Storm. Translated from Russian by ALY'S PLACE.

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