When psychologists talk of coping, they are basically referring to the wide range of responses people use in order to manage everyday stressors, as well as the more demanding aspects of life. These coping strategies as they are known, are sometimes effective and sometimes not. Whatever coping strategies a person uses, it generally boils down to whether they choose to confront the issue or avoid it. There are many different ways to do both, but the reason we do either is to reduce or stop the stress and the emotional upset that comes with the problem.
Let’s think for a moment about being given a diagnosis of a chronic illess. The question, ‘how are you coping’? is possibly quite difficult to answer. The reason is that we don’t simply cope with such a diagnosis as an either/or process (we are or we aren’t), we actually seem to go through stages of coping with it. According the psychologist Franklin Shontz, we first cope with such a diagnosis by being shocked - a state of bewildered detachment as the news begins to sink in. This is followed by what Shontz calls an ‘encounter reaction’ in which the person experiences disorganized thinking and feelings of grief, loss, and despair. The third stage is one of retreat by denial of the extent or gravity of the problem. Coping with illness itself requires a whole different set of strategies and ways to adapt to the situation. So coping is complex
You may have heard people talking about good or bad ways of coping. This seems to suggest that a good outcome is more likely if a particular style or strategy of coping is adopted. However, a coping response might actually be the consequence of physical or psychological state rather than a cause. So, following a course of action because you believe the end result may be better for you physically and psychologically may not actually be the case.
For a number of years now psychologists have shown considerable interest in the way people cope with stress. We know that people use a wide range of coping behaviors to deal with different stressors. For example, they may take steps to remove or alleviate the problem (e.g. taking pills, remedies, exercise). They may seek the practical and emotional help of others, they may turn to religion, they may deny there is a problem. They may try to reinterpret the problem, they may become angry, and so on. So coping responses are used to deal with different stressors, and even different aspects of the same stressor.
People seem to have a general tendency to cope with situations in particular ways, yet they may also respond very differently to a specific stressor. Between psychologists there is no particular consensus over whether it is better to conceptualize coping as a series of highly specific strategies, or whether to think of coping as a broad series of approaches or styles that tells us something about how the person manages their environment.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.