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A Primer on Coping (and some Holiday applications)

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

I'm going to make what I think is a non-controversial statement. The holidays are a pretty stressful time of the year.

There are a lot of reasons why people get stressed out during the holidays. Some of these reasons are as follows:

  • We put too much expectation on ourselves that we should be happy during the holidays. We compare ourselves to others around us and on the TV who seem like they are happier than we are and we feel badly. It's sort of acceptable to be unhappy at other times of the year, but during the holidays, it seems a special crime to be depressed.
  • We have extra things to do above and beyond our normal schedule (for instance, traveling, going to parties, planning parties, decorating, buying and wrapping presents, etc.). As a consequence, our normal routines get out of whack and our coping resources (patience, sleep, money, and tolerance) are strained.
  • We are expected to spend time with people who we may have very ambivalent feelings towards (e.g., our family members). The pressure to have had a happy family life in the past, and to have one now conflicts dramatically with the reality of our own sometimes sad and dysfunctional families.

Because this is a stressful time of the year, right now seems a good time for a discussion of Coping. I describe coping in two parts. Part 1 describes a way of thinking about coping that some psychologists have developed. I've included only very basic information here (there are much more elaborate theoretical treatments available on the subject). Part 2 is about how to use this coping model to increase your understanding of the coping process at work in yourself and in the (sometimes pathetic, hostile, disordered, or otherwise ineffective) behavior of others.

Part I: A Psychological Analysis Of Coping

Psychologists think of coping as something a person does when they are confronted with something stressful and they are trying to make the best of it. Coping, then, occurs in relation to a stressful event, and is an attempt to reduce stress.

Almost anything can qualify as a stressful event. An event is stressful if it knocks us off of an even keel and changes or challenges us. Stress can come from positive events as well as from negative ones. Losing a job or being yelled at by your spouse are well known negative forms of stress, but positive events such as getting married, or getting a promotion at work, (and yes - even Christmas) can also create stress - because they challenge us to act differently then we normally would.

At holiday time, many everyday things can become sources of stress for us, including hearing Christmas carols one to many times, listening to your uncle drone on at the dinner table, feeling jealous of people with more resources than yourself, worrying about how to handle the social pressure to eat dessert (or perhaps not having enough to eat in the first place), handling the anxiety of having to get a gift for someone who is hard to buy for, not wanting to be lectured to by family members who wonder why you haven't yet married/had kids/gotten a better job/gotten sober/stayed on your meds/etc. Persons with mental disorders carry an added burden of additional stressors related to their conditions - including feeling ashamed of your diagnosis, forgetting to take your meds, wanting desperately to drink or drug even while you struggle with sobriety, and/or feeling that no one understands you, to name but a few.

Types of Coping

At the most basic level, there are two orientations that a person can take to a stressful event as they try to reduce the stress they experience; They can Approach (go towards) the stressful event, or they can try to Avoid it (go away from it).

Approach and Avoidance are abstract concepts that may be best described through the use of concrete examples. So - let us set up a hypothetical (pretend) stressful holiday situation to serve as the illustration we need. Let us say that we have a friend who has just been yelled at by his spouse (perhaps for not having remembered to do some small but important holiday thing like buy gifts).

There are multiple different ways that our friend could react to his spouse's insult. For instance, our friend might do one of the following:

  1. He could try to resolve the conflict with his spouse through calm discussion
  2. He could fret and worry about being abandoned by his spouse
  3. He could get really freaked out and start yelling back at his spouse
  4. He could walk away from his spouse temporarily and short-circuit the conflict (taking a time-out)
  5. He could stick his fingers in his ears, chant 'la, la, la!' and pretend as though the yelling did not happen
  6. He could think about that Ohio State game he has a bet on.

