Emotion-focused vs. Problem-focused Coping Strategies

Travis Dixon Health Psychology Leave a Comment

What's better to reduce stress? Trying to solve your problems or trying to manage your reactions? We'll find out in this post.

Coping is “a person’s efforts to manage demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding their resources.”(1) In other words, coping is how we try to deal with stress. It is a widely studied topic in psychology and there are over 400 categorized styles of coping. (2) These styles are commonly grouped into two distinct types: problem focused vs. emotion-focused. In this post we’ll look at which strategy is better and why. 

This post is written with content adapted from our Student’s Guide to Stress for IB Health Psychology.

Problem-focused coping strategies aim to change or eliminate a stressor. If you adapt a strategy to try to deal with the stressor directly, you’re using problem-focused coping. For example, planning, problem-solving, or removing the stressor altogether are examples of problem focused coping.(3)

Emotion-focused coping is when you try to deal with your emotional response to the stressor. If you are trying to reduce, eliminate, or simply tolerate your emotional response to a stressor, then you’re using emotion-focused coping. Examples include withdrawal, letting out anger and frustration, emotional support seeking, distractions, rumination, and resignation acceptance (accepting the problem will always exist).

The general consensus among psychologists is that problem-focused coping is the more effective coping strategy because it’s consistently associated with lower stress levels and better mental health (4). Similarly, people who use emotion-focused coping are more at risk for stress-related illnesses (e.g. heart disease) compared to those using problem-focused coping (5).

Coping strategies could explain gender differences in levels of perceived stress. Numerous studies have shown a tendency for females to use more emotion-focused coping whereas males use more problem focused coping (6) When it comes to the study of teenagers and stress, however, there is “…limited research about what may affect adolescents’ perceptions of stressors from school, how they cope with such stressors, and how this differs from a gender perspective.”(7) Most of the research has been on adults. However, some researchers have studied connections between coping and mental health problems closely related to stress (e.g. depression) amongst teenagers.(8)

Key Study: Coping strategies in Italian teens (Cicognani, 2011)

Aim: To understand coping strategies and how they relate to mental health in teenagers.

Can you relate to the findings of this study? What advice can you take from it?

Methods: 

  • Sample = 342 high school students (14-19 years old) in Northern Italy.
  • Coping was measured using a questionnaire (Coping Across Situations Questionnaire – CASQ)
  • Mental health was measured using a questionnaire on subjective well-being (including depressed mood).
  • She also gathered data on levels of self-efficacy and social support.

Results:

  • The results showed significant correlations between coping strategies and psychological well-being.
  • For example, the following emotion focused coping strategies were correlated with depressed mood:
    • expecting the worst (r =0.31),
    • withdrawal (r = 0.37),
    • and accepting that there will always be problems (r = 0.32).
  • The results also showed that girls were more likely to use these emotion-focused coping strategies more than boys.
  • Self-efficacy and family support influenced which coping strategies were used (e.g. reducing the use of emotion focused strategies like withdrawing) and this improved well-being.

Conclusions

  • This shows how emotion-focused coping could have a negative effect on mental health.
  • However, it also shows that factors like self-efficacy and social support can influence the choice of coping strategies and thus affect mental health also.
  • The results could explain the common finding that girls report higher levels of subjective stress in stress studies.

These findings are consistent with other research that shows females tend to use more emotion-focused coping, which could explain gender differences in perceived stress and prevalence of stress-related mental health issues like anxiety and depression. However, factors like social support and self-efficacy can influence which coping strategy we use. Studies have shown that girls have reported having higher levels of emotional self-efficacy, whereas boys report higher levels of problem-solving self-efficacy (9). Our self-efficacy influences our appraisal of our resources, so we’ll naturally use the coping strategy that we perceive to be our strength. This could be why boys and girls use different coping strategies.

Psychology is never as simple as A=B: while problem-focused coping is probably better, it’s not always the right answer. 

It is important to note, however, that people tend to use a mixture of both strategies. In a yearlong study of 100 participants, Folkman and Lazarus (1980) found that in 98% of stressful situations, their participants used a combination of both strategies. The stressor, who is involved, appraisals, gender, and age also influenced the strategies used. For example, people used more problem-focused coping at work and emotion-focused coping when it came to their health (10).

Similarly, it’s not a clear black-and-white answer regarding which coping strategy is better. For example, positive reappraisals could be considered an emotion-focused coping strategy and this is linked with positive health outcomes (11) The effectiveness might also depend on the stressor: using a problem-focused approach for a stressor that is uncontrollable and unable to be changed could be less effective than an emotion-focused one.

