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Coping with Stress
Coping with stress refers to a person’s cognitive and behavioral responses to a stressful situation. This research paper reviews literature on coping with stressful experiences. It discusses the antecedents and consequences of various strategies for coping with stress, including the role of coping in health and well-being. The paper describes three functions of coping: problem-focused, emotion-focused, and relationship-focused.
I. Concept of Coping
A. Why Is Coping Important for Mental Health?
B. Historical Overview
II. Determinants of Coping Responses
A. Personality Characteristics as Determinants of Coping
B. Situational Specificity in Coping
III. Ways of Coping with Stress
A. Problem-Focused Coping
B. Emotion-Focused Coping
1. Emotional Expression
2. Seeking Social Support
4. Positive Illusion
5. Social Comparison
C. Relationship-Focused Coping
1. Empathic Responding
2. Active Engagement and Protective Buffering
I. Concept of Coping
In common parlance, ‘‘coping’’ is often used to suggest that individuals are handling stress well or that they have the situation under control. However, most health psychologists who study stress and coping would define coping broadly to include all thoughts and behaviors that occur in response to a stressful experience, whether the person is handling the situation well or poorly. Coping includes what we do and think in response to a stressor, even if we are unaware of why or what we are doing. This broad definition is important for two reasons. First, if we limit the definition of coping to thoughts and behaviors that the individual purposefully and intentionally engages in as a way of handling the stressful situation, we may exclude a wide array of responses that typically remain outside of awareness. These can include, for example, believing in unrealistically positive illusions, escaping through the use of alcohol and other drugs, or fleeing from stress in one area of life (e.g., family) by immersing oneself in some unrelated activity (e.g., work). Second, this definition of coping does not assume a priori that some forms of coping are bad and others are good. All of the person’s responses to the stressor are considered coping, whether or not they help to resolve the situation. This is important, as in recent years researchers have found that many forms of coping that have traditionally been considered bad coping, such as escape-avoidance, may actually have beneficial effects when coping with certain types of stressors under specific circumstances.
A. Why Is Coping Important for Mental Health?
Many disorders of mental health are either directly caused by stress or their expression is triggered by stress. In cases where a person is already experiencing poor health, stress can exacerbate and maintain the problems. However, there are wide individual differences in the effects of stress, and these are thought to be largely due to individual differences in coping with stress. Therefore, many health psychologists have turned their attention in recent years to trying to understand the antecedents and consequences of various ways of coping with stress.
B. Historical Overview
In early models, certain forms of coping (and people who used them) were viewed as immature, dysfunctional, or maladaptive. Many emotion-focused strategies were not even considered forms of coping, but merely defenses. These models lost favor as evidence accumulated that many forms of coping previously assumed to be maladaptive could sometimes have positive effects, at least in certain circumstances. Researchers such as Lazarus conceptualized coping as a process in constant flux, responsive to changes in situational demands. The focus on situational factors as primary determinants of coping responses was welcomed as a correction of previous tendencies to treat coping in trait terms. Claims made by Mischel in 1968 that personality traits are poor predictors of behavior were also influential. Furthermore, the findings of a number of studies suggest that in general, situational factors play a larger role in determining responses to stress than do personality traits. Thus, earlier notions of rigid ‘‘styles’’ of coping have been replaced by an understanding that coping is best conceived in process terms. Given this new understanding of coping that emerged during the 1970s and 1980s, the role of personality in coping was given scant attention during those years. Recently, it has been acknowledged that although personality may not be the single most important determinant of coping responses to stress, its role is nonetheless quite important. In the past few years, health psychologists have again turned their attention to examining personality factors that might determine how people cope with stress. Currently, most researchers in the field would agree that how a person copes with stress will shift over time depending on an array of factors that can be broken down into two broad categories: person and situation.
II. Determinants of Coping Responses
A. Personality Characteristics as Determinants of Coping
Clinicians and researchers alike have examined the role of personality in coping in an attempt to predict and explain which individuals are at risk for experiencing psychological maladjustment. The underlying assumption is that personality can influence how one copes with stress, and coping determines whether stress will have deleterious effects on health and well-being. A consistent set of personality traits have emerged as significant predictors of the ways in which people cope and the impact coping has on their health. The following is a brief summary of the various personality traits that have been empirically related to coping.
