Written by Alexis Mitchell UNCC’18
Coping strategies have been a thought-provoking topic of psychological interest. A coping strategy is simply how an individual decides to react or handle a stressful or emotional situation. Situations and events may have different degrees of emotional intensity or significance, depending on the event and the person, thus warranting whatever coping strategy that person feels appropriate to use. Individuals may practice maladaptive and/or adaptive coping strategies in response to experiencing stressful life events, including traumatic events. Often times, individuals will go through a series of coping strategies over their lifespans. There has been an abundant amount of literature that either conceptualizes coping strategies as either problem-focused or emotion-focused. In addition, researchers also divide the coping strategies as approach-focused or avoidance-focused (Littleton, Horsley, John, & Nelson, 2007).
Problem-focused coping strategies are those that directly address the problem that causes distress- this includes seeking information about the stressor, making a plan of action, and concentrating on the next step to manage or resolve the stressor.
In contrast, emotion-focused strategies focus on managing the emotional distress associated with the stressor; for example, one may disengage from emotions related to the stressor, seek emotional support, or vent their emotions.
Other research has emphasized a focus on avoidance coping and approach coping. Approach strategies are focused on the stressor itself by seeking emotional support, planning to resolve the stressor, and seeking information about the stressor.
Avoidance strategies are focused on avoiding the stressor, denying that the stressor exists, and disengaging from one’s thoughts and feelings that relate to the stressor. Avoidance is often considered a maladaptive coping strategy because although it may permit short-term relief from a stressor, it can aid in the development of posttraumatic stress symptoms.
Littleton and colleagues examined several publications regarding different coping strategies through a meta-analysis, focusing on moderators (variables that affect the strength of a relationship) between stressors and the coping strategies.
Results from this meta-analysis supported a clear and consistent association between reliance on avoidance strategies to cope with trauma and psychological distress. These findings are consistent with the notion that avoidance coping is a maladaptive coping strategy. Avoidance coping was strongly related to three types of distress: general distress, depression, and posttraumatic stress symptoms.
Interestingly, participants’ mean age was a significant moderator of the relationship between avoidance coping and distress. Specifically, the size of the relationship between reliance on avoidance coping and experiencing distress was stronger among studies where the mean age of participants was older. This may be because some individuals are not able to learn effective coping strategies and experience vulnerability to distress following stressful events, which can affect the strength of association between age and avoidance coping.
This meta-analysis gives a breadth of information about research regarding coping strategies. As posttraumatic stress symptoms and disorder become increasingly important topics of research in psychology, it is important to reflect on past research and further examine present research. In order to create new theories and strategies, as well as expanding on previous ones, one must be conscious of fundamental information, such as definitions of the different coping strategies. Furthermore, it is necessary to identify maladaptive coping strategies in order to highlight and implement adaptive coping strategies. Adaptive coping strategies are important in order to assist and encourage change among patients and individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder and other maladaptive stress coping behaviors.
Littleton, H., Horsley, S., John, S., & Nelson, D. V. (2007). Trauma coping strategies and psychological distress: A meta-analysis. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 20(6), 977-988.