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Coping

1. Core Knowledge:

The Concept of Coping

All organisms resist change and react to external challenges by mounting responses that maintain their equilibrium. There are parallels at many levels: at the cellular level, maintaining homeostasis is the role of the immune system; at the organ level the endocrine and limbic systems are involved; at the psychological and behavioural levels various coping processes are involved, while at the social level norms and social sanctions maintain order.

Psychgological and emotional coping may be defined as thoughts or actions designed to resolve or mitigate a problematic situation. Coping is not a fixed attribute, but is the dynamic capacity to apply effective methods to control, avoid or prevent distress. It normally refers to managing unusual demands that tax, even exceed, a person's resources; we do not generally speak of coping with making our bed or brushing our teeth. Coping refers to the management of responses, not mastery over stimuli. It is a process that involves appraisal and reaction: we do not use identical responses in every situation.

Morbidity is as much due to our emotional reactions to a situation as to the actual threat itself; cognitive coping styles focus on reducing the emotional threat. Consider the situation in which I learn I am suffering from an incurable disease. Cognitive coping strategies may include collecting factual information about the disease, its prognosis, cause and so forth. This may allow me to explain to myself why I got the condition, perhaps thereby removing guilt or self-blame, preparing the way for active engagement in handling my situation. In effect, this argues that dealing with reality is easier than dealing with the uncertainty of speculation. Obtaining and analysing technical information is easier for people with some education, so a rational, cognitive coping style may be more accessible to people with more education; they may also have more informal contacts among experts who can give them the required information.

Clinically, our interest lies in assessing how effective a person's coping strategies are; this may explain any mis-match between stressful circumstances and the resulting level of distress a person feels. A therapeutic goal would be to counsel the patient on the use of more effective coping strategies.

2. Nice to Know:

Coping may be defined as "ways of thinking or acting."  

Everyone has a different repertory of coping styles; indeed, we often describe people in terms of their coping style ("laid back", or "a bit hyper").  A typical contrast would be between passive avoidance or denial and more active confrontation and tackling of situations.  The broader a person's coping repertory, the more likely they are to be able to manage unforeseen circumstances.  Coping repertoires are broadened by diverse  life experiences, including education, travel or particular training (e.g., military training, or becoming an ER doctor).

The main models of coping have been set forth by Richard Lazarus, who stresses the cognitive element in coping.  In this view, the process of coping begins with an appraisal of the challenge and an sense of one's ability to handle it.  According to Lazarus, coping strategies fall into two broad classes -- problem-focused (engagement) coping which aims at managing the the stressor, and emotion-focused coping (disengagement) which tackle the person's affective responses to the stressor.  Research generally suggests that emotion-focused coping (e.g., wishful thinking) has a negative impact on adjustment, while problem-focused coping (such as seeking information) has a positive effect.  Some types of emotion-focused coping, such as self-blame or blaming others, avoiding or denying the issue, or wishful thinking has been linked to depression and anxiety.  In comparison, problem-focused coping techniques (talking to others, seeking information, confronting the situation) have been found to protect against anxiety and depression. 

Coping is a process. It involves appraisal, then trying to apply a strategy, followed by an evaluation of the benefit this brings:

Circular model of coping as appraisal and application of responses to a challenging situation

Link to more on coping styles