The last 50 years have seen a growing interest in the role of personality as measured by the big five personality traits of neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. These five factors are believed by many personality researchers to be the five basic underlying dimensions of personality. Researchers have tended to find that neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative affect) is related to maladaptive coping efforts and poor psychological well-being. In comparison, researchers have tended to find that extraversion (the tendency to be gregarious and to experience positive affect) is related to adaptive coping and better psychological well-being. Individuals high on openness (the tendency to be creative and open to feelings and experiences) remain strong in the face of adversity and are more able to engage in coping that is sensitive to the needs of others. Given that two defining features of openness to experience are originality and creativity, future research may show individuals high on openness to be particularly effective and flexible copers. Those individuals high on agreeableness (the tendency to be good-natured) also appear to cope in an adaptive manner that is sensitive to the needs of others. Individuals high on agreeableness tend to engage in less negative interpersonal coping strategies (e.g., confronting others), more positive interpersonal coping (e.g., seeking social support), and lower levels of maladaptive emotion-focused coping (e.g., escape avoidance). Individuals high on agreeableness may seek to avoid additional conflict and distress when coping. Finally, those individuals high on conscientiousness (the tendency to be careful and reliable) have been found to engage in lower levels of maladaptive emotion-focused coping (e.g., escape avoidance) and higher use of problem-focused coping. Individuals high in conscientiousness may seek to engage in the most responsible and constructive forms of coping.
The way in which one anticipates future events has also been established to have an impact on well-being. The tendency to anticipate positive outcomes for the future is referred to as optimism. Carver, Scheier, and others have reported this trait to be associated with both adaptive coping and good mental health. High levels of optimism may lead to higher levels of constructive coping, which in turn reduce distress, making positive expectations highly adaptive. In contrast, pessimistic individuals (those who do not generally anticipate positive future outcomes) tend to use more maladaptive coping strategies, which in turn are related to higher levels of both anxiety and depression.
An internal locus of control (i.e., feeling a sense of personal control) over the events and experiences in one’s life is often positively related to psychological well-being, whereas an external sense of control (i.e., lacking a sense of personal control and feeling that control over events is external to oneself) is often negatively related to mental health criteria. Research examining locus of control as a stable personality trait has identified several ways in which this trait influences both coping and psychological adjustment. For example, studies have found that an internal locus of control is related to greater use of problem-focused coping. It appears that a belief in one’s ability to impact or change events is related to constructive attempts to alter or change aspects of the environment or oneself under times of duress. Given that such problem-focused coping efforts are generally associated with better psychological outcomes, at least when used with stressors that are controllable, an internal locus of control can have beneficial effects upon mental health.
B. Situational Specificity in Coping
Currently, there is much interest among researchers in studying the factors within a given situation that determine how an individual will cope, how the chosen coping strategies influence mental health, and how this process varies from situation to situation. In 1984, Lazarus and Folkman identified a number of dimensions of stressful situations that are important determinants of the stress and coping process. Novelty (has the individual coped with this type of stressor in the past?), predictability (are there signs that will alert an individual to the onset of the stressful event /situation?), event uncertainty (how likely is it that the situation will occur?), imminence (is the event likely to occur in the near future?), duration (how long will the experience last?), and temporal uncertainty (is it possible to identify whether the event will occur?) all impact affective, cognitive, and behavioral reactions to stress. That is, these situational factors play a role in determining the extent to which a person experiences a situation as stressful, and in turn, how he or she copes with the stressful situation.
Several researchers have conducted studies that explore a variety of situational determinants of coping. Consistent with the hypothesis that situational factors do influence the coping process, researchers have tended to find that different situations elicit different forms of coping, and similar situations elicit similar modes of coping. In addition, similar coping strategies have been found to have different effects across different situations, in that the effectiveness of any one coping strategy and its impact on well-being varies from situation to situation. This points to the importance of a match between a chosen coping strategy and the situationally specific demands of a stressor to maximize emotional adjustment and minimize ongoing struggles. Thus, the particular characteristics of a stressful situation determine both coping choice and coping effectiveness. For example, positive reappraisal is generally an effective coping strategy related to psychological well-being. However, in 1991, Wethington and Kessler noted that when the stressful situation calls for some form of action to be taken, the use of positive reappraisal alone is related to psychological maladjustment. Likewise, in 1994, Aldwin pointed out that emotion- focused coping is more effective when coping with a situation that is perceived as involving loss, whereas problem-focused coping is more effective when coping with a situation that is appraised as a threat or challenge. Therefore, one must be cautious in making generalizations about the relation of specific coping strategies to mental health, as this relation will vary according to the situational demands.
Empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that individuals will vary their coping efforts and choices systematically to fit a given stressor. General coping styles aggregated over time tend to be poorly correlated with the ways in which one copes in a specific situation. That is, researchers or clinicians cannot accurately predict how an individual will cope with any one specific stressor by relying on the average way in which the same individual copes across a variety of situations over time. To illustrate, an individual may engage in moderately high levels of a particular coping strategy over time but not use this particular strategy at all when coping with a certain type of stressor. Averaging coping responses across multiple situations, therefore, obscures important information about how coping is related to well-being under specific and well-defined circumstances.
Researchers such as Wethington and Kessler have identified several ways in which coping varies from situation to situation. First, the ways in which individuals cope with an acute but short-term stressor often differs from the ways in which they cope with an ongoing chronic stressor. Second, the ways in which individuals cope can also be influenced by the coping responses of others around them. Third, individuals tend to use different strategies depending on the role domain in which stress occurs. Fourth, situations are defined by a multitude of demands and therefore any one stressor may demand multiple coping strategies in order to be resolved effectively. Those with the highest psychological well-being may well be those individuals who can successfully engage in a variety of coping strategies. Rigid adherence to a small set of coping strategies geared toward direct resolution of the stressor, at the expense of those that might help to reduce stress-related negative emotions, could be maladaptive in many circumstances.
Researchers have begun to examine the ways in which situational factors interact with person factors in determining how people cope with stress. Existing evidence suggests that coping varies as a function of both the situation and the person. For example, in 1986, Parkes found that individuals low in neuroticism varied their use of direct action according to the level of work demands. In comparison, those individuals high in neuroticism did not vary their use of direct action in response to changing levels of work demands. Furthermore, although situational factors play a larger role overall in determining coping responses, the more ambiguous a stressful situation is, the greater the influence of person factors on the coping process.
III. Ways of Coping with Stress
Historically, coping has been seen as serving two basic functions: problem-focused (active attempts to alter and resolve the stressful situation) and emotion-focused (efforts to regulate one’s emotions). Recently, a third function that concerns relationship-focused coping (efforts to manage and maintain social relationships during stressful periods) has been studied as well.
A. Problem-Focused Coping
Problem-focused coping includes those forms of coping that are geared directly toward solving the problem or changing the stressful situation. Most of the research examining problem-focused coping has been on planful problem-solving. Coping strategies based on planful problem-solving involve conscious attempts to determine and execute the most appropriate course of action needed to directly prevent, eliminate, or significantly improve a stressful situation. Making a plan of action and following it is an example of the sort of cool deliberate strategy that typifies this form of coping. Although the primary effect of problem-focused modes of coping is to change or eliminate the stressful environment, it is not unusual for such coping to result inadvertently in a reduction in negative affect and/or an increase in positive affect (e.g., devising and carrying out a plan to finish a task that one has felt pressured to complete). The increase in positive affect following the use of planful problem-solving may be the result of an improvement both in the way one perceives the stressful situation and in the direct changes in the stressful situation itself. In general, planful problem-solving tends to be associated with less negative emotion, more positive emotion, positive reappraisals of the stressful situation, and satisfactory outcomes.
Important moderators of this strategy and its influence on psychological well-being have been documented. First, it appears that individuals engage in a higher use of planful problem-solving when they perceive a situation or encounter as one in which something can be changed for the better. Furthermore, the use of this strategy in uncontrollable or unchangeable situations seems to have a negative impact on psychological health. It appears that pursuing a futile course of action can interfere with the adaptive function of accepting those things that cannot be changed or altered. Second, when a loved one has something to lose in a stressful situation, individuals tend to use lower amounts of planful problem-solving than when a loved one does not have something to lose. Individuals seem to experience difficulty formulating a plan of action when coping with the added emotional distress invoked by concern for a loved one’s well-being. Third, when the stress occurs at work, individuals tend to use higher levels of planful problem-solving. In this context, many forms of emotion-focused coping strategies may be viewed as ineffective and socially inappropriate.
