Controlling the effects of stress depends on the behavioural responses people make to stressful
situations. Thus, a person’s mental and physical health depends, in part, on his or her ability to
cope effectively with stress.
The Concept of Coping
Coping refers to efforts to master, reduce, or tolerate the demands created by stress.
People cope with stress in many ways – figure 4.1 gives a list of 14 coping tactics (pg105).
It is most adaptive to use a variety of coping strategies. Some people rely on the some
strategies more than others. But the flexibility in coping is more desirable than consistently
relying on the same one. The use of multiple strategies is related to an increase in resilience
and a decrease in distress. Flexible copers can differentiate among stressful events in terms of
controllability and impact, which is important information to know when choosing a coping
Coping strategies vary in their adaptive value. All strategies are not created equal.
Coping processes range from the helpful to the counterproductive. We distinguish between
coping patterns that tend to be helpful and those that tend to be maladaptive.
*No coping strategy can guarantee a successful outcome.
Common Coping Patterns of Limited Value
When confronted with stress, people sometimes simply give up and withdraw from the battle.
This tends to be associated with emotional reactions of sadness and dejection.
Learned helplessness is a passive behaviour produced by exposure to unavoidable aversive
events. In adolescents, LH is associated with disengagements in academics and an increase in
- Environmental stressors, such as excessive noise, traffic, produce a syndrome that
Cognitive interpretation of aversive events determines whether they develop LH. Helplessness
seems to occur when individuals come to believe that events are beyond their control. This
emerges most in people who exhibit a pessimistic explanatory style and attribute setback to
personal factors rather than situational factors.
Overall, giving up is not a highly regarded method of coping (behavioural
disengagement) and may even increase stress levels. However, giving up could be adaptive in
some instances (i.e., thrown in a job that you are not equipped to handle – it might be better to
quit rather than face constant pressure and diminishing self-esteem). Therefore withdrawal from
unattainable goals can be affective.
“Roadside shootings triggered by minor incidents.” This is known as “road-rage” and it
exemplifies maladaptive ways in which drivers cope with stress, anxiety and hostility.
Aggression is any behaviour intended to hurt someone, either physically or verbally.
Aggression of any kind can be problematic.
Aggressive responses to frustration are more likely if the person ruminates about being
provoked, if he or she as a depleted capacity for self control, or if alcohol is involved. Feeling
insecurity and anonymity in one’s personal space also influence aggressive behaviour.
1 Freud theorised that behaving aggressively could get pent-up emotion out of one’s
system and thus be adaptive. Catharsis – refers to the release of emotional tension.
- Most studies find that behaving in an aggressive manner tends to fuel more aggression.
- Playing violent videogames is related to aggression, physiological arousal, and
aggressive thoughts and to decreased prosocial behaviour. (Analogy of smoking to
- As a coping strategy acting aggressively has little value
- The interpersonal conflicts that often emerge from aggressive behaviour actually induces
Stress sometimes leads to reduced impulse control, or self-indulgence.
*Developing alternative rewards is a common response to stress. When things go poorly in one
area of your life, you may try to compensate by pursuing substitute forms of satisfaction. I.e.
stress induced eating, smoking, gambling, and alcohol and drug use.
Note: stress and poor physical health might attributable in part to these unhealthy behaviours.
Internet Addiction – consists of spending an inordinate amount of time on the internet
and inability to control online use. This is a syndrome and people tend to feel anxious,
depressed, or empty when they are not online. This syndrome does not appear to be rare and
rates appear to be higher in China than in the US.
- This coping strategy can also increase one’s stress level.
When confronted by stress (especially frustration and pressure), people often become highly
self-critical. This is the tendency to engage in self-talk, also known as catastrophic thinking.
People often 1) unreasonably attribute their failures to personal shortcomings, 2) focus on
negative feedback, and 3) make unduly pessimistic projections about the future.
Catastrophic thinking causes, aggravates, and perpetuates emotional reactions to stress that
are often problematic. Self-blame is also associated with increased distress and depression for
individuals who have experienced a variety of traumas.
Using Defensive Coping:
The Nature of Defense Mechanisms
Defense mechanisms are largely unconscious reactions that protect a person from unpleasant
emotions such as anxiety and guilt. (Figure 4.5, pg 112 – chart
with some mechanisms)
What do defense mechanisms defend against? They shield the individual from the emotional
discomfort elicited by stress. Their main purpose is to ward off unwelcome emotions or to
reduce their intensity. Foremost among the emotions guarded against is anxiety, especially
when the anxiety is the result of some threat to their self-esteem. They also use defenses to
prevent dangerous feelings of anger from exploding into acts of aggression. Guilt and dejection
are other options that people often try to evade.
How do they work? Defense mechanisms work through self-deception. They accomplish their
goals by distorting reality so it does not appear so threatening. Defense mechanisms work their
magic by bending reality in self-serving ways.
Are they conscious or unconscious? Defense mechanisms operate at varying levels of
awareness and can be conscious or unconscious.
Are they normal? Definitely. Most people use these mechanisms on a regular basis – they are
entirely normal patterns of coping.
