Most of us are coping within our daily lives. When the babysitter is late we are coping; when we are under pressure at work, we are coping; when we are managing an illness, we are coping. The question is how well are we coping? How good are our coping skills? Life shows us that we can cope in many different ways but some of these ways are constructive and others are damaging – called maladaptive coping. This article outlines some thoughts on both constructive and maladaptive coping and also offers us the chance to ponder how good our coping skills actually are.
Have a think about how you would cope with this problem. You have just discovered that you are being made redundant. You live alone, have a lot of debt and this situation is a financial disaster for you. What will you do?
• Hide from reality and the truth of your situation by using defence mechanisms, such as denial and rationalisation.
• Be drawn into addictive behaviours, such as drinking, drug-taking, gambling and eating to assuage your pain.
• Disconnect or dissociate yourself from friends and family to prevent feeling negative emotions.
• Pretend and cover over your true feelings as you tell people, ‘everything is fine.’
• Wallow and blame others for your situation.
Positive Coping Skills
• Directly connect with your problem, be willing to think about it and spend time figuring out your options – not wallowing, but constructive contemplation.
• Take responsibility for the problem, don’t look to others to solve it, don’t wait around and don’t blame others for your situation.
• Be open about your problem with someone – be willing to ask for help and be willing to receive valuable advice and support.
• Revisit various scenarios that you had previously anticipated in relation to possible job loss in this fragile economic climate.
When you think about a problem you have faced, be it large or small, how have you reacted? Have you closed down, not wanted to talk about it, shut it out, buried your head in the sand and hoped it would all go away? How did this work out for you? It is fine to close down for a short while, the emergency strategy for coping. But if closing down becomes a way of life then we are venturing into maladaptive coping. In fact, we’re not coping well at all, and storing up problems for the future. Using the maladaptive coping strategies listed above offers only short-term fixes which carry long-term problems. You will not only have the initial problem you are escaping from but then further problems down the line from your maladaptive coping. Burying your pain usually has a downside, like a festering wound, this pain may need to resurface at some point. Also, disconnecting from a problem – numbing ourselves to negative feelings – usually results in numbing ourselves to positive feelings too. This has far reaching consequences for our long-term emotional happiness.
On the other hand, if you take responsibility, are open and engaged with your problem, include others, look for help and talk honestly about what is happening to you, then you have a better chance of successfully coping with your problems and not causing yourself further harm.
How Would You Have Coped?
Returning to our initial example – the redundancy and money worries. We can imagine that if we coped positively we would look to tell someone about our situation. Find out what we could do, look for assistance and maybe discuss things with trusted friends. In practical terms we’d look to cut back on expenditure, perhaps consider if we could move in with a friend or family member. By contrast, if our coping skills were less successful then we may find ourselves keeping this news quiet, covering over and pretending that all is well. We may continue on as normal with our finances, sinking more into debt. Perhaps drink, or another addictive behaviour, calls us to offer some relief and escape from our worries. As we take this path we continue to deny that there is a problem and do not address the daily, and mounting, red-letter correspondence which we hide in a drawer. Clearly the style in which we cope with this scenario will have far-reaching implications for our future.
So how do you cope with difficult situations? Do you have a good set of coping skills? Do you reach out to people or do you deny that your problems exist? By briefly reviewing these positive and negative coping styles we see that, wherever possible, it’s better to face your problems head on. Don’t hide from them. However hard it seems initially, let your feelings be seen and give voice to what has happened to you. By positively coping in this way you may well prevent deeper pain and suffering in the longer term.