In summary, in situations that require a course of action to minimize or reduce stress, the individual may be better off engaging in planful problem-solving efforts rather than in emotion-focused strategies such as denial. Such efforts will more likely improve the interactions between an individual and their environment, and have a positive impact on well-being.
B. Emotion-Focused Coping
Emotion-focused modes of coping include those forms of coping that are geared toward managing one’s emotions during stressful periods. A larger number of studies have examined emotion-focused modes of coping than either problem- or relationship-focused modes of coping. All of the many forms of emotion-focused coping that have been described in the literature cannot possibly be discussed here. Instead, we focus on those forms that have received the most attention in the scholarly literature.
1. Emotional Expression
Emotional expression is the active expression of one’s thoughts and feelings about an experience or event, and is a common way to cope with stress. The expression can take place through a variety of interpersonal, verbal, and artistic means, including talking or corresponding with someone, keeping a diary, and drawing or painting.
Pennebaker reviews the historical relation of emotional expression to mental health, as reflected in Maslow’s notion of self-expression and Freud’s concept of emotional catharsis. However, modern researchers studying this phenomenon have construed emotional expression as more than simply the venting of emotions. Pennebaker and his colleagues suggest that it is the active expression of both thoughts and feelings surrounding experiences that makes emotional expression a beneficial form of coping with stress. Pennebaker suggests that this expression can aid in deriving a sense of meaning, insight, and resolution by initiating a process in which facts, feelings, thoughts, and options can be organized effectively.
Pennebaker and colleagues have found across several studies that emotional expression is positively related to both psychological and physical well-being. These studies used a variety of modes of emotional expression, such as writing essays about one’s experiences, talking out loud into a tape recorder, or talking to another individual. In comparison, active inhibition (i.e., the deliberate and conscious nonexpression of one’s thoughts and feelings) has been found to be negatively related to psychological well-being. In addition, emotional expression that is inappropriately disclosing (e.g., telling a nonreceptive stranger), overly self-absorbed (i.e., disengaging and isolating the listener), overly intellectualized (i.e., lacking acknowledgment and expression of one’s feelings), or done in the presence of an unsupportive and critical person, is less likely to have beneficial effects.
There are individual differences in people’s ability and desire to engage in emotional expression. For example, some people tend to engage in high levels of emotional expression, whereas others do not. This area of research suggests that the degree of emotional expression may reflect a general personality trait. Gender differences in emotional expression have also been found as women tend to report higher levels of emotional expression than men.
There are a variety of contexts in which individuals coping with stress may engage in emotional expression. As Pennebaker points out, support groups, self-help programs (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous), telephone crisis lines, psychotherapy, pastoral counseling, and even internet discussions all provide a context in which emotional expression is supported, if not actively encouraged. Evidence suggests that emotional expression has a disease-preventative effect.
2. Seeking Social Support
Another common way of coping with stress is to seek some form of social support. The social support sought may be informational support (e.g., an individual recently diagnosed with HIV contacting a support group to find out more about the virus), tangible support (e.g., a grieving widow asking a friend to help baby-sit her children for an afternoon), or emotional support (e.g., a recently laid-off worker accepting sympathy and understanding from a friend). In general, higher levels of social support are associated with better psychological and physical well-being. However, the quality of available social support is more important to well-being than the absolute amount of available social support. To illustrate, an individual who has a few constructively supportive friends and family members may receive better social support and experience greater health benefits than an individual who has many friends and family members but who do not provide constructive social support. In this context, constructive social support consists of support provision that meets the needs of the individual seeking such support.
In 1988, Fisher and colleagues differentiated between solicited versus unsolicited social support. There are times when members of one’s social support network provide unsolicited social support. Unsolicited support tends to occur when the stressor is highly visible and there exist social norms as to how members of the social network should behave (e.g., a death in the family, loss of a child, dissolution of a marriage). However, individuals often have to cope with stressors that are not readily apparent to those around them. During such times, an individual must actively seek social support in order to receive it. Furthermore, a variety of factors seem to play a role in the extent to which individuals will seek social support as part of their coping with such stressors. For example, if individuals blame themselves for the occurrence of a stigmatizing stressor (e.g., contracting HIV after having unprotected sex), they may be less likely to seek social support because of the potential for embarrassment, stigmatization, judgment, and further blame. Given that nondisclosure of stressful experiences has been associated with threats to psychological well-being, not seeking social support may result in an increase risk for disorders of health and well-being.
