Understanding Coping

Ph.D., CPsychol., AFBPsS, Health Professional

How well do you cope with adversity? It's a simple enough question, yet the answer you give will depend upon any given situation or event you are involved with at the time, and even how that situation develops while you are in it.

The  issue of coping isn't as straight forward as it might first appear. From my perspective as a psychologist, I know there are a mind boggling number of ways I  might choose to assess it. This, to some extent, says something about the fact nobody has really pinned down the concept of coping or how best to examine it. Of course there's the everyday use of the term that allows us to get by. If I ask someone how they are coping, it's relatively easy for them to formulate a sensible response. On the surface this seems to work just fine but it's really little more than someone asking 'how are you?' They don't really expect more of an answer  than 'fine' because the alternative is to  unwrap the question more fully, which would be like peeling back the layers of an onion.

Still, if we're really serious about wanting to know how someone is coping we have to set the background and the context for them to provide an answer. These days the platform for understanding the nature of coping stems largely from the psychological developments of the 1970s. During this period the concept of coping moved away from a characteristic of personality to something more dynamic and shaped by the context of our personal experiences. This is pretty much how we view coping today. Coping is now viewed as an active and effortful process that seeks to help us to recover from setbacks, learn from previous experiences and prepare us for the challenges ahead.

It isn't easy to study and understand coping in the lives of everyday busy people. Perhaps for this reason a lot of interest in the coping process has focused upon illness and the particular coping strategies that people adopt along the way. One approach states that the coping process in illness begins with our personal appraisal of the significance of the illness and how it will affect us. Once done, we then start to consider a range of ways to manage the situation. At the outset the process may include an attempt to minimize or even deny the problem. This may appear a counter-productive mechanism, but in the early stage of a very serious illness it may actually serve to protect us from becoming overwhelmed by the situation. It is not uncommon to see people dipping in and out of a personal crisis by maybe watching TV, then thinking or talking about the situation for a few moments, then distracting themselves by something else. The only problem with this form of coping is if denial takes over.

Of course not everyone follows the same coping process. Some focus on information gathering then setting concrete goals. Other coping strategies may involve surrounding oneself with friends and family in order to provide practical and emotional support. Certain coping strategies like problem-solving are felt to be more adaptive than others, such as isolation and avoidance. Depending on the situation and circumstances certain coping strategies have been found to be particularly effective with conditions such as asthma or epilepsy and are therefore taught as part of an overall health education package. There are some parallels here with the issue of coping with anxiety, which now tends to embrace a variety of physical and emotional 'tools' used to help people achieve some mastery and personal control over their everyday lives.