We all have different methods and strategies with which we navigate our journey through the challenges that we face in our everyday lives. We may utilise different strategies at different times or in the face of different problems but most of us will have a ‘go to’ style for dealing with our problems. This ‘go to’ style is how we predominantly deal with stress. It’s our primary coping strategy.
At the risk of making a sweeping generalisation, most people seek coaching because either their current problem-solving strategies or coping mechanisms are failing to deliver the results that they have in the past or they are insufficient to take the person to the level at which they want to operate.
Our coping strategies or perhaps more importantly our adaptability and flexibility when it comes to choosing which coping strategies we employ are an important factor how we deal with stress.
Poor coping skills can lead to elevated levels of stress and anxiety, drop off in performance at work or in sport, problems in our family or social life and can lead to lowering levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy both key factors in the onset of depression.
In the past the degree of success a person had in coping with stressors was thought to be fixed and linked to personality traits or styles. Now though we know that coping skills can be learned and the more and varied the coping strategies we have available to us the better prepared we will be to deal with the stressors we experience.
There are many tactics which people use to lower their stress levels in the face of a stressful event. We could ignore, avoid or accept the existence of the stressor by, postponing starting the assignment that is due next week, or passing by that ‘Final Notice’ letter that has been sitting on the table for three weeks or convincing ourselves that the girlfriend who just left wasn’t any good for us anyway and we are better off without her. These are examples of emotion-focused coping strategies.
Or we could engage, assess or influence the problem by sitting down to write the assignment, open the ‘Final Notice’ letter and try to figure out a plan of action for dealing with it or going out to try to meet someone new. These examples demonstrate problem-focused coping strategies.
Obviously some of these strategies are more effective than others but they are all chosen for the same reason, to lower stress levels. Some do so by providing some kind of distance from the stressor to give some temporary relief and others by engaging with the stressor in a more proactive manner.
Problem-Focused or Instrumental coping strategies focus on engaging proactively with the problem with the goal of finding a viable solution or changing the relationship with the stressor. This might include strategies such as;
- Gathering information to better understand a problem.
- Finding alternative approaches or solutions.
- Changing or adjusting goals
- Developing new skills or standards of behaviour
- Taking positive action aimed at resolving the issue.
Problem-focused coping strategies are generally seen as being more effective in dealing with stressful situations.
Emotion-Focused coping strategies are primarily concerned with changing our emotional connection with the stressor. These might include such strategies as;
- Avoiding or ignoring the stressor.
- Mindfulness practice.
- Minimising the impact of the stressor i.e. “Ah, it’s not that bad really.”
- Catastrophisation or imagining the worst possible outcome in order to prepare ourselves.
- Psyching yourself up to deal with the stressor.
- Distraction i.e. TV or eating.
- Reappraising the situation i.e. “I’m probably better off if I don’t get it anyway.”
Emotion focused strategies are seen as being less effective than problem focused strategies but may be the only option available if the stressor is outside the person’s ability to influence or control.
As we face problems and challenges in life though it is rarely a case of picking either an emotion focused or a problem focused approach to dealing with what we experience. We generally end up using a mix of both as we try to find a way to deal with the challenges we face.
This makes it all the more important that we practice and explore different methods of dealing with the stress and stressful situations we experience.
The more we practice and explore the different coping strategies the more flexible and adaptable we become in how we manage the stressors and challenges we will inevitably experience.