Individuals may also resist seeking social support when the support available has the potential to add stress to an already stressful situation. Social support would be feared when the support provider delivers social support in an excessive or inappropriate manner. To illustrate, an individual suffering from a chronic, debilitating illness such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may avoid seeking social support if doing so threatens their independence (e.g., a support provider insists on doing everything for the individual with RA rather than simply facilitating the sufferer’s own coping efforts).
In addition, individual differences have been found in both the extent to which individuals will seek social support and the degree to which they perceive seeking social support to be an effective coping strategy. For example, Thoits, in 1991, found that women engage in higher levels of support seeking than men and perceive seeking social support as a more effective coping strategy than do men. Personality differences also influence the extent to which seeking social support is an effective coping strategy. Recent research has indicated that certain personality traits may explain some of the individual differences in the seeking and receiving of social support. To illustrate, individuals high in neuroticism may tend to elicit negative reactions from others when they seek social support, whereas individuals low in neuroticism may tend to elicit positive reactions. Therefore, different individuals may seek social support to varying degrees and invoke different reactions from others depending on their particular personality and interpersonal style. This suggests that the very individuals most likely to experience threats to their psychological well-being (e.g., those high in neuroticism) and therefore most in need of social support may be those individuals least likely to seek and receive social support in a way that is beneficial to their mental health.
There are times when individuals fail to cope actively with a stressful situation and instead engage in efforts to avoid confronting the stressor. Attempts at escape and avoidance can take a variety of cognitive or behavioral forms, such as wishful thinking, distancing, denial, or engaging in distracting activities. For example, an individual may attempt to repress thoughts of a recently deceased spouse as a cognitive means of escape-avoidance. Likewise, one could immerse oneself in cleaning the house as a way of avoiding a stressful task such as paying bills. As Aldwin noted, certain ways of coping can serve as avoidant coping strategies on one occasion despite serving as approach coping strategies on another. As an example, Aldwin suggests that cognitive reappraisal may function as a constructive approach strategy when used to view a stressful situation more positively and when acting as a catalyst for further action. Conversely, cognitive reappraisal may serve as an avoidant coping strategy when used to rationalize a lack of action or justify engaging in actions that lead to further avoidance (e.g., drinking to make oneself feel better).
Avoidant coping strategies are often a response to the negative affect that results from a stressful situation. For example, some individuals may initially deny that a stressful situation has occurred in an effort to minimize their distress (e.g., not accepting the possibility that a lump in one’s breast may be cancer). Researchers such as Lazarus have suggested that in the early stages of a stressor, such avoidant type strategies may be adaptive in that minimizing distress levels allows one time to adapt and to gather one’s resources. By decreasing levels of distress, short-term escape avoidance may increase one’s ability to engage in active problem-focused coping. Similarly, the use of escape- avoidance may minimize negative affect while one is waiting for a potentially short-term stressor to pass (e.g., reading a magazine to relieve anxiety while waiting to hear the results of an important medical test).
Despite the positive short-term effectiveness of escape- avoidance in reducing psychological distress, the long-term use of escape-avoidance is generally associated with lowered psychological well-being. For example, although distraction is useful when coping with short-term stressors (e.g., medical and dental procedures), long-term use of distraction with an ongoing stressor (e.g., coping with unemployment) is associated with maladjustment. The negative association between the use of escape-avoidance strategies and well-being may result from the lack of constructive action that the continued use of escape-avoidance can entail. That is, when avoiding thoughts or behaviors that are directed at a stressor, one also tends to avoid engaging in constructive efforts that could potentially reduce both the source and degree of one’s distress. In extreme situations, the use of prolonged escape-avoidance can backfire by amplifying a stressful situation and creating added emotional distress (e.g., avoiding obtaining medical attention until it is too late to receive basic treatment).
