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There Are 3 Styles of Coping—Here’s How Knowing Yours Can Help Alleviate Stress

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisApril 14, 2020

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How are you coping right now? If you just raised a wineglass to the screen, I totally get it, but consider pausing before your next sip so you can pick up some helpful intel: There are a few different styles of coping, and not all of them will necessarily help you. In fact, some may even hurt you. That’s because where certain mechanisms are adaptive, meaning they can help you move forward and built resilience, others are maladaptive, or destructive, and keep you stuck in the mud. You, my friend, would be wise to learn about specific kinds of adaptive styles of coping.

“In general, we know our coping mechanisms for stress relief are working when we feel a sense of ease during and after the coping strategy is used,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear. “It can be very difficult at times to discern whether or not a coping strategy is actually harmful or helpful: Certain coping strategies may feel good in the moment but then create difficulties afterward. The more maladaptive coping mechanisms can actually harm self-esteem and instigate mental health problems…and can certainly negatively affect work, home life, and interpersonal relationships.”

“Certain coping strategies may feel good in the moment but then create difficulties afterward.” —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD

An easy, three-pronged approach for sussing out whether your coping strategy is stress-making or stress-saving? Ask yourself: 1. Is it hurting me? 2. Is it hurting others? 3. Are the benefits temporary? Those answers should help you be able to identify whether your coping mechanism is adaptive, which generally means it allows for the creation of positive patterns that are additive to your life, sustainable, and supportive for long-term health and happiness. Adaptive mechanisms are nourishing ways we can keep ourselves afloat, and when we utilize them, we tend to find that our level of self-awareness and ability to regulate our emotional state increases over time.

Below, learn about three adaptive styles of coping that may actually benefit you.

The 3 styles of coping

In the 1980s, psychologists Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman first identified that coping mechanisms are meant to serve one of two main purposes: to solve the problems directly related to the stressor, or to lessen the negative emotions coming from the stressor. Since then, many schools of thought have emerged about how many styles of coping there are. To keep things simple and helpful, below find three main styles of coping, and some of the specific mechanisms that might fall under the umbrella of each.

1. Task-oriented coping

This strategy requires very active problem-solving and focusing on the things you can control even during times like these. when basically everything feels out of sorts.

So, even though the news revolving around distressing COVID-19 pandemic updates can add to your stress, you could also stay informed in a more-helpful, proactive way. If you feel comfort from knowing what’s going on and researching how you can help, for instance, make sure that you’re getting your facts from reputable sources, or perhaps even educate yourself on the virus with the Imperial College London’s free online course on the coronavirus. Then, discover personal ways you might be able to contribute to the cause, whether that means sewing face masks, supporting your local businesses, donating to food banks, or whatever else you’re capable of doing.

Within your own life, Dr. Manly also points out that you can start setting realistic goals and then take baby steps toward achieving them.

2. Emotion-oriented coping

As a passive but potentially powerful way of handling stressors, this style of coping calls upon mechanisms that have to do with controlling your emotions. It might begin with simply reframing your experience with humor, practicing positivity strategies, or embracing gratitude for the aspects of life the pandemic situation hasn’t taken from you. (You know, like mac and cheese, and Netflix, and, uh, maybe just those things.)

There are also plenty of emotive coping activities available that can help soothe our stress. Dr. Manly suggests creative activities, journaling, meditating, deep breathing, playing with pets, and/or spending time in nature. All of these are effortless emotion-focused coping methods that lower our cortisol levels and support our sense of well-being.

But, be mindful of how you use emotion-oriented problem-solving to save yourself from falling into maladaptive behaviors to “ease the pain,” so to speak.

3. Avoidance

Broadly speaking, this style of coping is about ignoring the issue. Perhaps it looks like venting without trying to find a solution, assigning some sort of self-blame, or not acknowledging that there’s a problem in the first place. It also could include any other maladaptive coping mechanisms, if it’s redirecting the problem outwardly in a destructive way.

If you’re someone who skews to the avoidant style of coping, you might benefit from trying a mechanism called “meaning making.” While making sense about this massive ongoing tragedy doesn’t even feel conceivable, it’s a strategy that’s been used in other cases following past collective traumas. For example, one study looked at the coping methods of 1004 adults approximately six weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, and though two methods yielded different positive effects, meaning making was connected to less distress.

So, do some soul searching to introspect on what you (and all of us) can possibly gain from this situation. List all the possible positives and even narrow silver linings that may present on the other side. And, you know, strategies like meditation and quality sleep may be helpful mechanisms, too.

Need some more direction? Psychologists share 22 things she’s doing to support their mental health. And we have six affirmations for calmness to keep you grounded in shaky moments.

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