Have you ever heard someone say, “He has a lot on their plate,” or, “I’m just dealing with so many things right now”? Of course, you have. Because everyone has stress in their lives, and everyone feels overwhelmed at some time or other. People have different ways to “cope” with stressful situations — but the word “cope” can have multiple meanings depending on who you ask. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) defined “coping” as what people do when unsure as to how to handle a problem or situation. These researchers have spent decades studying coping and stress. Their research has been used to study stress and coping and its impact on those living with medical illnesses, students, the mentally ill, and many other populations (1-4).

Each day, each one of us encounters situations that may be stressful- getting the kids off to school, finishing the preparation on a work presentation, feeling unhappy in your job, or insecure in your relationship. Stress people cope with occurs both in the personal and professional arenas — and sometimes they engulf us. Major stressors, such as moving, losing a job, marriage, divorce, loss, or worrying about finances are more stressful than the daily stressors encountered.  When you lump all the little stressors together with some of the big stressors, it is easy to understand how a person’s ability to cope can be compromised.

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) said coping was the process of responding to all that stress in your life. They also said that the way people cope may change depending on the resolution (or not) of a given situation. For example, if your teenager came home much later than their curfew and you were worried about them, there are many ways to cope with this situation. Not all ways of coping with stressful situations are effective. Sometimes how you deal with a situation can make the situation worse, not better. How you choose to respond to your stress (in the example, your child’s tardiness) will either be effective or ineffective, depending on your action, and cause you more or less stress moving forward. When the way you choose to cope with a situation makes you feel better about the situation or actually changes the situation for the better, that is productive coping. If the way you cope with the problem or situation makes you feel temporarily better, but causes other problems in the long run, or if it doesn’t help at all, that is nonproductive coping (6).

Research shows that there are two main ways people cope with a stressful situation — problem focused and emotion focused coping.  Problem focused coping is when you do something to alter the cause of the stress. Emotion focused coping is when you try to alter your feelings about the situation (5).  While most stressors can elicit both types of coping, Folkman and Lazarus state there are distinctions between the two, though sometimes subtle. For example, seeking social support can be problem focused or emotion focused. Sometimes people seek social support for advice and guidance for their specific problem — this is problem focused. Other times they seek social support for sympathy, understanding, and moral support — this is emotion focused coping (5).

Problem Focused Coping

Problem focused coping involves changing the problem that is upsetting you. It can involve several distinct activities: planning, or thinking about the situation, taking action or making decisions, conflict resolution, seeking assistance, and setting goals. For example, someone unhappy with their job may choose to seek alternative employment. The process of searching for job: researching jobs, sending resumes, interviewing, etc. would all be examples problem focused coping. Another tactic of problem focused coping, is exerting restraint, or waiting for an opportune time to act presents itself, and not acting prematurely.  

Emotion Focused Coping

Emotion focused coping deals with the way you feel about the problem or situation. You don’t need to choose between the emotions that you have and dealing with the problem — both can be done. You have options; you can alter your perception about the situation to alter your feelings, you can express how you feel and “get it off your chest,” and recognize which parts of the situation are controllable and which are not. Some situations are out of your control — but your feelings and thoughts are always within your control. It’s important to recognize which parts of the stressful situation are within your control and which are not.

Sometimes we go to great lengths to avoid discomfort. A person might pretend they are getting along with their partner, rather than acknowledge the relationship is having problems. A person might avoid family gatherings because of one person with whom they have conflict. People can go to great lengths to reroute their lives so as not to feel uncomfortable. If you’re overeating or smoking because you are worried about your finances, not only do you have the original problem; you potentially create another. Increasing your awareness of your own coping style helps you become more effective dealing with stressful situations going forward.

What To Do

Every big problem has smaller parts. The problem is easier to solve when you break it down — and different parts to the problem may lead to different feelings and actions. Take some time to identify the problem and break it down into smaller parts. Then, become aware of your responses to each part of the problem. Once you do, you can alter the less effective responses and change them to more productive coping patterns. Researchers Pierceall & Keim (2007) found that women college students tended to feel more stressed than men, and that activities most often used to cope with stress were talking to others, exercising, and pleasurable activities. Less desirable forms of coping included drinking, smoking, and using illegal drugs.

Additionally, optimistic people who had positive expectations of the future were found to be more likely to use problem-focused strategies, whereas pessimistic individual were more inclined to use emotion-focused strategies (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).

Remember that no one is perfect and there is always room for improvement. Learn from the situation that did not go as well as you’d like, and use the lesson to improve your future. None of us can avoid stress; but we don’t have to beat ourselves up about how we handle situations that did not go as we wished — it serves no positive purpose. Remember instead, when the outcome of a stressor was effective and productive, so you can repeat it again the next time some stressful situation arrives. There is a reason why people who see a half of glass of water as half full and not half empty appear happier. They are.


  1. Emily A. Pierceall & Marybelle C. Keim (2007) Stress and Coping Strategies Among Community College Students, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 31:9, 703-712.
  1. Labrouge, L.J., McEnroe-Petitte DM2, Gloe D3, Thomas L4, Papathanasiou IV5, Tsaras K5. (2017)A literature review on stress and coping strategies in nursing students. J Ment Health, 26(5):471-480.
  1. Grady, K. L., Andrei, A. C., Li, Z., Rybarczyk, B., White-Williams, C., Gordon, R., & McGee, E. C. (2015). Gender differences in appraisal of stress and coping 5 years after heart transplantation. Heart & lung: The Journal of Critical Care, 45(1): 41-7.
  1. Park S.A., Sung K.M. (2016). Effects on Stress, Problem Solving Ability and Quality of Life of as a Stress Management Program for Hospitalized Schizophrenic Patients: Based on the Stress, Appraisal-Coping Model of Lazarus & Folkman.   J Korean Acad Nurs, 46(4):583-597.   https://doi.org/10.4040/jkan.2016.46.4.583
  1. 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), 267-283. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.56.2.267
  1. Lazarus R.D. & Folkman, D.S. (1984). Stress, interpretation, and coping. New York: Springer.
  1. Nes, L. S., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2006). Dispositional optimism and coping: A meta-analytic review. Personality and social psychology review, 10(3), 235-251.

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  • Amy Trachter

    Psy.D., Ph.D.

    Amy is a licensed clinical psychologist with eighteen years experience treating teengers, adults, and couples who live with an array of difficulties. She spent her early career in academics, working at the Miller School of Medicine University of Miami. She has published multiple works about the Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. Prior to becoming a psychologist, Dr. Trachter was a special education teacher. She currently has a private practice and lives in Bergen County, New Jersey.