Emotion-Focused Coping: Techniques and Examples

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Emotion-focused coping involves managing your emotional response to a situation instead of trying to solve the problem itself.

When you go through a stressful or difficult time, how do you cope?

Some people get away with trying to solve whatever problem they face. For example, if you are feeling lonely, you can join a local group to try to make new friends. If you’re stressed at work, you might find ways to set tighter work-life boundaries or look for a new job.

This is called problem-focused coping. But not everyone copes with stress and challenges that way.

Other people may change their perception of the situation, instead of solving the problem itself. This is called emotion-focused coping.

For example, instead of trying to meet new people, you could keep a journal when you’re feeling lonely to try to process how you’re feeling. Or you could practice mindfulness to manage your work-related stress rather than looking for a new position.

You may not always do one or the other either.

Depending on each situation, you can choose an emotion-focused or problem-focused coping. How they help you manage depends on many factors, including how the challenge may affect you.

Sometimes you can even choose to approach a situation with both emotional and problem-focused coping techniques.

Any type of coping strategy that involves trying to alter your emotional reaction to a stressful event can be considered an emotion-focused coping strategy. The concept was first introduced in the 1980s by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman.

If you feel anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear about an event beyond your control, emotion-focused coping can help you manage these emotions by reducing their effect on you.

Although there isn’t much recent research on emotion-focused coping, some older studies indicate that it can sometimes help people better prepare for life’s challenges.

In a 2015 studyEmotion-focused coping, also called emotion-focused coping, was associated with:

  • increase in positive thinking
  • stronger personal resources
  • less negative affect (feeling)

The researchers in this study concluded that people who often relied on emotion-focused coping developed more resilience and higher levels of overall well-being.

However, not all research supports that emotion-focused coping is the best way to manage stress. In fact, this coping strategy has come up against controversial because in some studies it is linked to negative outcomes.

It is important to note, however, that some of these studies have focused only on emotion-driven maladaptive coping, such as avoidance behaviors. For example, some people face a problem by not thinking about it or by staying busy. In general, avoidance is not considered an effective coping response.

Other types of emotion-focused coping strategies that may not be effective include:

  • deny the problem
  • suppress (repress) emotions
  • give up the situation
  • using substances to cope with painful emotions

However, emotion-focused coping strategies are not limited to avoidance. They can also involve confronting, exploring, and understanding your feelings about a situation.

This type of emotional approach to coping can be effective in managing:

Problem-focused coping, on the other hand, appears to be more effective for depression and loneliness, based on the results of a 2013 self-reported study and a 2018 scientific literature review, respectively.

Again, however, some of these studies of problem-focused coping compare it only to emotion-focused maladaptive coping strategies, such as avoidance and denial, rather than beneficial strategies.

Here are some strategies that can make emotion-focused coping more effective in the face of life’s challenges:

1. Logging

Journaling can be a great way to become aware of and deal with painful emotions.

When done correctly, it has been shown to have mental health benefits for symptoms of:

When keeping a journal, you may want to avoid ruminating on negative situations. Instead, you can try to explore and express your emotions and consider identifying concrete steps to change your emotional perspective on the challenge you are facing.

For example, once you’ve expressed how the challenge or situation makes you feel, you can try to acknowledge those emotions and not be judgmental about them. You might write something like, “I’m angry that this is happening to me. Anger is a natural emotion, and I have the right to feel that.

2. Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a non-judgmental way to notice your emotions in the face of a stressful event. It has been shown to have profound mental health benefits, including managing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

It’s best to incorporate mindfulness meditation into your routine instead of trying to use it only when you’re going through a difficult situation.

You can practice mindfulness in several ways. One of the most popular is breathing exercises.

To do this, it is recommended that you sit quietly and simply notice your breath as it comes in and out. When thoughts or feelings arise, just try to notice them and then focus on your breathing.

3. Forgiveness

When you are heartbroken or feel someone has hurt or betrayed you, forgiveness can be one of the best emotion-focused coping strategies.

A 2007 research review suggests that practicing forgiveness can improve your overall health and heal your relationships.

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to tolerate what they’ve done. Instead, you can let go of the hurt they caused you and choose to move on with your life. It may involve a process of coming to terms with how that person made you feel.

Self-forgiveness can also be a great way to deal with emotional pain by focusing on your emotions rather than the challenge itself.

4. Acceptance

Radical acceptance is a concept borrowed from dialectical behavior therapy. This can be especially useful in situations that are beyond your control.

For example, if you are living with a chronic illness or something traumatic has happened to you, you may not be able to change the facts of the situation. Practicing radical acceptance means that you stop fighting the reality of what is in front of you.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you have to accept what happened. Instead, it means you are choosing to make peace with the challenge or event, by changing your emotional response.

A study 2017 including survivors of childhood sexual abuse found that as they practiced more radical acceptance, feelings of shame and guilt diminished.

5. Talk about it

Emotion suppression may be an example of emotion-focused maladaptive coping. Its opposite may be acknowledging and openly expressing your emotions. You can do this with yourself, such as keeping a journal, or with a trusted loved one or mental health professional.

You can see a therapist to explore possible solutions to your problems. This could be an example of problem-focused coping. You can also see a therapist to explore how you really feel and openly express your feelings, which is an example of emotion-focused coping. Both options are valid and can be useful.

In study 2021researchers have found that strong social support is a protective factor against the negative effects of stress.

There’s no rule that says you have to choose between problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategies.

Although you may tend to rely on one more than the other, depending on your situation and personality traits, you can also make a conscious decision to use the coping strategies of both methods.

For example, let’s say you are experiencing high levels of stress at work.

You can take a problem-focused approach to coping by reinforcing boundaries and talking to your manager about your concerns. While you’re doing these things, you can also take an emotion-focused approach to your stress by journaling or practicing mindfulness meditation.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Like any other type of coping, emotion-focused strategies can be either maladaptive or supportive. When done the right way, emotion-focused coping helps you deal with situations that are beyond your control.

Other situations may require a more problem-focused approach. You don’t have to choose between focusing on your emotions or on the challenge; you can use the most appropriate coping strategies for your situation.

Journaling and meditation can be two ways to apply emotion-focused coping.

It is important that you control yourself so that you do not repress or avoid your emotions. Instead, consider approaching them directly and exploring and expressing them honestly.

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