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Coping: Solving problems or avoiding problems?

Coping is a funny thing. Psychologists have decided that there are only two ways one can cope these days. You can cope by putting forth effort to solve a problem (problem focused coping), or you can cope by avoiding the problem all together (emotion focused coping). Experts say that fixing the problem is always the best way to actually remove the stressor from your life, but we do not always have the luxury of doing so. Obviously, the permanent removal of stress would be ideal, but let’s look at a few situations and see which style of coping is best.

Situation number 1

  • I have a good friend, according to my basal ganglia at least, that I have known for a long time. In essence, I’ve know the person long enough to be attached to them, but they always pushing my buttons. I only see this person in group settings around once a month, and even still, it’s rarely a one on one thing. So if I engage in problem focus coping I may confront this person and ask them to change their behavior. Another route for problem focus coping is to tell the person not to engage with me. As one can imagine, both of these methods would create a lot of acute stress. So one has to look at it like an equation. Is the amount of stress I get from this person greater or less than the amount of stress we would go through to break off ties with this person? In most cases, it’d be best for the social group to not cause any major fluctuations like this, and just deal with the minor stress that they cause by avoiding contact with the person when possible. So you deal with the emotional stress instead of resolving the conflict; sometimes this is appropriate.

Situation number 2

  • This time, the person that is bothering you is your roommate. You see this person on a VERY frequent basis. Even with a high frequency of exposure (high propinquity) you still argue all the time. At this point, problem focused coping should be used. The amount of stress that is being elicited to maintain this relationship is much higher than what it would be to just relocate, find a new roommate, etc.

Now let’s take a look at an few example that take place outside of social groups.

  • Recently I had a really good interview with a company I wanted to join. In fact, this is a real situation I’m going through now! I was told I would hear back from them in a week or so. As the week rolls on, I get more and more nervous about the position. To engage in problem focused coping, I could do one of two things. I could call them up and ask about the status of the hiring process, which would sound a bit impatient, or I could call and decline the position all together. Now obviously, neither of those options are good choices, but they definitely remove the stressor.
  • The best route in this case is emotion focused coping. Since I have no control over the outcome any longer, I must sit back and wait. The best way for me to deal with the stress is through distraction. Distraction can come in a few different forms. I could write a blog post (tee hee), play a video game, read a book, play some racquetball, or spend time with friends. Essentially, I am just taking my mind off of the stressor. When I do not distract myself, I just ruminate about any errors I may have made during the interview process.

With that, I hope you can see the difference between problem focused versus emotion focused coping. Problem focused coping should be used when you have control over the stressor and you can fix the problem. Emotion focused coping should be avoided unless the stressor is out of your control. Such as, the loss of a loved one, one cannot engage in problem focused coping. One can engage with their friends and family to help them process their emotions, however (emotion focused coping).

Finally, I’m sure this is nothing too mind blowing, as psychology does tend to have a knack for labeling common behaviors with strange names. The next time you feel yourself engaging in distraction, you may want to ask yourself if the problem you are avoiding is truly out of your control or not. The worst thing we can do is convince ourselves we lack the power to change our world.

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1 Comment

  1. […] What does this mean for someone like Billy? Perhaps instead of using his perspective to change his mood, he should change his actions to alter his mood. After his actions have altered his mood, he could lift himself out of his slump and feel more positive. Some may argue that the choice to be proactive is then the changing of perspective.  Instead of argue over the proverbial chicken and egg, we will label this argument for what it is. Emotion focused coping versus problem focused coping. […]

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