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Coping: the secret to mastering stress

Learn about the two types of coping that successfully manage stress

If you've ever done an internet search on how to manage stress, you'll no doubt have been served up a generic list of actions like try meditation, take time to exercise, get plenty of sleep or seek support from friends.

All of which can seem somewhat lame if you're in the middle of a crisis or already feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list.

The truth is such activities are only part of the answer.

If we’re to cope well with stressful circumstances then we need ways to help ourselves feel better (which are what those ones in those lists are about) and ways to deal with what's distressing us in the first place.

Image: Sydney Raye Unsplash

What is coping?

Pioneers in the field of stress management, Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman (1984), defined coping as:

The thoughts and actions an individual uses to master, reduce or tolerate external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person.

Which means that coping

  • concerns managing rather than resolving issues

  • includes how we think about an issue

  • is context specific

  • involves effort and choice

  • is not a singular action.

They also noted that all coping activities are done either to

a) help ourselves to feel better, termed emotion-focused coping, and/or

b) manage or alter the stressor, called problem-focused coping.

When we do things that help ourselves feel less stressed (talking with a friend, going for a walk), then we're practicing emotion-focused coping. Such activities help to change our emotional state.

If there are ways we can reduce or manage the stressor or its impact then this is problem-focused coping.

Some coping activities, like making a plan/list, are a win/win. Taking action helps us to feel better and manage the stressor at the same time.

When we encounter stress-inducing situations, we tend to employ both forms of coping.

Successful stress management matches the coping activity to the situation which means those generic lists of activities are not that useful.

Coping activities

Researchers have identified a range of ways we help ourselves feel better and/or deal with the situation. Some of which are more useful than others!

Acceptance learning to accept the reality of the situation

Benefit finding finding a positive meaning, reframing the situation in positive terms

Denial trying to act as if stressor is not real

Distraction doing something to escape or avoid issue

Humor finding the funny side

Planning thinking about ways to cope with the stressor

Problem-solving finding practical ways to deal with aspects you can change

Restraint coping waiting until an appropriate opportunity to act

Seeking emotional support seeking moral support, sympathy or understanding

Seeking informational support seeking out advice, assistance, or information

Self-controlling regulating your feelings and actions

Self-indulging eating, shopping, etc

Substance use using alcohol or drugs to disengage/feel better

Taking responsibility noting what you're doing that's not helping

Turning to spiritual practice finding support through faith and religion

Venting focusing on distress/upset and expressing associated feelings

Depending on how long the stressful circumstance goes on for we might adapt or change coping activities.

Where to start?

When helping someone who has come to me for stress management support, I make use my 3Ms of Coping Framework™.

3 Ms of Coping Framework

1. Manage the body

When we're feeling stressed, it is very difficult to take an objective view of a situation. So, before considering what can be done about the stressor itself, I'll likely begin with a practice to help settle the nervous system.

Simple breathing techniques, sometimes called grounding practices, can help you do this.

2. Manage the stressor

Once you're feeling calmer and more in control, we can identify aspects of the situation you might be able to do something about.

It helps to focus on specifics.

For example, if you say your workload is high and you’ve got too much to do, I'll ask you to detail exactly what needs to be done, where the pressure is coming from. We'll then consider how the work might be reduced or tackled.

When we take the time to look at the details, we can often see ways where we can effect change.

3. Manage your self

Unfortunately, not all issues can be resolved. Those things we can do nothing about, simply have to be accepted. So, in this step we'll explore how you can best support yourself to do this.

We'll consider what you're doing to relax, how you're talking about the issue to yourself and others, how you're sleeping, who can provide emotional support, as well as what you're eating and drinking (e.g. caffeine, for example, is not good for us when we're stressed).


Life is a series of challenges and demands, uncertain outcomes and unexpected events, interspersed with periods of relative calm.

Stress will be with us all along the way. Even if its duration and intensity is different each time, we'll be called to cope.

Knowing how we can help ourselves and when/who to ask for support is key to coping well.

ACTION: Take some time to review the list of coping activities above. Do you recognise any as your go-to response? Are there others you might try?

If you're looking for help managing work-related stress or finding better ways to cope with something in your personal life that's impacting your ability to work well, I can help. Drop me a line to find out more.

Take care of you.


Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Weintraub, J. K. (1989). Assessing coping strategies: a theoretically based approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 56(2), 267.

Endler, N. S., and Parker, J. D. A. (1999). Coping inventory for Stressful Situations

(CISS): Manual. Toronto: MultiHealth Systems

Garcia C. (2010). Conceptualization and measurement of coping during adolescence: a review of the literature. J Nurs Scholarsh, 42(2):166-85.

Folkman S, Lazarus RS, Dunkel-Schetter C, DeLongis A, Gruen RJ. (1986). Dynamics of a stressful encounter: cognitive appraisal, coping, and encounter outcomes. J Pers Soc Psychol. 50(5):992-1003. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.50.5.992. PMID: 3712234.

Folkman S, Moskowitz JT. (2004). Coping: pitfalls and promise. Annu Rev Psychol. 55:745-74. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141456. PMID: 14744233.

Lazarus, R., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer.

Stanisławski K. (2019). The Coping Circumplex Model: An Integrative Model of the Structure of Coping With Stress. Front Psychol. 10:694. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00694. PMID: 31040802; PMCID: PMC6476932


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