2 Can Defense Mechanisms Ever Be Healthy?
More often than not, the answer is no and it has typically led to increased negative effect &
These are poor ways of coping for many reasons including, 1) defense coping is an avoidance
strategy which rarely provides a genuine solution. 2) defense such as denial, fantasy, and
projection represent wishful thinking. 3) Defense coping style has been related to poor health,
typically because if often leads to people delaying facing up to their problems.
Several lines of evidence suggesting that defensive illusions may be adaptive for mental
health and well being.
- Normal (non-depressed) people tend to have overly favourable self-images. In contrast,
depressed people exhibit less favourable, but more realistic, self-concepts.
- Normal participants overestimate the degree to which they control chance events.
Whereas depressed participants are less prone to this illusion of control.
- Normal individuals are more likely than their depressed counterparts to display
unrealistic optimism in making projections about the future.
*Roy Baumeister theorised that it’s all a matter of degree and that there is an “optimal margin of
illusion.” Extreme self-deception is maladaptive, but small illusions may often be beneficial.
The Nature of Constructive Coping
Constructive coping (CC) refers to efforts to deal with stressful events that are judged to be
relatively healthful. (Note, the healthiest coping responses may turn out to be ineffective in
What makes a coping strategy constructive?
1. CC involves confronting problems directly. It is task relevant and action oriented. It
involved a conscious effort to rationally evaluate your options in an effort to solve your
2. CC takes effort. Using these strategies to reduce stress in an active process that
3. CC is based on reasonably realistic appraisals of your stress and coping resources. A
little self-deception may sometimes be adaptive, but excessive self-deception and highly
unrealistic negative thinking are not.
4. CC involves learning to recognize and manage potentially disruptive emotional reactions
5. CC involves learning to exert some control over potentially harmful or destructive
habitual behaviours. It requires the acquisition of some behavioural self-control.
Divide constructive coping into three broad categories:
I. Appraisal-focus coping – aimed at changing one’s interpretation of stressful events.
II. Problem-focused coping – aimed at altering the stressful situation itself.
III. Emotion-focused coping – aimed at managing potential emotional distress.
Appraisal-Focused Constructive Coping
A useful way to deal with stress is to alter your appraisal of threatening events.
Ellis’s Rational Thinking:
Ellis believed that people could short-circuit their emotional reactions to stress by altering their
appraisals of stressful events.
3 Rational-emotive behaviour therapy is an approach that focuses on altering clients’ patterns
or irrational thinking to reduce maladaptive emotions and behaviour.
Ellis maintained that you feel the way you think. He argued that problematic emotional reactions
are caused by negative self-talk, which he called catastrophic thinking – involves unrealistic
appraisals of stress that exaggerate the magnitude of one’s problems. A-B-C sequence explains
A. Activating event: which produces the stress. The activating event may be any
potentially stressful transaction.
B. Belief system: belief about the event. This represents your appraisal of the stress.
C. Consequence: of your negative thinking. When your appraisals of stressful events are
highly negative, the consequence tends to be emotional distress, thus u feel angry,
Note: A does not cause C, B causes C.
Catastrophic thinking is a risk factor for developing PTSD.
The Roots of Catastrophic Thinking
Ellis theorized that unrealistic appraisals of stress are derived from the irrational assumptions
that people hold. These fault assumptions which most people hold unconsciously, generate
catastrophic thinking and emotional turmoil. To facilitate emotional self-control it is important to
learn to spot irrational assumptions and the unhealthy patterns of thought they generate. Here
are common irrational assumptions.
1. I must have love and affection from certain people.
2. I must perform well in all endeavors.
3. Other people should always behave competently and be considerate of me.
4. Events should always go the way I like.
Reducing Catastrophic Thinking
How can you reduce your unrealistic appraisals of stress? Learn (1) how to detect catastrophic
thinking and (2) how to dispute the irrational assumptions that cause it.
Disputing your irrational assumptions requires subjecting your entire reasoning process
to scrutiny. Try to root out the assumptions from which your conclusions are derived.
Humor as a Stress Reducer:
When the going gets tough, finding some humor in the situation is not uncommon and is usually
beneficial. A good sense of humor functioned as a buffer to lessen the negative impact of stress
on mood. There is also evidence that humor is associated with enhanced immune functioning.
Humor that is affiliative (used to engage or amuse others) or self-enhancing (maintaining
a humorous perspective in the face of adversity) is related to better mental health. In contrast,
coping through humor that is self-defeating (used at one’s own expense) or aggressive
(criticising or ridiculing others) is related to poorer mental health. Likewise, using a lot of self-
defeating humor and very little self-enhancing or affiliative humor is associated with increased
Humor affects appraisals of stressful events. Jokes put a less-threatening spin on their
trials and tribulations. Another hypothesis is that a good sense of humor buffers the effects of
stress by facilitating positive social interactions, which promote social support.
“Things could be worse” – comparing your own plight with others’ even tougher struggles can
help you put your problems in perspective. This is a common coping strategy that can result in
improved mood and self-esteem. One healthy aspect of positive reinterpretation is that it can
facilitate calming appraisals of stress without the necessity of distorting reality.
Another way to engage in positive reinterpretation is to search for something good in a
bad experience. Many setbacks, although distressing as they are, have positive elements. “I
came out of the experience better than I went in” or “I grew as a person”.
4 Problem-Focused Constructive Coping
Problem-focused coping includes efforts to remedy or conquer the stress-producing problem