Thursday, October 17, 2013

Problem-Focused and Emotion Focused Coping

Three methods of coping include problem-focused, emotion-focused, and biology-focused coping, and each is effective in specific circumstances (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012). When choosing an effective coping strategy, one must take into account the changeability of the stressor and the individual's reaction to the stressor, and the adaptability of the human body through changeable physiological responses (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012). The purpose of this paper is to describe and provide examples for effective and ineffective problem-focused, emotion-focused, and biology-focused coping mechanisms and explain why each is effective or ineffective. In addition, its goal is to explain two approaches appropriate to address common ineffective coping mechanisms for parents of developmentally disabled children.

                                                 Examples of Coping Mechanisms

Problem-Focused Coping

Problem-focused coping focuses on the changing or modifying the fundamental cause of the stress. This can be an effective method of coping when it is practical, and the stressor is changeable or modifiable. The overarching goal for this type of coping is to reduce or remove the cause of the stressor. This type of coping focuses on individuals' taking control of the relationship between them and the stressor (Lazarus, 1991). In addition, problem-focused coping may include employing information seeking, or developing strategies to avoid the source of the stress.

Effective Problem-Focused Coping

For example, an individual plans to host Thanksgiving dinner for 27 people, but finds the thought of preparing such a feast extraordinarily stressful. Problem-focused coping has the potential to resolve her stress. By evaluating options, seeking information, and taking control of the situation, all of which are problem-focused methods of coping, the individual decided to have the event catered. The effectiveness of problem-focused coping depends on whether the stressor can be managed by changing it (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012). Carver (2011) found problem-focused coping had a biological effect on stress, lowering the cortisol levels and promoting recovery from the stress.

Ineffective Problem-Focused Coping

Problem-focused coping is ineffective when an individual cannot exert control over a circumstance or stressor, or cannot make an adjustment to the stressor (Carver, 2011). An example of ineffective problem-focused coping is utilizing problem-solving to manage the stress of the death of a family member. Although problem-solving may assist the individual in finding an effective coping strategy, problem solving is not the most effective coping strategy since the stressor (the death of a loved one) cannot be adjusted or modified.

                                           Emotion-Focused Coping Strategies

Emotion-focused coping strategies are effective in the management of unchangeable stressors (Baldacchino & Draper, 2001; DeGraff & Schaffer, 2008). These coping mechanisms involve a cognitive reappraisal process that includes self-reflection and taking control over one's emotions (Carver, 2011). Rather than changing the problem, as in problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping examines the emotional response to the stressor. Folkman and Moskowitz (2004) found it relieved depression and anger in some circumstances. In addition, emotion-focused coping can facilitate expressing and processing emotions as a prelude to reappraising unchangeable stressors (Stanton, Kirk, Cameron, & Danoff-Burg, 2000).

Effective Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

For example, when an individual's spouse is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the healthy partner cannot change the diagnosis. In this case, the most effective way to manage the stress is for the healthy partner to change his or her perspective or appraisal of the stressor (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012). It is more effective to effect change in the partner's emotional reaction to the diagnosis than it is to focus on changing or denying the diagnosis, although denial, too, is an emotion-focused means of coping (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012).

Ineffective Emotion-Focused Coping

Emotion-focused coping would not be effective when an individual is chronically late making their mortgage payment, although they have enough money to make the payment. In this case, changing one's emotional response to needing to make a payment in a timely manner will not help change the problem. Problem solving may be more appropriate since the stressor, (making late payments) is changeable.

                                         Biology-Focused Coping Strategies

Biology-focused coping involves utilizing techniques that modify behavior and affect the physiological stress response (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012). It is a coping strategy that focuses on the relationship between the mind and body and works toward affecting this relationship with relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing to effect physiological responses (Dusek et al., 2008). The psychophysiological change that takes place is the result of a relaxation response in the mind that results in a decrease of the body's stress response (Dusek et al., 2008). Physiological changes include lowered blood pressure and respiration rates as well as beneficial changes in the brain (Dusek et al., 2008; Lazar et al., 2000).

