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Coping strategies: how to deal with stress

Stress affects everyone, and our coping strategies depend a lot on our mindset and what is modeled to us in early life. So, what exactly are these strategies? Let’s break it down here. Broadly speaking, coping is a complex defense mechanism against stress.

There are two broad categories of coping mechanisms: approach and avoidance, both of which types develop early in life. Approach coping mechanisms involve confronting and managing stress, while avoidance coping mechanisms involve moving away from the stressful event (e.g., wishful thinking, denial). Approach coping mechanisms can be further subdivided into primary control coping, or acting on the source of the stress (e.g., problem solving, emotional expression), and secondary control coping, or adapting to the source of the stress (e.g., acceptance, positive thinking).

Traditionally, approach coping is associated with “higher competence, positive functioning and health,” since people who target the source of stress as opposed to avoiding it tend to be more well-adjusted. On the other hand, avoidance coping is used more often during stressful events that are difficult to confront (e.g., from failing an exam to arguing with a friend), and children who use this set of coping strategies often tend to also exhibit more depressive symptoms. However, as coping is highly context-specific, research also shows that both strategies can be helpful according to the situation. For example, avoidance coping is useful in the short-term when facing a seemingly uncontrollable situation.

It’s worth noting there are substantial individual differences in how we respond to stress. Among the diverse set of coping strategies available to each individual, some strategies simply work better for some people than others. One study showed that male adolescents use more aggressive, avoidance coping strategies (e.g., swearing), and females use more social and spiritual support in a diplomatic fashion. Another study asserts that culture is one important factor, among many, that shapes the adoption of a particular style of coping. For example, one dimension that countries differ by is the individualism-collectivism spectrum. In other words, which is prioritized: the individual or the group? The United States, Australia, and Great Britain are some of the most individualist countries, and highly collectivist countries include Venezuela, Columbia, and Pakistan. Individualist cultures imply an approach coping style that encourages changing the environment for one self. On the other hand, collectivist cultures imply an avoidance coping style that encourages changing one self to the environment.

At a smaller, more intimate level, the family environment contributes to whether or not active or avoidance coping is promoted. In the next installation of Cherish’s series, you will read about what makes adolescent coping special and how to help your teen build stress tolerance.

Cherish also has free COVID-19 resources (SMS coaching, community groups for parents of teens). And if you’re interested in a personal parenting coach, please sign up here! Stay tuned!

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