What’s in your coping toolkit?

My latest YouTube video is all about how we cope with setbacks and difficulties. It’s easy to think of this as a binary – I am or I am not coping. But as I explain in the video, there’s much more to it than that.

Basically coping is whatever we do in response to a difficulty or setback. Think about how you deal with disappointing feedback from your boss. Or the fallout from an argument with a colleague. Or an overwhelming task list on your latest project. Each scenario is difficult and we’ll each respond to these in different ways.

Some of our coping strategies can be automatic, some can be more intentional and considered. Some can help us with the source of our difficulties and some can even make the problem worse. As coping is a bit of a catch-all term, it’s useful to get beneath the skin of this definition and explore it in more detail.

A way to think about our coping strategies

Emotion-focused coping

Basically, emotion focused coping is what we do to make ourselves feel better about a situation. We might go for a walk, talk with a friend, hit the gym. Whatever, we do, we feel better afterwards.

Problem-focused coping

Problem-focused coping is anything we do to address the root cause of the problem we’re dealing with. If you’d had an argument with a colleague and felt bad afterwards, you’d be using problem-focused coping if you got in touch with them to have a constructive conversation about your argument.

Good or bad?

In a general sense, it’s not that useful to think of coping strategies as being either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It frequently depends on the context and, more specifically, the amount of control or influence we have over the problem or setback we’re dealing with.

If we use an emotion-focused strategy like hitting the gym, we can feel great afterwards. But if the source of the problem is something we could have an impact on, it might be more helpful to address that. Otherwise, we keep returning to the workplace containing the same problem. Over and over again.

And of course, if we try to use a problem-focused strategy in a situation when we have little to no control over the problem, then we’ll end up exhausted and frustrated.

Sustainable vs unsustainable coping strategies

Another helpful way to reflect on our coping strategies is the extent to which they’re sustainable. What I mean by this is the extent to which we can keep using the without any negative impact on our wellbeing.

In general, getting physical exercise after a frustrating day at work can be a sustainable response. You can keep doing this and it’s probably not going to have a negative impact on your help. Quite the opposite, really.

But if every time you get critical feedback from your manager, you reach for a beer or a burger to make yourself feel better, then over the medium to long term, your wellbeing is going to take a hit.

Now I’m not saying you need to live like a monk! I’m quite the fan of burgers myself – if that wasn’t obvious!! But, it’s more helpful to have a range of different coping strategies that we use with intention, to match the situation we find ourselves in.

Reflection time!

So now that you know more about coping, have a think about your go-to responses to challenges and setbacks. Are they more emotion- or problem-focused. More importantly, are they sustainable? Can you keep using these strategies without them detracting from your wellbeing?

I hope you find the video useful. If you’re not already subscribed, please do – and get notified about future videos. And think about who you can share it with – may a friend or colleague could do with learning more about how to cope sustainably with what’s going on in their life.

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