This piece was written by one of our contributors; PhD student researching student mental health at Bournemouth University – Chloe Casey.
Have you ever thought about how you cope with stress and whether these ways of coping are helpful and healthy? Virginia Satir, a famous therapist and author said:
Problems are not the problem: coping is the problem .Virginia Satir – therapist and author
Satir presented novel ideas that someone’s surface problems were rarely their actual problems. She argued that the way people cope with their issues is often the problem itself (does denial, wishful thinking or complaining sound familiar?)
Coping is a biological function, initiated by fear, which helps to deal with life’s challenges and threats to avoid harm. However, people can respond to threats in an adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (unhelpful) way, either reducing or intensifying the effects of stressful events. Ways of coping are learned behaviours, meaning life experiences and adverse events can contribute to their development.
Certain ways of coping such as problem-solving, negotiation and focusing on the positives are adaptive. These ways of coping are even said to decrease psychological distress, promote mental health and increase academic performance . However, other ways of dealing with stress including avoidance, rumination or venting are maladaptive.
For example, rumination (repeatedly replaying a problem over in your mind) can predict higher disengagement from problems and can worsen depressive moods . These maladaptive methods, like whining or complaining for instance, may make you feel better at the time. However, poor coping that doesn’t address the problem can be associated with distress and mental disorder in the long term .
There has been a lot of research on coping since early theories in the 80s, with hundreds of different ways of coping discussed since. Luckily, Ellen Skinner (a leading expert in coping) and colleagues reviewed existing literature and compiled a summary of ways of coping, organised into 12 families of coping :
As you can see from the table, some ways of coping are positive and some are negative, but the families cannot necessarily be clearly divided into adaptive or maladaptive strategies. For instance, support-seeking from others can have inconsistent outcomes, depending on the helpfulness of the advice given. Imagine you’re worried about the content of an upcoming exam at university; it would probably be more helpful to seek advice from your lecturer than your yoga teacher wouldn’t it?
If avoidance, other-blame, self-pity and other unhelpful ways of coping sound familiar to you, don’t worry! In better understanding coping, you have the resources to change your hard-wired ways of coping from escape to problem-solving. It may require some effort, as Virginia Satir also said:
Let us remember that old, traditional, entrenched, familiar attitudes die hard. We need to have patience and, at the same time, be bold enough to take our courage and move forward. Virigina Satir – therapist and author
As you practice adaptive ways of coping more frequently the more likely you are to innately behave in this way next time you face a stressful event.
But how can we practice ways of coping?
As mentioned before, coping can be learnt. Research in student samples suggests that more effective ways of coping can be taught through interventions that target problem-solving, emotional regulation, cognitive-restructuring or mindfulness, significantly improving psychological outcomes [7,8,9]. In a recent controlled trial, undergraduate students were split into an experimental and a control group. The experimental group participated in resilience and coping sessions where they were encouraged to explore their thoughts and feelings relating to their problems, brainstorm options for change and develop action plans. After this 3-week intervention the students allocated to the experimental group reported significantly more hope and less stress and depression in comparison to the control group . Additionally, 93% of participants felt that they could now make helpful choices when faced with problems .
With the view that your coping mechanisms could be exacerbating your problems, why not take some time to focus on improving your own coping? One practical suggestion could be to practice some elements of cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is a core part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a popular talking therapy.
Here are some examples:
- Recognise cognitive distortions.
Cognitive distortion is another term for irrational negative thoughts. Try to recognise these cognitive distortions and even write them down. This may help you to recognise impending negative thoughts and immediately challenge them in the future.
If you habitually think of absolutely everything that could go wrong in any situation, this tip may help. The de-catastrophizing technique poses the question in return: “what’s the worst that could happen?”. This usually rationalises the negative thoughts and highlights that the worst-case scenario might even be manageable.
- Socratic Questioning
The idea of Socratic Questioning originated from the Greek Philosopher Socrates who believed in questioning to uncover deeper meaning. These types of questions have been used by CBT therapists to address cognitive distortions , but you could practise these yourself to address negative thoughts. Some examples include:
- On what information am I basing this conclusion?
- Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
- Is there a more logical explanation in this situation?
- How am I interpreting someone’s behaviour? Is there another possible interpretation?
- Am I viewing this situation as black and white, when it’s more complicated?
There are many other methods that could encourage more adaptive ways of coping such as mindfulness and practicing self-compassion. Whichever method you chose, investing time in improving your ways of coping means you’re not just solving your current problems but working to create healthier ways to deal with future hurdles and setbacks; approaching problems with optimism and acceptance.
(1) Thompson, R.J., Mata, J., Jaeggi, S.M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J. and Gotlib, I.H., 2010. Maladaptive coping, adaptive coping, and depressive symptoms: Variations across age and depressive state. Behaviour research and therapy, 48(6), pp.459-466.
(2) Meneghel, I., Martínez, I.M., Salanova, M. and de Witte, H., 2019. Promoting academic satisfaction and performance: Building academic resilience through coping strategies. Psychology in the Schools, 56(6), pp.875-890.
(3) Hong, R.Y., 2007. Worry and rumination: Differential associations with anxious and depressive symptoms and coping behaviour. Behaviour research and therapy, 45(2), pp.277-290.
(4) Compas, B.E., Connor-Smith, J.K., Saltzman, H., Thomsen, A.H. and Wadsworth, M.E., 2001. Coping with stress during childhood and adolescence: problems, progress, and potential in theory and research. Psychological bulletin, 127(1), p.87.
(5) Skinner, E.A., Edge, K., Altman, J. and Sherwood, H., 2003. Searching for the structure of coping: a review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological bulletin, 129(2), p.216.
(6) Satir, V. (1988). The new people making. Palo Alto, CA: Science & Behaviour Books.
(7) Kang, Y.S., Choi, S.Y. and Ryu, E., 2009. The effectiveness of a stress coping program based on mindfulness meditation on the stress, anxiety, and depression experienced by nursing students in Korea. Nurse education today, 29(5), pp.538-543.
(8) Houston, J.B., First, J., Spialek, M.L., Sorenson, M.E., Mills-Sandoval, T., Lockett, M., First, N.L., Nitiéma, P., Allen, S.F. and Pfefferbaum, B., 2017. Randomized controlled trial of the Resilience and Coping Intervention (RCI) with undergraduate university students. Journal of American College Health, 65(1), pp.1-9.
(9) First, J., First, N.L. and Houston, J.B., 2018. Resilience and coping intervention (RCI): A group intervention to foster college student resilience. Social Work with Groups, 41(3), pp.198-210. Clark, G.I. and Egan, S.J., 2015. The Socratic method in cognitive behavioural therapy: A narrative review. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 39(6), pp.863-879.