4. Positive Illusion
Historically, it has been assumed that reality-based perceptions are essential to the maintenance of mental health and psychological well-being. However, in 1988, Taylor and Brown suggested that ‘‘positive illusions’’ (i.e., unrealistically positive perceptions) are related to several common criteria of mental health, such as feelings of contentment and the ability to care for others. They argue that a positive misconstrual of experiences over time is beneficial to the psychological adjustment of the individual engaging in such perceptions. Research suggests that more positive views of the self are associated with lower levels of distress, and Taylor and Brown have argued that a relatively unbiased and balanced perception of the self tends to be related to higher levels of distress. Given that distress tends to be related to less constructive forms of coping, a positive view of the self may have beneficial effects through an increase in constructive coping efforts, even if the positive self-view is illusory. For example, individuals fighting life-threatening illnesses such as diabetes may perceive themselves to be higher in personal strength than others, which in turn may lead to more persistent and effective attempts to cope with their disease.
In a similar vein, Taylor reviews research that establishes a positive relation between illusory perceptions of control and mental health. For example, depressed individuals have been found to have perceptions of control closer to reality than nondepressed individuals. Research assessing control has also demonstrated that when coping with a stressful experience, those individuals who feel a greater sense of control will tend to experience better psychological well-being, even when the sense of control is overestimated. For example, a patient dying of AIDS may experience better psychological well-being by choosing to use alternative medicine, thus obtaining some sense of personal control over the treatment of a disease that remains incurable.
Various mechanisms may explain the relation between positive illusions and mental health when individuals are faced with coping with stress in their lives. For example, Taylor hypothesizes that positive illusions are related to positive mood, which in turn is related to social bonding, which in turn is related to higher levels of well-being. Given the adaptive role that constructive social support plays in the coping process, the potential ability of positive illusions to increase social bonding could be highly beneficial. Taylor also suggests that illusions may enhance creative functioning, motivation, persistence, and performance. Higher levels of all of these factors may lead to more effective coping and better well-being (e.g., higher levels of motivation and creativity could increase one’s ability to develop an unusual but highly effective coping strategy).
Recently it has been suggested that conclusions regarding the relation between positive illusions and mental health are an artifact of methodological problems inherent to this area of study. Specifically, Colvin, Block, and Funder, in 1991, argued that previous research has not used valid criteria for establishing objective reality. Without such criteria, it is difficult to verify which individuals are truly engaging in positive illusions. Therefore, conclusions regarding the relation between positive illusions and psychological adjustment may have been premature. These researchers found empirical evidence suggesting that positive illusions can have negative influences on both short-term and long-term mental health.
5. Social Comparison
In 1954, Festinger suggested that individuals are driven to compare themselves to others as a means of obtaining information about oneself and the world during times of threat or ambiguity (i.e., stress). Although the patterns of findings are diverse and sometimes complex, most research in this field suggests that social comparison processes have important implications for psychological well-being. In fact, several researchers have proposed that social comparisons play a central role in the way in which people cope with stressful experiences. For example, social comparisons can help individuals evaluate their resources and provide information relevant to managing emotional reactions to stress. However, the underlying motivation and purpose that each individual has for engaging in this type of coping and the resultant psychological outcomes can be diverse.
In 1989, Wood described three classes of motivational factors that drive a person to engage in social comparisons: self-evaluation, self-improvement, and self-enhancement. All three purposes can be relevant to coping with stress and may aid the individual in striving toward an adaptive outcome. Self-evaluation motivations to engage in social comparison stem from an individual’s desire to obtain information regarding his or her standing on a particular skill or attribute. Self-improvement motivations to engage in social comparison suggest that individuals are interested in deriving information regarding another’s standing on a particular skill or attribute in order to improve their own standing on the same dimension. Self-enhancement motivations to engage in social comparison stem from a need to see oneself in a more positive manner; that is, the results of the social comparison are used to make one feel better about one’s own standing on a particular skill or attribute relative to others.
When an individual seeks a social comparison target as a means of coping with an ambiguous or threatening situation, several options are available. One can select an individual who has a higher or more positive standing than oneself on the dimension in question (i.e., an ‘‘upward social comparison’’). Alternatively, one can select an individual who has a lower or more negative standing than oneself on the relevant dimension (i.e., a ‘‘downward social comparison’’). Presumably, comparisons against others who differ from oneself produce distinctive and discriminating information that has immediate and practical implications for the individual when engaging in coping efforts.
