A Primer On Coping (and Some Holiday Applications)

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.

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

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.