Coping strategies are beneficial tools to help us deal with difficult situations and overcome them with more resilience. Whether we learn to cope with new situations as they come or have grown our skills through support networks and counselling, their purpose is to help us develop the strength and willpower to continue moving forward.
Throughout this article, we will discuss the importance of coping strategies, common coping patterns to avoid, the difference between emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies, and how counselling can help you enhance these skills.
There are plenty of reasons why strengthening positive coping patterns can be beneficial — whether to cope with the loss of a loved one, cope with experiencing loneliness after a breakup, or cope with the financial strain of losing a job — these types of stressors manifest in unique ways which can affect us all differently.
Healthy coping strategies can strengthen our resilience and improve our overall health, both physically and emotionally. Without it, stress will be left unchecked and can contribute to various health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
Coping is made up of two parts:
- Being able to tolerate a stressful situation as it’s happening
- Being able to recover from that stressful situation by getting back to normal
Before diving into some beneficial coping strategies to build our resilience and allow us to recover from stress more effortlessly, it’s important to recognize the negative impacts of unhealthy coping strategies.
During times of stress or discomfort, it’s natural for us to have a response that will get us back to a state of normalcy (otherwise known as homeostasis). With plenty of trial and error, we learn what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, many of us learn to cope with stressful situations by developing unhealthy habits.
Here are some of the most common unhealthy coping strategies:
- Avoiding or ignoring the problem entirely
- Imagining the worst possible outcome/catastrophizing
- Isolating yourself
- Worrying as a means of self-defence
- Sleeping too much
- Excessive drug or alcohol use
- Impulse spending
- Over or under eating
What so many of these unhealthy coping mechanisms have in common are that they, like most habits, have addictive qualities to them. Oftentimes, stress causes us to react impulsively in the efforts to distract from or avoid the difficult situations entirely. As mentioned earlier, when stress is not managed effectively, these types of unconscious habits can become destructive to our health and well-being.
Having the tools to cope with stress is a powerful response mechanism that will keep you from symptoms of overwhelm, anxiety, and burnout. Much like any other skill we learn, learning to adopt healthy coping strategies takes practice.
Two of the most effective positive coping patterns to help you deal with the demand of a stressor include emotion-focused and problem-focused.
Emotion-focused coping skills are used to regulate any negative emotional reaction to stress, such as anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear. In other words, it involves regulating your feelings and emotional response to a stressor rather than actually addressing the problem.
Oftentimes, this style of coping is beneficial when a stressor is something that you cannot control or change. For example, when a family member is diagnosed with cancer, emotion-focused coping skills are necessary to help you withstand the emotional turmoil. In this case, when you don’t have any control over the outcome of the situation, all you can do is take care of your own feelings in a productive, feel-good way.
Common emotion-focused coping skills include:
- Spending time outside
- Bonding with your pet
- Self-care strategies (i.e. having a bath, reading a book, journaling)
On the other hand, problem-focused coping skills involve facing stressors head-on by taking action to resolve the underlying cause. This type of coping is helpful when you need to change your situation by removing or repairing the stressor.
An example where problem-focused coping is effective is if you’re involved in an unhealthy relationship. In the efforts to relieve your stress, anxiety, or sadness, ending the relationship may be the most productive coping strategy.
Common problem-focused coping skills include:
- Connect with supportive people (counselling, friends, family)
- Establish personal boundaries
- Create a list of tasks
- Lower your expectations
- Distance or remove yourself from the source of stress
Whether or not you’re currently facing a stressful dilemma, it’s helpful to learn and practice these 5 strategies to build your resilience.
Support networks are an effective defence mechanism to stress. Maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends gives you an outlet to receive support whenever needed. Other forms of healthy connections include faith-based, local organizations (i.e. youth groups), or counselling.
Managing your expectations about stress is a helpful strategy to build your resilience. When you recognize and accept the fact that change is a normal part of life, you’ll be more prepared to face the stressors that come your way. It can help you learn to accept the circumstances that cannot be changed and focus more of your energy on those that can be changed.
One of the best ways to help you overcome a stressful or challenging situation is by taking decisive action. Not only will this help you avoid falling into a pattern of unhealthy coping habits, such as ignoring or avoiding an issue, but it will give you more confidence in your abilities to overcome future challenges.
Viewing yourself in a positive light can make a considerable difference in how you overcome stressful situations. There’s something called the self-fulfilling prophecy which describes how a false expectation of yourself can lead to its own confirmation. In other words, when you think you can’t do something, you won’t. By flipping the script and nurturing a positive view of yourself, you’ll manifest more positivity, confidence, and optimism in your ability to overcome challenges.
Taking care of your physical and mental well-being is a fundamental aspect of building resilience. When you don’t pay attention to your own needs or feelings, you’re less likely to withstand any sort of stress, change, or trauma. Take care of yourself through activities you enjoy, such as reading, exercising, playing sports, hiking, and so on.
While there are a wide range of strategies to help you manage your response to stress, there are times when counselling support may be most beneficial. Some of the ways counselling helps support you to improve your coping skills is by improving your communication and interpersonal skills, helping you work towards greater self-acceptance, adopting new skills to change any self-destructive coping behaviours, and so much more.
Common situations that people seek counselling support:
- To cope with the death of a loved one
- To cope with the loss of a relationship
- To develop skills to navigate through difficult times
- To overcome feelings of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges
If you’re interested in learning more on how counselling can help you improve your coping skills, book a free consultation.
Written by Tori Mudie BA, MA, RP, CCC