What is coping?

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Dealing with problems and finding your coping style

Everyone around has their automatic responses to problems. Everyone handles stressful situations, such as work pressures, physical discomforts, relationships, or financial concerns differently. In psychology, these are called coping styles. However, some coping styles work better in some situations than others. This article explains how coping works and gives examples to help you discover your coping style. 

What Is Coping? 

Coping is how you deal with complex, stressful situations, both emotionally and behaviorally. It differs from person to person how they react, and everyone has their own coping strategies. The way of responding can change over time, but it can also depend on specific circumstances. 

For example, years ago you experienced a challenging situation. You reacted in a certain manner and noticed that it worked. In a similar situation, the odds are that you will use this way of responding again (coping). Consciously or subconsciously, it was registered that the response method was successful for you under these circumstances. This makes you reapply the strategy, whether it proves effective or not. 

In psychology, a distinction is generally made between problem-focused and emotion-focused coping and between active and passive coping. 

  • Problem-focused coping: Trying to solve the problem
  • Emotion-focused coping: Trying to change the feelings caused by the problem
  • Active coping: Trying to deal with the situation
  • Passive coping: Feeling hesitant and letting the situation get to you.

It is helpful to become aware of your common coping strategies. Try a different approach if a particular pattern occurs or you cannot move forward with something. It may be interesting to see how this affects you and your surroundings. Changing your behavioral patterns is generally not easy but becoming more aware of your coping mechanisms is an essential first step. 

Coping Mechanisms

Each strategy involves different coping mechanisms, from emotional expression to seeking social support. However, not every coping mechanism is effective in every situation. Reading about them might help you recognize patterns. 

1. Expressing Your Emotions

With this coping mechanism, you let loose all your emotions in a difficult situation; anger, sadness, tension, and frustration. This coping method often feels like a relief to yourself, but not always to those around you. You can startle them with your anger, frustration, or fear. However, expressing your emotions is a more effective coping than suppressing them. 

2. Numbing Yourself 

When something challenging occurs, you are looking for something to numb you. Think of smoking, food, sex, drugs, alcohol, or losing yourself in your work. You flee the difficult situation and seek something that numbs you to forget the problem. This can be a dangerous coping strategy because it can be addictive. It can be crucial to face your problems instead of numbing them.

3. Avoidance / Distraction 

To avoid worrying about what is going on, you avoid the situation. You do not want to talk about it or you act as if nothing is wrong and focus on something else. This can be through online shopping, excessive social media use, playing games, or anything that allows you to avoid the situation. Also, with this coping strategy, it is crucial to be aware that you deal with difficult situations in this way. Even though it can be nice to flee from what is happening, this does not solve the problem. This can be effective if, for example, something overwhelming happens and there is nothing you can do about it at the time. However, it is usually not the most effective coping mechanism in the long term and can also have addictive aspects. 

4. Social Support

When under stress or in a difficult situation, you seek understanding, support, or comfort from others or ask for help to solve the problem together. It is often a relief when you can tell your story to your friends, partner, or relatives. For example, you call a friend; maybe she also has good ideas about how you can best respond. This form of coping generally works well to help process or alleviate the situation.

5. Worrying 

You keep thinking about what happened. You come up with all kinds of scenarios that could solve the problem. While worrying every now and then is okay, thinking about what is going on and spiraling throughout the day (or night) is ineffective. Sometimes you will also have to take action, while internalizing and worrying without taking action can make the situation worse. 

7. Blaming Yourself or Others

If blaming others is your coping mechanism, you will likely take it out on others, claiming it is someone else’s fault, without taking any responsibility. Instead, try challenging yourself at these times: Why and what am I blaming someone for exactly? Is it really their fault? What was your role in the situation? 

Instead of blaming others, you may be blaming yourself. You put yourself at the center of the problem; you are to blame. “I should have done it differently. I alone am responsible for this mistake.” This way, you make yourself unconsciously important while simultaneously taking on the victim role. Try to put the situation into perspective; is it your fault? And if so, what can you do to fix it? 

8. Actively Problem Solve

You analyze the problem, examine the options for solving it, and choose from those options. This is often an effective coping mechanism when dealing with complex issues. However, emotion-focused coping is more effective when it comes to a problem that cannot be solved, such as the death of a loved one. 

Finding the “Best” Coping Style

Most of us use these coping styles interchangeably, although everyone has a favorite style that suits their character. For example, one is more passive, the other very active. One reacts emotionally, the other rationally.

Active coping often leads to a quick solution, but not all psychological problems are solvable through action. Sometimes letting go is better. When grieving, for example, you benefit more from expressing emotions, social support, and distraction.

On the other hand, passive coping styles seem ineffective and can even increase the risk of depression or other stress-related mental health concerns. On the other hand, it might be healthy to acknowledge the powerlessness – recognizing what cannot be changed and can help process this loss.

In other words, no particular coping style is always effective – it depends on the situation and the problem you are dealing with. 

Final Thoughts

There are many coping methods; one person seeks support from someone close, while the other loses themself in online shopping or worrying. Being aware of your coping style allows you to pay attention to how you react consciously, and you can change it if necessary. However, it might be challenging to change them. 

Do you notice an unhelpful coping style, and would you like to do something about it? It might be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional. A burnout coach or therapist can teach you how to deal with stress and difficult situations. During this process, your response to stressful situations will be explored and can help you adopt more effective coping strategies.Emerald Mental Health helps aviation professionals deal with burnout. Contact Emerald Mental Health for a free consultation via www.emeraldmentalhealth.com

SOURCEAero Crew News, September 2022
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Reini Thijssen is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHCA) and certified life coach specializing in working with aerospace professionals. She has been a writer for Aero Crew News since 2019 and covers various topics related to aviation concerning life- and career changes, relationships, and overall mental health. Reini is in private practice at Emerald Mental Health. She offers online mental health support to adult individuals and couples coping with a wide range of challenges such as anxiety, burnout, grief, and stress. For more information and questions, contact reini@emeraldmentalhealth.com

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