In options 1-3, our friend demonstrates a variety of coping strategies that all involve Approaching the stressful situation and doing something with it. In options (1-Talk) and (3-Yell), our friend actually physically approaches his spouse and attempts to talk or yell. In option (2-Worry) our friend approaches his fear of abandonment and worries about that. Options 1-3 can be contrasted with options 4-6 which illustrate Avoidant coping attempts, both physically (option 4 where he actually walks away), and cognitively/thinking-wise (options 5 and 6 where he denies that anything is happening, or distracts himself by thinking about something else entirely).

What Are The Best Coping Strategies?

From the above example, you can see (hopefully) that within a range of possible ways to cope with a stressor, some are reasonable and might be expected to work out fairly well (Talking, Walking away for a short while), while others probably won't work as well to resolve the conflict (Worrying, Yelling, Denying, or Distracting ones self). We can sense that worrying and denying are going to be completely ineffectual - largely because they don't really address the problem of the angry spouse at all. The distraction strategy may be helpful if it stops worrying but it isn't going to help your friend address his angry spouse either. If your friend yells at his spouse it is possible he could find himself alone, creating more stress in an already stressful situation. In contrast to these other possible coping strategies, attempting to calmly talk out the problem engages the spouse, takes the problem seriously and decreases the amount of yelling and stress that is happening. Walking away from the stressful confrontation temporarily (taking a time-out) also can decrease the amount of stress as it interrupts the yelling. No one yells when there is no one to yell at. Taking a time out will fail, however, if the person taking the time out doesn't later come back and try to talk things out.

Coping Strategy Orientation Effectiveness Why?
1. Talk Approach Good Addresses the problem directly, calming
2. Worry Approach Bad Avoids addressing the real problem
3. Yell Approach So-So Addresses the problem directly, but risks increasing the yelling
4. Temporarily Walk Away (Time Out) Avoidance Good Addresses the problem directly, short-circuits yelling
5. Denial Avoidance Bad Avoids addressing the real problem
6. Distraction Avoidance So-So Avoids addressing the real problem

Note that the two best strategies for managing this stress (talking the problem out, and walking away for a while: otherwise known as taking a time-out) are different in their orientation. Talking it out is an Approach strategy, while walking away is an Avoidance strategy. The goodness of a coping strategy is not based on whether it is about avoiding or approaching the stressor, but rather on how directly it engages the problem and how well it is able to decrease stress and tension.

Characteristics of Good (Healthy, Effective) Coping

Having said all of this, I'll suggest a few characteristics of what good coping looks like.

  • Good coping directly engages the stressful situation and does not retreat into memory or approach into fantasy or worry. Psychologists sometimes call this direct engagement style of coping, 'task-focused' - There is no single best way to cope.
  • Good coping is flexible, and does not rely on any single fixed way of approaching stressful situations. It may approach or avoid stressful situations as it needs to

Part 2: How To Use This Information About Coping

"Okay Doc, we've read what you've put down here and we now have some ideas about coping. But what good are they? How do we use this information to help ourselves cope better with our stress and the stress of those around us this holiday season and beyond?"

Knowing what coping is about, what it tries to accomplish, what it says about the human condition, and what kinds of coping strategies work and don't work can help you to accomplish many good things:

Coping Knowledge Can Help You To Understand Your Own Coping Style

Although most people are capable of coping in a variety of ways, each of us tends to pick out one or two coping strategies that feel 'normal' to us. We develop these 'normal' coping styles based on our genetics (how quick to anger we are, how easy it is for us to put our feelings into words), and from our families and relationships (childhood to present day). When we get stressed out, we tend to use these 'normal' coping strategies first (as they seem most natural to us). Knowing about coping can help you to identify what your one or two most natural ways of coping are. Take some time now (if you have some to spare) to think about what your preferred methods of coping are.

Are you someone who approaches stress or who avoids it.
Are you flexible in how you cope or do you always do the same thing.
Do you Talk? Yell?, Take Time-Outs, Distract yourself, engage in Denial?

What do you do?

