Stress arises when individuals perceive a discrepancy between a situation’s physical or psychological demands and the resources of their biological, psychological, or social systems (Sarafino, 2012).
There are many ways of coping with stress. Their effectiveness depends on the type of stressor, the particular individual, and the circumstances.
For example, if you think about the way your friends deal with stressors like exams, you will see a range of different coping responses. Some people will pace around or tell you how worried they are, and others will revise or pester their teachers for clues.
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) suggested there are two types of coping responses emotion focused and problem focused :
Emotion-focused coping is stress management that attempts to reduce negative emotional responses associated with stress.
Negative emotions such as embarrassment, fear, anxiety, depression, excitement, and frustration are reduced or removed by the individual through various methods of coping.
Emotion-focused techniques might be the only realistic option when the source of stress is outside the person’s control.
Drug therapy can be seen as emotion-focused coping as it focuses on the arousal caused by stress, not the problem. Other emotion-focused coping techniques include:
- Distraction, e.g., keeping yourself busy to take your mind off the issue.
- Emotional disclosure. This involves expressing strong emotions by talking or writing about negative events which precipitated those emotions (Pennebaker, 1995)
- This is an important part of psychotherapy.
- Praying for guidance and strength.
- Meditation, e.g., mindfulness.
- Eating more, e.g., comfort food.
- Drinking alcohol.
- Using drugs.
- Journaling, e.g., writing a gratitude diary (Cheng, Tsui, & Lam, 2015).
- Cognitive reappraisal. This is a form of cognitive change that involves construing a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact (Lazarus & Alfert, 1964).
- Suppressing (stopping/inhibiting) negative thoughts or emotions. Suppressing emotions over an extended period of time compromises immune competence and lead to poor physical health (Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, 1988).
A meta-analysis revealed that emotion-focused strategies are often less effective than using problem-focused methods in relation to health outcomes(Penley, Tomaka, & Weibe, 2012).
In general, people who used emotion-focused strategies such as eating, drinking, and taking drugs reported poorer health outcomes.
Such strategies are ineffective as they ignore the root cause of the stress. The type of stressor and whether the impact was on physical or psychological health explained the strategies between coping strategies and health outcomes.
In addition, Epping-Jordan et al. (1994) found that patients with cancer who used avoidance strategies, e.g., denying they were very ill, deteriorated more quickly than those who faced up to their problems. The same pattern exists in relation to dental health and financial problems.
Emotion-focused coping does not provide a long-term solution and may have negative side effects as it delays the person dealing with the problem. However, they can be a good choice if the source of stress is outside the person’s control (e.g., a dental procedure).
Gender differences have also been reported: women tend to use more emotion-focused strategies than men (Billings & Moos, 1981).
Problem-focused coping targets the causes of stress in practical ways, which tackles the problem or stressful situation that is causing stress, consequently directly reducing the stress.
Problem-focused strategies aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stressor, including:
- Obtaining instrumental social support.
In general problem-focused coping is best, as it removes the stressor and deals with the root cause of the problem, providing a long-term solution.
Problem-focused strategies are successful in dealing with stressors such as discrimination (Pascoe & Richman, 2009), HIV infections (Moskowitz, Hult, Bussolari, & Acree, 2009), and diabetes (Duangdao & Roesch, 2008).
However, it is not always possible to use problem-focused strategies. For example, when someone dies, problem-focused strategies may not be very helpful for the bereaved. Dealing with the feeling of loss requires emotion-focused coping.
The problem-focused approach will not work in any situation where it is beyond the individual’s control to remove the source of stress. They work best when the person can control the source of stress (e.g., exams, work-based stressors, etc.).
It is not a productive method for all individuals. For example, not all people are able to take control of a situation or perceive a situation as controllable.
For example, optimistic people who tend to have positive expectations of the future are more likely to use problem-focused strategies. In contrast, pessimistic individuals are more inclined to use emotion-focused strategies (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).
Billings, A. G., & Moos, R. H. (1981). The role of coping responses and social resources in attenuating the stress of life events. Journal of behavioral Medicine, 4, 139-157.
Cheng, S. T., Tsui, P. K., & Lam, J. H. (2015). Improving mental health in health care practitioners: Randomized controlled trial of a gratitude intervention. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 83(1), 177.
Duangdao, K. M., & Roesch, S. C. (2008). Coping with diabetes in adulthood: a meta-analysis. Journal of behavioral Medicine, 31(4), 291-300.
Epping-Jordan, J. A., Compas, B. E., & Howell, D. C. (1994). Predictors of cancer progression in young adult men and women: Avoidance, intrusive thoughts, and psychological symptoms. Health Psychology, 13: 539-547.
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American psychologist, 46(8), 819.
Lazarus, R. S., & Alfert, E. (1964). Short-circuiting of threat by experimentally altering cognitive appraisal. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69(2), 195.
Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress,appraisal, and coping . New York: Springer.
Moskowitz, J. T., Hult, J. R., Bussolari, C., & Acree, M. (2009). What works in coping with HIV? A meta-analysis with implications for coping with serious illness. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 121.
Nes, L. S., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2006). Dispositional optimism and coping: A meta-analytic review. Personality and social psychology review, 10(3), 235-251.
Pascoe, E. A., & Smart Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 135(4), 531.
Penley, J. A., Tomaka, J., & Wiebe, J. S. (2002). The association of coping to physical and psychological health outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Journal of behavioral medicine, 25(6), 551-603.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1995). Emotion, disclosure, & health. American Psychological Association .
Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(5), 1264.
Sarafino, E. P. (2012). Health Psychology: Biopsychosocial Interactions. 7th Ed . Asia: Wiley.