Effective Biology-Focused Coping

If an individual is suffering from stress because he is worried about his blood pressure and his inability to relax, biology-focused coping that utilizes meditation and guided imagery to reduce stress will be beneficial psychologically and has the potential to lower his blood pressure. Biology-focused coping provokes a relaxation response, which lowers stress, and causes chemical changes in the body (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012; Dusek et al., 2008).

Ineffective Biology-Focused Coping

An example of ineffective biology-focused coping is when an individual decided to utilize meditation to cope with the fact that she must move out of her home in two weeks. This coping strategy will likely be unsuccessful for her and will not help her cope with the stressor of having to pack and move her belongings within two weeks. Problem-focused coping could help her weigh her options and plan how she is going to accomplish the move. Emotion-focused coping could help her accept that she must move and it has the potential to help her find at least one benefit in moving. A biology-focused approach will not be effective in this example because she has a changeable problem that is best mitigated by problem solving or problem-focused coping strategies that will help her take action to remove the stressor (Carver, 2011).

                    Effective Coping for Parents of Developmentally Disabled Children

Emotion-Focused Coping Mechanisms

One appropriate means of addressing ineffective coping in parents of developmentally disabled children is emotion-focused coping because of the negative and isolating thoughts associated with parenting these children. It is beneficial for this population to see the value in having a child with developmental disabilities. Emotion-focused coping strategies are appropriate because they have the potential to change the thoughts connected with the stressor, even though it is not possible to eliminate the stressor (which is the developmentally disabled child). Folkman and Moskowitz (2004) found emotional-focused coping was beneficial for relieving depression and anger, which is salient for his population because many of these parents become depressed and angry regarding their circumstances. In addition, emotion-focused coping has been found to be instrumental in the reappraisal process of unchangeable stressors (Stanton, Kirk, Cameron, & Danoff-Burg, 2000).

Biology-Focused Coping Mechanisms
Biology-focused coping mechanisms have the potential to provoke a relaxation response (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012; Lazar et al., 2000) that may provide psychological respite from the demands of parenting developmentally disabled children. Parenting these children has the potential to provoke unusual and chronic stress that can lead to a variety of psychological and physical health problems (Singer, Ethridge, & Aldana, 2007). Adopting behavioral changes that reduce the body's stress response has a variety of benefits (Laureate Education, Inc., 2012; Dusek et al., 2008). For this population, changes in behavior, such as focusing on a healthy diet and getting exercise and enough sleep may provide the needed respite from daily stress.


The focus of coping must consider the changeability of the stressor, the perception or emotional reaction to the stressor, and the capacity of the human body to mitigate stress through behaviors that can induce psychophysiological changes. The focus of coping must consider the unique circumstances of the individuals, such as the unusual stress of parents raising children with developmental disabilities. Providing individuals with appropriate adaptive coping skills can reduce negative health outcomes and increase the ability to manage ongoing stress.


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Carver, C. S. (2011). Coping. In R. J. Contrada & A. Baum (Eds.), The handbook of stress science: Biology, psychology, and health (pp. 221–229). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.

DeGraff, A., & Schaffer, J. (2008). Emotion-focused coping: a primary defense against stress for people living with spinal cord injury. Journal Of Rehabilitation, 74(1), 19-24.

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Laureate Education, Inc. (2012). The Focus of Coping. [Handout]. Baltimore: Author.

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Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46(8), 819.

Singer, G. H., Ethridge, B. L., & Aldana, S. I. (2007). Primary and secondary effects of parenting and stress management interventions for parents of children with developmental disabilities: A meta-analysis. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 13(4), 357-369. doi: 10.1002/mrdd.20175

Stanton, A. L., Kirk, S. B., Cameron, C. L., & Danoff-Burg, S. (2000). Coping through emotional approach: Scale construction and validation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1150-1169. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.6.1150

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