The psychology of coping

Is a difficult and challenging event inherently stressful or is it experienced as stressful? This important question lies at the heart of understanding how people successfully cope or not.

It is evident to all that life throws at us an endless cycle of demands that we are required to attend to and deal with. Some might say that life is hard. Even if this is true, which it probably is, it does not mean that life cannot be enjoyed. As children grow into adults their resources, skills and capacities are increasingly required to cope with more complex demands.

What is coping?

Coping is the way we face, process and deal with difficult demands made on us. You will notice that I do not use the words dealing with stress. There is an important reason for this apparent omission. It is this; an event of any nature may be defined and experienced as stressful by one person but another person may define and experience the same event as not being stressful.

Lewis Pugh

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyuk4mFLv6Q

It is precisely this distinction that will allow us to appreciate the importance of understanding coping.

The accounting exam

Let’s use an example to make this point clearer.

We are at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Business Studies department. The students are told on Monday that there will be a big test in accounting on Thursday morning at 08h00.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology

http://www.cput.ac.za/

Jack’s first reaction is to stop in mid-breath and freeze in disbelief, a bodily reaction; he does not receive the news well. Tan hears the news and goes straight to her diary she always has with her and inserts the details.

We observe that already there are two different responses/reactions to the same event.

Jack goes home after varsity on the bus, his brow furrowed; lips pressed together, hands clasped, fingers squeezing each other. He is sweating and takes off his hoodie even though it’s a cold day. By the time he gets home he feels a bit like puking.

Tan also travels home on the bus and while she sits makes a quick list of the sections of accounting where her understanding is not complete and writes the phone number of her accounting tutor to arrange a time to meet to review the topics she is not sure about.

When Jack hears the news in his mind he clearly experiences it as a threat, something dangerous, something he does not feel confident to tackle, something not in his control.

Tan on the other hand hears the same news and immediately begins planning her strategy for cracking the test. Clearly she embraces the news and sees it as normal and as a challenge but within her control.

One person appraises the event negatively and the other appraises the event positively.

Jack’s level of worry is high. It does not feel good. He decides to go clubbing with his friends, looking forward to the alcohol he will consume. After his third shot of Tequila he starts to joke with his friends, chirping them loudly. He feels mellow, he feels chilled; the distress is gone.

Now I hope you are not getting confused. You see Tan is not made of stone; she is also feeling the pressure of the impending test.  She doesn’t want to lose her focus by worrying so each afternoon after classes she goes for a short sprint through the forest. It is so beautiful that it calms her senses and because she loves sprinting she feels strong and settled after her exertions. Her body is relaxed and her mind activated and aroused ready to face the mountain she has to climb. She knows it will be tough.

Tan has a bite to eat and then sits on her bed and begins to go over her accounting notes slowly and methodically. Sections she understands she speaks into her IPod so that she can listen to it when she has time to spare. The areas she needs help with she highlights in green for the meeting she arranged for the next morning with Sam her accounting tutor. She makes a list of specific questions she would like to go through with Sam. Fleetingly she remembers the pressure of the exam but is able to rest easy knowing she is doing everything in her power to prepare herself.

Later because he must Jack opens his accounting text book reluctantly, briefly. He can’t focus even if he tried; he is just too wound up emotionally. He knows that if he fails this test he might not be allowed to proceed to the next accounting module. He closes the book and goes off to listen to Jimi Hendrix at full volume, it takes him away…from the heaviness he feels, from the catastrophe he is anticipating.

So Thursday comes and goes and then more Thursdays come and go as is the way in life.

When an event occurs that we know is demanding of our coping resources three aspects may be discerned. The event will be experienced via the body and the mind meaning that the regulation of emotion and affect arousal is central to the nature of a person’s coping responses

  • The event will be appraised by the person experiencing it.
  • Due to its demanding nature the event may create emotional distress.
  • Problem solving actions will need to be taken to deal with the demands of the event and with the distress evoked (emotion regulation) by the demand.

In confronting taxing demands or experiences we try to make the experience more controllable. So before anything is actually done about the problem. We determine our thoughts about it.

Some possible negative appraisals include:

  • I cannot deal with this problem.
  • This problem scares me too much.
  • Even if I try I know I will not succeed.
  • I refuse to face this problem.
  • I don’t accept that there is a problem.
  • This problem is dangerous for me.
  • This problem will overwhelm me.
  • I cannot control this problem.

Some possible positive appraisals include:

  • I believe that I can handle this problem.
  • I am in control of what I do and can do.
  • I have the confidence to deal with this problem.
  • I will do whatever I have to do to tackle the problem.
  • I accept this problem as a challenge that I can meet.

The question to be asked is this; will problems occur in our lives? They will all the time. Is it better to appraise these problems negatively or positively? Will we appraise our self-belief and capacities to handle these problems positively or negatively?

As I have said when we face a demanding problem that challenges our coping resources it is likely that the experience of the problem will cause emotional distress. This emotional distress must also be dealt with if we are to successfully cope. In fact one could say that the effectiveness of any action we take to solve the problem hinges on the effectiveness of our efforts to deal with the emotional aspects caused by the problem; our processes of emotion regulation. We need to have control over our emotions if we are going to be able to use our thinking abilities to find solutions to problems in a dispassionate and composed manner. If we appraise an event negatively, as being out of our control to deal with or as unchangeable by our efforts we are likely to worry more and do less to solve the problem.

