Coping SkillsSee also: Developing and Improving Tolerance
Coping is the ability to deal with difficult situations: basically, to manage whatever the world throws at you. Coping skills are the skills that you use to achieve this. It is, therefore, possible to describe a wide range of skills and activities as ‘coping skills’. It is also clear that some activities and coping skills may be healthier than others.
This page describes how to recognise and develop healthy coping skills. It explains what psychologists really mean by ‘coping skills’ and suggests some options to try out to help you identify the best coping skills for you.
Defining Coping Skills
Psychologists define coping skills or coping mechanisms as the conscious thoughts and behaviours used to deal with stressful situations.
“Coping skills are things that we can do in-the-moment, when we are feeling lousy, to help us turn down the volume of our emotions and avoid getting overwhelmed.”
Katie Lear, child therapist and counsellor
Coping skills are, therefore, very different from the basic “fight or flight” responses, which are generally subconscious and instinctive. Coping skills are developed or learned over time, from when we are very small children.
There are four main types of coping mechanisms (see box).
Four types of coping mechanism
Psychologists have defined four types of coping skills or mechanisms:
Problem-focused mechanisms deal with the problem and aim to change it. For example, if you are in a stressful situation at work, problem-focused mechanisms would include looking for a new job or talking to your boss about how to change your situation. In a relationship, you might talk to your partner about the problem, or decide that the only way to address your unhappiness is to split up.
Emotion-focused mechanisms enable you to deal with the emotions caused by the situation. This approach is useful when you either can’t or don’t want to change the situation, or simply need to calm down before you can deal with it further. These mechanisms include activities like taking exercise, having a hot bath, doing your hobby, positive self-talk, or practising mindfulness. You can also try other relaxation techniques.
Meaning-focused mechanisms are strategies used to understand and derive a meaning from the situation. Examples include seeing the benefits of your situation, for example, what you are learning from it. These are very useful for some people, but others find them much less effective.
Social mechanisms involve asking for help from individuals or the community more widely. They might include, for example, talking to a friend, or seeking professional help.
In any given situation, individuals may choose strategies from one or more of these types.
Your choice of strategy will probably depend on both you and the situation. What you decide is appropriate in one case may not be useful at another time. You may also find that you want to use an emotion-focused mechanism first, to help you calm down, and then move to a problem-focused mechanism to help you to address the problem.
There is also some overlap between the types of mechanism. For example, asking for help could be defined as both a social mechanism and a problem-focused mechanism.
The key with all coping skills is to find what works for you in particular situations.
Reactive and Proactive Coping Skills
Coping skills can be both reactive and proactive.
Reactive coping skills are those that help you to respond to the stress or situation in the moment.
Proactive coping skills help you to avoid meeting the stress or situation in the first place.
There is some evidence that people who prefer to use reactive coping skills are better able to deal with changing situations, and those who develop proactive coping skills prefer calm, settled situations. Generally, proactive coping skills such as planning for change are useful when you are facing predictable situations. When the situation is fast-changing and unpredictable, you need reactive mechanisms.
Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Skills
Coping skills can also be both healthy and unhealthy.
Generally speaking, healthy coping skills are defined as those that help you to either reduce your emotional distress, or deal with the problem. They may be mechanisms that soothe you in some way, or temporarily distract you.
Unhealthy coping skills, by contrast, are those that may help in the short term, but tend to store up problems for the future.
Drinking or using drugs as a way to numb your feelings. It is painful, but better to work your way through your emotions than use stimulants to avoid them.
Overeating. Comfort eating may seem like a good idea at the time, but becoming overweight is not a solution to anything.
Venting to others. Discussing your painful feelings over and over again may seem to help, but there is considerable evidence that you can get ‘stuck’. Sometimes bottling things up can actually be healthier—and there is certainly a time to ‘move on’.
Avoiding the situation. Distracting yourself is a healthy coping strategy—but only for a short time. Continuing to avoid or ignore a problem or stressful situation is not healthy. It is far better to address it.
In children in particular, signs of being unable to cope, or developing unhealthy coping mechanism may include behaviour such as tantrums or, later on, antisocial behaviour. Children are often unable to express their emotions in words and use behaviour instead.
Developing Healthy Coping Skills
There are many ways that you can develop healthy coping skills. These include:
1. Take time to develop some emotion-focused strategies to calm yourself
You will probably find that you have a preference for one strategy or another, especially in certain circumstances. However, it is useful to have a range of skills available. For example:
Spend time developing your ability to ‘live in the moment’ and appreciate the ‘here and now’ through mindfulness. Mindfulness techniques can be helpful when you want to avoid worrying about the past or future and simply concentrate on the present.
Learn to manage your inner dialogue so that, at times of stress, it will be positive rather than negative. Depending on where you are starting, it may take some time to start to develop a more positive inner dialogue.
2. Develop the skill of asking for help
This can be one of the most difficult skills to master, and many people never manage it.
Our page on Transactional Analysis gives some ideas about how you can reach out on an ‘Adult to Adult’ level. This will make this process easier and avoid you feeling like a child asking a parent for help. You may also find our page on asking for help useful.
3. Develop healthy behaviours to give you a ‘head start’ on dealing with stress
It is a fact that stress is easier to manage if you are mentally and physically healthy.
It is therefore worth developing healthy behaviours such as exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet. These approaches will set you up for managing and coping more effectively, and help you avoid unhealthy coping behaviours like overeating.
There is more about these approaches in our pages on Exercise, Sleep, and Food, Diet and Nutrition.
4. Learn to say no, and be more assertive about boundaries between work and home
One way to cope with stress is not to allow yourself to be driven or led into stressful situations. It is not always possible to avoid stress entirely—and nor is that entirely desirable.
However, being able to say no assertively will help you to maintain boundaries and avoid becoming overloaded.
You can find out more about this skill in our pages on Assertiveness. You may also find it helpful to read our Top Tips for Dealing with Stress.
5. Evaluate your coping mechanisms to assess whether they are healthy
Finally, it is a good idea to take time to assess the mechanisms that you use to cope, just to make sure that they are healthy. Useful questions for this assessment include:
Will this enable me to process what is happening and my feelings?
Ultimately, you need your coping strategies to enable you to support this processing, to work through the problem or situation.
Will this help me to deal with the situation, or am I just avoiding it?
Remember that it is fine to avoid a situation for a while, until you have regulated your emotions—but ultimately, you need to be able to deal with it, and your coping mechanism must support that.
Will this activity avoid or create stress for me or for other people?
If you are creating stress for you or others, this will ultimately make the situation worse.
Will this put me or others at risk of any harm?
Again, you should not put yourself or others at risk of harm. You may need to be honest with yourself about this, especially if you are tempted by behaviours like substance use.
Can I afford this?
So-called retail therapy, for example, can be fun and distracting at the right moment. However, it ceases to be much fun if you go into debt over it, or if you start skipping work or school to go shopping and get into trouble.
You may also find it helpful to read our page on Resilience, which provides some useful models to help you with the conscious application of coping mechanisms. Our post on developing healthy coping skills also has some useful tips.
Developing healthy coping skills is very much a matter of ‘right time, right place’.
It is worth experimenting with a wide range of techniques and approaches, so that when the time comes, you have the right technique in your toolbox.