Emotion-Focused and Problem-Focused Strategies
Whether you’ve been dumped by your date or you’ve had a rough day at the office, having healthy coping skills can be key to getting through tough times. Coping skills help you tolerate, minimize, and deal with stressful situations in life. Managing your stress well can help you feel better physically and psychologically and it can impact your ability to perform your best.
But not all coping skills are created equal. Sometimes, it’s tempting to engage in strategies that will give quick relief but might create bigger problems for you down the road. It’s important to establish healthy coping skills that will help you reduce your emotional distress or rid yourself of the stressful situations you face.
Problem-Based vs. Emotion-Based
When you’re feeling distressed, ask yourself, “Do I need to change my situation or do I need to find a way to better cope with the situation?” Then, you can decide which type of coping strategy will help you best proceed.
There are two main types of coping skills: problem-based coping and emotion-based coping.
Problem-based coping is helpful when you need to change your situation, perhaps by removing a stressful thing from your life. For example, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, your anxiety and sadness might be best resolved by ending the relationship (as opposed to soothing your emotions).
Emotion-based coping is helpful when you need to take care of your feelings when you either don’t want to change your situation or when circumstances are out of your control. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it’d be important to take care of your feelings in a healthy way (since you can’t change the circumstance).
There isn’t always one best way to proceed. Instead, it’s up to you to decide which type of coping skill is likely to work best for you in your particular circumstance.
The following are examples of stressful situations and how each approach could be used.
Reading Your Performance Review
You open your email to find your annual performance review. The review states that you are below average in several areas and you’re surprised by this because you thought you were performing well. You feel anxious and frustrated.
- Problem-focused coping: You go to the boss and talk about what you can do to improve your performance. You develop a clear plan that will help you do better and you start to feel more confident about your ability to succeed.
- Emotion-focused coping: You spend your lunch break reading a book to distract yourself from catastrophic predictions that you’re going to be fired and become homeless. After work, you exercise and clean the house as a way to help you feel better so you can think about the situation more clearly.
Getting a Teenager to Clean
You have told your teenager he needs to clean his bedroom. But it’s been a week and clothes and trash seem to be piling up. Before heading out the door in the morning, you told him he has to clean his room after school “or else.” You arrive home from work to find him playing videos in his messy room.
- Problem-focused coping: You sit your teenager down and tell him that he’s going to be grounded until his room is clean. You take away his electronics and put him on restriction. In the meantime, you shut the door to his room so you don’t have to look at the mess.
- Emotion-focused coping: You decide to run some bathwater because a hot bath always helps you feel better. You know a bath will help you calm down so you don’t yell at him or overreact.
Giving a Presentation
You’ve been invited to give a presentation in front of a large group. You were so flattered and surprised by the invitation that you agreed to do it. But as the event approaches, your anxiety skyrockets because you hate public speaking.
- Problem-focused coping: You decide to hire a public speaking coach to help you learn how to write a good speech and how to deliver it confidently. You practice giving your speech in front of a few friends and family members so you will feel better prepared to step on stage.
- Emotion-focused coping: You tell yourself that you can do this. You practice relaxation exercises whenever you start to panic. And you remind yourself that even if you’re nervous, no one else is even likely to notice.
Healthy Emotion-Focused Coping Skills
Whether you’re feeling lonely, nervous, sad, or angry, emotion-focused coping skills can help you deal with your feelings in a healthy way. Healthy coping strategies may soothe you, temporarily distract you, or help you tolerate your distress.
Sometimes it’s helpful to face your emotions head-on. For example, feeling sad after the death of a loved one can help you honor your loss.
So while it would be important to use coping skills to help relieve some of your distress, coping strategies shouldn’t be about constantly distracting you from reality.
Other times, coping skills may help you change your mood. If you’ve had a bad day at work, playing with your kids or watching a funny movie might cheer you up. Or, if you’re angry about something someone said, a healthy coping strategy might help you calm down before you say something you might regret. Here are some examples of healthy emotion-focused coping skills:
- Clean the house (or a closet, drawer, or area)
- Cook a meal
- Do yoga
- Drink tea
- Give yourself a pep talk
- Go for a walk
- Engage in a hobby
- Listen to music
- List the things you feel grateful for
- Look at landscape photos that help you feel relaxed
- Look at pictures to remind you of the people, places, and things that bring joy
- Picture your “happy place”
- Play a game with your kids
- Play with a pet
- Practice breathing exercises
- Put on lotion that smells good
- Read a book
- Reframe the way you are thinking about the problem
- Squeeze a stress ball
- Spend time in nature
- Take a bath
- Take care of your body in a way that makes you feel good (paint your nails, do your hair, put on a face mask)
- Think of something funny
- Use a relaxation app
- Use aromatherapy
- Use progressive muscle relaxation
- Write in a journal
Healthy Problem-Focused Coping Skills
There are many ways you might decide to tackle a problem head-on and eliminate the source of your stress. In some cases, that may mean changing your behavior or creating a plan that helps you know what action you’re going to take.