In general, research suggests that when people engage in downward comparisons, they feel more positive and less negative about themselves than when they engage in upward comparisons. Individuals engaging in downward social comparisons because of self-enhancement motivations tend to experience reduced levels of negative affect and feel better about themselves in both field and experimental studies. For example, in their 1985 study of women coping with breast cancer, Wood and her colleagues found that downward comparisons appeared to help women feel better about how they were dealing with their illness by yielding positive evaluations relative to women who were not coping as effectively. However, research has also demonstrated that when individuals are motivated by self-improvement or self-evaluation needs, there is a clear preference for upward comparison information. Under these circumstances, comparisons may help determine what kinds of interventions or efforts are both possible and necessary to cope more effectively with a particular stressor.
Collins proposed in 1996 that the outcomes of social comparisons are not predetermined by the direction in which one makes a comparison. Instead, evidence supports the notion that both upward and downward comparisons can have both positive and negative impacts on psychological well-being. First, upward comparisons can generate negative psychological outcomes through a contrast effect (i.e., one feels inferior to the comparison target). Second, upward comparisons may also yield positive effects through the inspiration and hope they generate. These types of comparisons may be especially helpful for problem-solving activities, as they can provide constructive information that suggests specific coping strategies. Third, downward comparisons can lead to positive outcomes presumably because they allow one to focus on ways in which one is doing well relative to others. Such comparisons may be especially helpful in regulating negative emotions. Finally, downward comparisons can lead to negative outcomes from the fear that one will ‘‘sink’’ to the lower level of the comparison target at some future point in time. Such comparisons may have special significance for individuals coping with illness, where it is feasible that their disease will progress negatively. Given that both downward and upward comparisons contain both positive and negative information relevant to the self, the particular aspect the individual focuses on while coping will determine the valence of the outcome.
A growing number of moderating variables are being identified as important factors in determining the impact social comparison will have as a coping strategy during times of stress, threat, or ambiguity. For example, it appears that individuals with high self-esteem have a greater tendency to derive positive outcomes from either upward or downward social comparisons than individuals with low self-esteem. Other researchers have also noted the important role played by perceived control. Individuals with high degrees of perceived control over the dimension in question may be less likely to experience negative reactions to social comparisons in contrast to those with low levels of control. Individual differences in familiarity with a stressor may also moderate the process of social comparison. For example, an individual who has just discovered they have HIV (unfamiliar dimension)may select different comparison targets for coping than an individual who has been living with the illness for some time (familiar dimension). Presumably, the type of information one needs in order to adapt to threats will vary according to how long one has been dealing with the threat. In addition to individual differences, it appears that the situational context in which the social comparison process takes place is an important determinant of the impact of the comparison itself. For example, different contexts vary in terms of the potential social comparison targets they provide.
At times, individuals will actively self-select when to engage in social comparison and with whom they wish to compare themselves. However, as Collins noted, social comparisons can sometimes be forced on the individual. For example, researchers have found that someone who needs health care services for a serious condition may have no choice but to sit in a waiting room with other individuals who also have the same condition, making social comparisons unavoidable. Such comparisons most likely make it difficult for an individual to avoid the possibility that his or her own illness and condition could get worse. In addition, researchers have suggested that the impact of forced comparisons can be particularly aversive when the comparison target is someone with whom the individual is interdependent (e.g., close friend, co-worker). This suggests that individuals may sometimes have to cope with the stressful nature of the social comparison itself.
Regardless of whether or not one chooses to engage in social comparison, once the social comparison process is underway (i.e., target is compared against), there are some active strategies that individuals can use to maximize the probability of obtaining a positive outcome. First, peripheral dimensions can be used to moderate comparison outcomes. If a comparison produces an unfavorable outcome (e.g., an upward comparison that leaves one feeling inferior), one can always attribute the lower standing to differences between oneself and the target on other related variables (e.g., sex, ethnicity, duration of stressor). Alternatively, as previously discussed, individuals can actively distort information to maintain a more positive perception of reality.
In summary, social comparison processes provide valuable information that individuals can use for a variety of purposes when coping with stress, threat, or ambiguity. The target selected, the situation or context in which the comparison is made, and the unique traits of both the individual and the comparison target have an impact on the outcome of the comparison process. As a result, social comparison may have a positive impact on well-being for particular individuals in certain situations, and a negative impact on well-being for other individuals in different situations. Research has demonstrated the relevance of social comparison to coping with a variety of stressors such as illness and marital problems.