Coping Knowledge Can Suggest New, Better Ways To Cope

Once you have some idea of what you typically do when stressed, you can use what you've learned here to think about how well your 'normal' coping style works for you. For example, if you are someone who is quick to anger, it may seem second nature to you to yell at other people when you are stressed. During this holiday you may find yourself spending time with the family, yelling away. But think about it for a minute. Does your urge to yell at others who frustrate you really decrease your stress?? Might there be better ways to cope then yelling? Ways that actually reduce anger rather than spread it around? (Hint: Yes - such better ways do exist!).

You are never too old or too genetically inclined to learn better ways of coping. Realizing that you don't cope well and might benefit from learning better, more healthy ways of coping is more than half the battle. Once you understand that better, more direct, more effective ways of coping are available to you, you can start learning them, either on your own, or with the help of a friend, advisor or therapist. You can expect that these new coping strategies will feel odd or strange at first. With time, however, you will find that you grow into them and they seem more 'normal'.

You will probably find that the best (e.g., most effective at reducing your total stress) methods of coping tend to be those that are direct and 'task-focused'. Practice talking about your feelings, asserting your needs, asking for what you want, and using time-outs (temporary escapes from stressful interactions) as needed. And try to yell, procrastinate, and escape into fantasy or symptoms less often.

Forgive Yourself For Not Being Perfect

Even if you can see that your own normal coping methods increase stress more than they reduce it, it doesn't mean that it will be easy to change yourself. It is just a difficult thing to change how you cope with stress. In particular, persons with mental illnesses often have a difficult time changing how they cope as aspects of their mental illnesses make it difficult for them to respond flexibly. For example, it is a symptom of depression to withdraw from others when stressed. It is also a symptom of depression to be stressed in the first place (to be tuned into the negativity of the world is a very stressing thing!). The prolonged social avoidance displayed by many depressed persons is not a healthy coping strategy; it leads to increased stress and decreased reality testing (who is there to challenge your distorted negative thinking if you've isolated yourself?). And yet - it seems somehow 'wrong' for the depressed person to be with others, even though it is much healthier for them to do so.

If you recognize yourself as someone who 'by nature' just tends to cope in self-destructive or ineffective ways, please give yourself one special and very precious holiday gift of forgiveness. Use your new knowledge of the coping process as the basis for forgiving yourself for not being perfect. It is okay to not be perfect. No one in this world is perfect. One central message of coping theory is that - we're all (saints and sinners alike) just trying to get by. Even self-destructive coping (cutting, drug abuse, refusing to take needed medicine, etc.) is still coping - an attempt to make stress and pain go away. The way I see it, there is no shame in ineffective coping - only in believing that no positive change to better ways of coping is possible for you.

If you are someone who feels ashamed at the way you have come to cope with the stresses of the world, please forgive yourself (or find someone who will forgive you; a religious figure, a friend, a parent, whatever will release you from shame). Start seeking new ways of healthier coping (through therapy, education, rehabilitation, psychiatry, marital counseling, or other healthy ways of changing yourself).

Forgive Others For Not Being Perfect

Finally, knowing about coping can be a basis for you to have a new perspective - a better understanding - of how your family and friends, cope with the pressures of their lives and with the stress of the holiday. If, for example, you can understand another's anger or yelling or avoidance or ineffective ways of handling situations for what it is - a failure to handle a stressful situation well - you are more likely to be able to forgive them for being basically just another clueless human being. The more you understand that most crazy, annoying behavior is just a byproduct of people trying to cope (and not doing too well at it), the better prepared you can to not let their crazy behavior get under your skin and spoil your own coping. If you understand exactly why the other guy is flipping out you can laugh at it all rather than take it on personally.

If while at a family or work or therapy or 12-step related gathering you recognize yourself or someone around you trying unsuccessfully and annoyingly to cope with holiday stress and you manage to not get upset about it, then this essay will have succeeded.

Peaceful Holidays to all.

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.