Being able to cope effectively with stress involves understanding how to use a variety of different strategies and applying the relevant ones to the stressors in your life. This reminds me of the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” There is a lot of psychological research that supports the wisdom found in this simple prayer.

Copy from here for Critical Thinking Considerations

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • While Cicognani’s study could be used to explain a link between coping and stress in teens, there’s a fundamental limitation in doing so. Can you see what it is?
  • Assumptions: The above guiding question is based on the assumption that problem-focused coping is better than emotion-focused coping. However, this is not always the case. When might emotion-focused coping be the superior strategy? Can you apply this to specific examples in your life?
  • An area of uncertainty is how to classify cognitive reappraisal. How might this be a problem-focused and/or an emotion-focused coping strategy? Austenfeld and Stanton(2004) have used the term ‘‘emotional approach coping” to describe active emotion regulation strategies such as cognitive reappraisal.

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References

  • 1Lazarus and Folkman, 1984; Peter Olusoga, Joanne Butt, Ian Maynard & Kate Hays (2010) Stress and Coping: A Study of World Class Coaches, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 22:3, 274-293, DOI: 10.1080/10413201003760968

  • 2 Skinner, E. A., Edge, K., Altman, J., & Sherwood, H. (2003). Searching for the structure of coping: a review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological bulletin, 129(2), 216.

  • 3 Carroll, L. (2013). Problem-focused coping. Encyclopedia of behavioral medicine, 1540-1541.; Herres, J. (2015). Adolescent coping profiles differentiate reports of depression and anxiety symptoms. Journal of affective disorders, 186, 312-319.

  • 4 Penley, J. A., Tomaka, J., & Wiebe, J. S. (2002). !e association of coping to physical and psychological health outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Journal of behavioral medicine, 25(6), 551-603.

  • 5 Chiavarino, C., Rabellino, D., Ardito, R. B., Cavallero, E., Palumbo, L., Bergerone, S., … & Bara, B. G. (2012). Emotional coping is a better predictor of cardiac prognosis than depression and anxiety. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 73(6), 473-475.; Bafghi, S. M. S., Ahmadi, N., Ardekani, S. M. Y., Jafari, L., Ardekani, B. B., Heydari, R., … & Faraji, R. (2018). A survey of coping strategies with stress in patients with acute myocardial infarction and individuals without a history of fixed myocardial infarction. Cardiology research, 9(1), 35.

  • 6 Schoenmakers, E. C., van Tilburg, T. G., & Fokkema, T. (2015). Problem focused and emotion-focused coping options and loneliness: how are they related?. European Journal of Ageing, 12(2), 153-161.

  • 7 Wilhsson, M., Svedberg, P., H gdin, S., & Nygren, J. M. (2017). Strategies of adolescent girls and boys for coping with school-related stress. !e Journal of School Nursing, 33(5), 374-382.

  • 8 Cicognani, E. (2011). Coping strategies with minor stressors in adolescence: Relationships with social support, self(efficacy, and psychological well(being. Journal of Applied social psychology, 41(3), 559-578.

  • 9 Flores, F. J., Mayorga-Vega, D., Blanco, J. R., & Blanco, H. (2014). Perceived self-e#cacy in problem solving and scientiffc communication in university students. A gender study. Psychology, 2014.; McKay, M. T., Dempster, M., & Byrne, D. G. (2014). An examination of the relationship between self-e#cacy and stress in adolescents: the role of gender and selfesteem. Journal of youth studies, 17(9), 1131-1151.

  • 10 Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An analysis of coping in a middleaged community sample. Journal of health and social behavior, 219-239.

  • 11 Kelly, M. M., Tyrka, A. R., Price, L. H., & Carpenter, L. L. (2008). Sex differences in the use of coping strategies: predictors of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Depression and anxiety, 25(10), 839-846

  • “Coping” Skinner, EA and Zimmer-Gembeck, M. in Encyclopedia of Mental Health (Second Edition), 2016.

  • Herres, J. (2015). Adolescent coping pro%les differentiate reports of depression and anxiety symptoms. Journal of affective disorders, 186, 312-319.

  • Compas, B. E., Connor-Smith, J. K., Saltzman, H., !omsen, A. H., & Wadsworth, M. E. (2001). Coping with stress during childhood and adolescence: problems, progress, and potential in theory and research. Psychological bulletin, 127(1), 87.

  • Griffith, M. A., Dubow, E. F., & Ippolito, M. F. (2000). Developmental and cross-situational differences in adolescents’ coping strategies. Journal of youth and adolescence, 29(2), 183-204

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