C. Relationship-Focused Coping
Relationship-focused coping refers to the various attempts made by the individual to manage, regulate, or preserve relationships when coping with stress. Recently, there has been growing interest in the interpersonal dimensions of coping as distinct from the intrapersonal dimensions of emotion- and problem-focused coping.
1. Empathic Responding
Empathic coping is one such form of relationship-focused coping. The use of empathy has been related to positive social behaviors such as providing social support and caring for others. Recently, O’Brien and DeLongis have suggested that empathic coping includes the following elements: (a) attempts to see the situation from another’s point of view, (b) efforts to experience personally the emotions felt by the other person, (c) attempts to read between the lines in order to decipher the meaning underlying the other person’s verbal and nonverbal behavior to reach a better understanding of the other person’s experience, (d) attempts to respond in a way that conveys sensitivity and understanding, and (e) efforts to validate and accept the person and their experience while avoiding passing judgment. One may engage in empathic coping either verbally (e.g., telling a spouse that you understand what they are feeling) or nonverbally (e.g., tenderly holding someone’s hand as they talk).
Empathic coping can play a significant role in coping with stress, particularly stress caused by interpersonal problems. Research suggests that empathic coping is related to a decrease in distress caused by interpersonal tension and an increase in relationship satisfaction. The increased understanding gained from empathic coping may result in more appropriate and well-considered coping choices that will maximize the benefits for all involved. Empathic coping may also lead to further benefits for psychological adjustment because of its impact on concurrent or subsequent use of problem- and emotion-focused coping. For example, in 1993, Kramer found that caregivers who engaged in empathic coping strategies were more likely to engage in planful problem-solving than caregivers who did not engage in empathic coping. The greater use of these strategies was related to greater caregiver satisfaction with the care-giving role. In the same study, lower use of empathic coping was related to more maladaptive emotion-focused coping efforts, which were in turn related to depression.
Individuals vary in how often and how effectively they use empathic coping. For example, O’Brien and DeLongis have found that when a close other is involved in a stressful situation, those high in neuroticism are less able to use empathic coping than are those low in neuroticism.
2. Active Engagement and Protective Buffering
In addition to empathic coping, other forms of relationship- focused coping are also receiving attention. In 1991, Coyne and Smith identified active engagement (e.g., discussing the situation with involved others) and protective buffering (e.g., attempting to hide worries and concerns from involved others) as two forms of relationship-focused coping. They found that higher degrees of protective, relationship-focused coping (e.g., not conveying fears to one’s spouse) among wives of myocardial infarction patients was related to higher degrees of distress among the wives. Note that this is consistent with research suggesting that suppression of emotional expression is related to lowered psychological well-being. However, wives’ use of protective buffering was positively related to self-efficacy among their husbands. It appears that the wives were coping with the stress of their spouse’s illness in a way that maximized the benefits for their sick husbands (i.e., interpersonally adaptive) yet threatened their own well-being (i.e., intrapersonally maladaptive). Such results point to the need to include interpersonal dimensions of coping in addition to the traditional intrapsychic dimensions of coping in order to understand the relation of coping and health outcomes.
In conclusion, there is no one ‘‘good’’ way to cope with stress. Stress takes on many forms, and likewise, so must coping. The most adaptive way to cope with any given stressor depends on both the personality of the stressed individual and the characteristics of the stressful situation. Dimensions of the stressful situation that must be considered in determining the best way to cope with a given stressor include (a) whether others are involved in the situation, how they are coping, and the relationship of these people to the stressed individual; (b) the timing of the stressor and the degree to which it is anticipated or controllable; (c) the types of specific demands inherent to the stressful situation, the duration of such demands, and one’s prior experience with similar stressors; and (d) what is at stake in the stressful situation. Perhaps the key to good coping is flexibility. That is, the ability to vary one’s coping depending on the demands of the situation. What is clear is that no one form of coping will be effective in dealing with all stressors. There are times when attempts at problem-focused coping will be a waste of time and energy that could be better spent engaged in emotion- and relationship-focused coping. At other times, when something can be done directly to prevent or alter the stressful demands, energy may be better spent doing something concrete to solve the problem rather than concentrating on emotion management. Perhaps it is the wisdom to know the difference, and then to act on that knowledge, that is essential to successful coping.
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