So Jack didn’t believe that he could face and master the Thursday accounting test. This caused great distress for him in his body and his mind. He worked hard to reduce or remove his emotional distress which is an important aspect of the coping process. Thus we must accept that Jack’s efforts at least in the short term were successful; by his actions he did reduce his emotional distress if only transiently. He was unable to direct much effort energy and capacity towards solving the actual problem but he did expend and direct lots of energy to reduce the experience of distress in relation to the actual problem. So he might argue, “I’m handling it don’t worry!” and to an extent in part that is true.

Obviously whilst important this alone is insufficient to be regarded as successful coping, because he did nothing to act on or transform the actual problem; the impending accountancy test.

Tan believed that she could tackle the Thursday accounting test. She believed that it was within her control to take actions to ensure success and achieve a positive outcome. She coped by approaching the problem directly, planning and strategizing ways to ensure that she was prepared in every way possible. She felt the pressure of the task and in order to not feel overwhelmed by the anticipation she structured time for outdoor exercise that helped her feel calm and composed and in control of her emotional arousal.

Thus, with Tan we observe positive appraisal of the event and her capacities to tackle it, dealing with the emotional aspects and executing actions to actually solve the problem – successful coping.

How we cope feeds into the way we cope again and again.

Coping is part of a cyclical feedback process. We experience an event, believe that we can cope with it, find ways to reduce emotional distress that allows us to focus our mind on actions designed to solve the problem. This successful coping then feeds back as positive beliefs about ourselves and our capacities to cope, allowing us to appraise new events positively in the future, use direct actions to solve and transform the problem whilst employing effective strategies to deal with emotion arousal.

Sadly the corollary is equally true.  If we believe we cannot successfully meet the demands of an event, cannot find constructive ways to reduce emotional distress, fail to take instrumental action to solve problems, we are less likely to be positive in the way we appraise our capacities to deal with demands in the future with consequent impact on our capacity to regulate emotion.

A spanner in the works

Just when you thought it was straightforward, almost like a recipe to follow someone throws a spanner in the works.

In terms of the responses of Jack and Tan we can see clearly that although they face the same event their interpretations experiences and actions were totally different, resulting in important and serious outcomes and consequences for each of them.

Can we stop there? If we do we risk falling into the same trap that plagued education for decades; not understanding or valuing diversity and not practicing inclusive and supportive education (and parenting) to nurture success for every type of liquorice allsorts.

Also, it is not my nature to stop there.

How do we explain the differences between Jack and Tan?

Here are some possible explanations.

  • Jack is lazy while Tan is diligent.
  • Jack abuses substances Tan exercises.
  • Jack has a problem with authority and rules, possibly an anti-social personality.
  • Jack comes from a dysfunctional family Tan comes from a model (good, normal) family.
  • Jack is not university material, he shouldn’t be there, he should have done plumbing.

Or

  • If one looks at the history Jack has always struggled with tests and exams even as far back as primary school. Tan has always found it easy to organise and plan ahead.
  • Jack is by nature anxious, like his father before him. This often means that when he feels he can’t cope he tends to avoid things and becomes overwhelmed by emotion arousal which becomes his central focus rather than the actual problem challenging him.
  • In addition to anxiousness maybe Jack has a learning problem that manifests as poor organisation and planning that has been undiagnosed for years.
  • Tan has always been consistent at school with good skills across all areas of functioning, verbal, performance, organisation and execution.

No doubt there could be many more explanations. So what is the point of this exercise?

Is it better for a child’s self-esteem to be told constantly that they are lazy, abuse substances, are anti-social yada, yada, yada?

Is it better for a child’s self-esteem to be told that they have a high level of anxiousness and also have a learning disability that makes school work much harder because of poorer skills in processing, organisation, planning and execution?

If we refuse to recognise who and what we are we risk being tortured or torturing ourselves for years, unnecessarily so, in my view.

School is a useful place in that it shows us quite clearly who and what the child is. What he or she can do easily and what they struggle to do. This is all irrelevant if we stubbornly hold onto the notion of some being normal and some being abnormal.

In psychology and other areas we find the Bell Curve of normal distribution. Here normal does not refer to a particular score or range of scores being normal as opposed to being abnormal. Rather it refers to the way that in any given population there will be a distribution of scores, for example IQ, which more or less stays the same from context to context. The issue here is to recognise that on the Bell Curve you will find kids with IQ scores from lower to higher, with most being found in the average range.

Intelligence and IQ

http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/intelligence.html

Do we teach (or parent) to the average, after all most of the kids fall in that range or do we commit to teach to the whole range?  If we teach to the whole range we must concede that normal does not apply, the only thing that has relevance is to answer the questions;

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses this child possesses?
  • What interventions does the child need to strengthen skills and be taught strategies to compensate for absent or diminished skills?
  • What support does the child need to navigate the demands of learning?
  • What adjustment to context and management will result in the best educational and/or parenting experience for the child?

The above should not be construed as offering excuses for poor performance. It is just reality, we can choose to deal with it or not.

Finally for those who are still dubious if not critical the following is important.

Some people are lazy. Some do emerge from dysfunctional families etc. Some are diligent etc.

Whatever the nature of the child’s/person’s reality, strengths and weaknesses it should always be expected that the child will try to the best of their ability, will work hard to achieve the best that they are capable of.

Just remember that for some the same learning is harder to cope with than for others; recognise it, understand it and have empathy with that.