In other situations, problem-focused coping may involve more drastic measures, like changing jobs or cutting someone out of your life. Here are some examples of healthy problem-focused coping skills:
- Ask for support from a friend or a professional.
- Create a to-do list.
- Engage in problem-solving.
- Establish healthy boundaries (tell your friend you aren’t going to spend time with her if she makes fun of you).
- Walk away (leave a situation that is causing you stress).
- Work on managing your time better (for example, turn off the alerts on your phone).
Unhealthy Coping Skills to Avoid
Just because a strategy helps you endure emotional pain, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Some coping skills could create bigger problems in your life. Here are some examples of unhealthy coping skills:
- Drinking alcohol or using drugs: Substances may temporarily numb your pain, but they won’t resolve your issues. Substances are likely to introduce new problems into your life. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant that can make you feel worse. Using substances also puts you at risk for developing a substance abuse problem and it may create legal issues, financial problems, and a variety of social issues.
- Overeating: Food is a common coping strategy. But, trying to “stuff your feelings” with food can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food—and weight issues. Sometimes people go to the other extreme and restrict their eating (because it makes them feel more in control) and clearly, that can be just as unhealthy.
- Sleeping too much: Whether you take a nap when you’re stressed out or you sleep late to avoid facing the day, sleeping offers a temporary escape from your problems. However, when you wake up, the problem will still be there.
- Venting to others: Talking about your problems so that you can gain support, develop a solution, or see a problem in a different way can be healthy. But studies show repeatedly venting to people about how bad your situation is or how terrible you feel is more likely to keep you stuck in a place of pain.
- Overspending: While many people say they enjoy retail therapy as a way to feel better, shopping can become unhealthy. Owning too many possessions can add stress to your life. Also, spending more than you can afford will only backfire in the end and cause more stress.
- Avoiding things: Even “healthy” coping strategies can become unhealthy if you’re using them to avoid the problem. For example, if you are stressed about your financial situation, you might be tempted to spend time with friends or watch TV because that’s less anxiety-provoking than creating a budget. But if you never resolve your financial issues, your coping strategies are only masking the problem.
Coping skills are usually discussed as a reactive strategy—when you feel bad, you do something to cope. But, research shows that proactive coping strategies can be an effective way to manage the future obstacles you’re likely to face.
For example, if you have worked hard to lose weight, proactive coping strategies could help you maintain your weight after your weight loss program has ended. You might plan ahead for circumstances that might derail you—like the holiday season or dinner invitations from friends—to help you cope.
You also might plan ahead for how you’re going to cope with emotions that previously caused you to snack—like boredom or loneliness. And you might prepare a mantra that you’ll repeat to yourself when you’re tempted to give in to temptation.
Proactive coping has been found to be an effective way to help people deal with predictable changes, like a decline in income during retirement.
However, coping can also be used to help people deal with unexpected life changes, such as a major change in health. A 2014 study found that individuals who engaged with proactive coping were better able to deal with the changes they encountered after having a stroke.
Another study found that people who engaged in proactive coping were better equipped to manage their type 2 diabetes. Participants who planned ahead and set realistic goals enjoyed better psychological well-being.
So, if you are facing a stressful life event or you’ve undergone a major change, try planning ahead. Consider the skills you can use to cope with the challenges you’re likely to face.
When you have a toolbox ready to go, you’ll know what to do. And that could help you to feel better equipped to face the challenges ahead.
Find What Works for You
The coping strategies that work for someone else might not work for you. Going for a walk might help your partner calm down. But you might find going for a walk when you’re angry causes you think more about why you’re mad—and it fuels your angry feelings. So you might decide watching a funny video for a few minutes helps you relax.
It’s important to develop your own toolkit of coping skills that you’ll find useful. You may need to experiment with a variety of coping strategies to help you discover which ones work best for you.
You might find that certain coping strategies work best for specific issues or emotions. For example, engaging in a hobby may be an effective way to unwind after a long day at work. But, going for a walk in nature might be the best approach when you’re feeling sad.
When it comes to coping skills, there’s always room for improvement. So, assess what other tools and resources you can use and consider how you might continue to sharpen your skills in the future.