Well-Being And Proactive Coping Research Paper

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1. Proactive Coping As A Blend Of Coping And Self-Regulation

Proactive coping refers to a set of processes through which people anticipate or detect potential stressors and act in advance to prevent them or to mute their impact (Aspinwall and Taylor 1997). As such, proactive coping is a blend of two extensively studied processes, coping and self-regulation. Coping consists of activities undertaken to master, reduce, or tolerate environmental or intrapsychic demands perceived as representing threat, harm, or loss (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). Self-regulation is the process through which people control, direct, and correct their own actions as they move toward or away from various goals (Carver and Scheier 1998). Proactive coping combines these two processes by examining people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as they anticipate and address potential sources of adversity that might interfere with the pursuit of their goals (see Aspinwall 2001, Aspinwall and Taylor 1997).

1.1 Contrast To Other Approaches To The Study Of Stress And Coping

The typical approach to the study of stress and coping examines how people try to solve existing problems and to manage the psychological distress they bring. The proactive coping approach, in contrast, focuses on people’s efforts to identify potential sources of stress and take steps ahead of time either to prevent them or to mute their impact. For example, whereas a study of stress and coping might ask how students would manage if they had three final exams on the same day, a study of proactive coping might ask what students in such a position did ahead of time to alter their situation (for example, by asking one of their professors for an extension or by dropping one of the classes to avoid such a situation).

In the domains of aging and work, the proactive coping concept has been used to examine situations in which people, rather than being passively shaped by their environments, respond to actual or potential environmental changes by gathering information about new environments and selecting and modifying environments to meet their needs. For example, studies of proactivity in aging take as their starting point people’s efforts to learn about their residential options, to select a particular retirement community in the first place (for example, by selecting one with opportunities for health-enhancing recreational activities), and to develop social resources once they arrive (Kahana and Kahana 1996). Similarly, studies of workplace entry suggest that new employees engage in several strategies to learn about their new environments and to develop social resources and that these strategies are often related to subsequent job performance and satisfaction (Ashford and Black 1996).

As these examples illustrate, proactive coping efforts may be applied to short-term, discrete situations or to developmental challenges and losses that are anticipated by the individual. In both cases, activities critical to understanding people’s outcomes in educational, residential, and work settings occurred prior to or early in the course of some event or transition and served to change their experience of the situation. This signal property of proactive coping—the possibility of changing or altering one’s outcomes in potentially stressful situations—is one of the principal distinctions between proactive coping and anticipatory coping. Anticipatory coping refers to efforts to brace oneself for the expected consequences of a known, imminent stressor. In proactive coping, the outcome of a situation may be unknown, and there is also room for one’s actions to affect one’s outcomes. Thus, proactive coping may involve a wide range of processes involved in trying to understand and alter various future possibilities (see Aspinwall 1997, Gollwitzer and Bargh 1996).

2. The Proactive Coping Model

The proactive coping model (Aspinwall and Taylor 1997) examines the personal, social, and situational factors that may influence the nature and quality of efforts to detect and respond to potential stressors. As shown in Fig. 1, proactive coping is thought to have five inter-related stages: (a) resource accumulation, (b) recognition of potential stressors, (c) initial appraisals of potential stressors, (d) preliminary coping efforts, and (e) the elicitation and use of feedback about the success of one’s efforts.

Proactive coping starts with the accumulation of specific resources and skills that facilitate the detection of potential problems based on either warning signs from the environment or internal processes of re-flection. Once a potential problem has been detected, it must then be appraised. At this stage, the predominant questions are, What is it? and What is it likely to become? Correspondingly, one must mentally simulate a variety of possible directions the situation and one’s efforts to address it might take. Additionally, as illustrated by the star burst at right, the need to regulate negative emotional arousal evoked by detecting a potential stressor may compromise one’s efforts to appraise it. Appraisal of a situation as potentially problematic may promote greater sustained attention to it, whereas efforts to reduce the threatening implications of the information may reduce attention to it, potentially compromising the accuracy of the appraisal. In the next stage of the model, initial appraisals of potential stressors give rise to preliminary coping efforts. These efforts, in turn, may be more or less successful in eliciting information about the nature of the problem and the appropriateness of one’s preliminary efforts to address it. This information may, in turn, qualify one’s appraisals and lead to the modification of coping efforts.

2.1 Using The Model To Understand The Relation Of Individual Differences To Stress-Related Outcomes

The model and its feedback loops provide a framework for understanding how individual differences, such as optimism and neuroticism, may be related to proactive efforts to anticipate and manage potential stressors and thus to long-term physical and mental health outcomes. For example, dispositional optimism, the expectation of more good than bad outcomes in the future, has been shown to predict increased attention to potential threats to health, as well as more elaborated appraisals of such threats (see Aspinwall 2001 for review). In dozens of studies, optimism has also been linked to more active and less avoidant ways of managing problems. To the extent that active coping is more likely than avoidant coping to elicit information about their problems, optimists’ subsequent coping efforts should be better informed and thus more likely to succeed. Through such processes, the successful proactive management of problems could account in part for optimists’ success in a wide range of life domains.

Well-Being And Proactive Coping Research Paper

In contrast, other individual differences may reliably impede the acquisition and use of information about potential problems and ways to manage them proactively. Some individual differences, such as neuroticism, anxiety, and repression, are linked to heightened attention to negative information, but also to difficulties in processing such information. Further, these traits typically predict more avoidant forms of coping, strategies that are less likely to elicit information about potential stressors. Over time, then, such ways of handling problems and information about them may lead to coping efforts that do not correspond well to the nature of the problem. Thus, the feedback loops in the model provide a way of thinking about the relation of individual differences to the accuracy of people’s initial appraisals of problems, and for thinking about the ways that preliminary coping efforts may be differentially successful in eliciting useful information about problems.

2.2 Other Influences On Proactivity

Many other personal, social, and situational factors are likely to influence proactive coping (Aspinwall and Taylor 1997). For example, busy, demanding, unpredictable environments may make potential stressors more difficult to detect early in their course, leading to further resource depletion as problems may grow larger before they are detected. Further, such environments may interfere with the development of coping skills and social resources (Taylor et al. 1997). At the individual level, differences in the value placed on future, as opposed to current, outcomes may also play a role in important forms of proactivity, such as preventive health behavior and conservation efforts (Strathman et al. 1994).

3. Applications To Health

Successful proactive coping may promote physical and mental health in many ways. First, addressing a problem earlier in its course requires fewer resources and may be more likely to be successful. The proactive coping model may be useful in understanding preventive behavior and early responses to physical symptoms, including emotional and other barriers to early detection. Second, successful proactive efforts to manage both large and small problems should serve to reduce an individual’s total exposure to stress and thus be linked to better physical and mental health. Even if problems cannot be prevented altogether, proactive efforts to address potential problems are unlikely to be wasted, as they may contribute to one’s knowledge base for use in future efforts. Third, in studies to date, a central aspect of proactivity seems to be the development of social resources, which themselves have robust links to good health outcomes.

4. Future Directions

Continuing research on proactivity in major life transitions, as well as in everyday behavior, should foster an increased understanding of the social cognitive and developmental underpinnings of coping. To date, the coping literature has been characterized by excessive reliance on retrospective self-reports of coping over long intervals and by coping measurements that sum together many different kinds of activities undertaken to solve problems, regulate emotions, and shift priorities in the face of adversity. Careful delineation of the component activities of proactivity, such as regulation of attention, planning, mental simulation, and the elicitation and use of feedback about the success of one’s coping efforts, how such components develop (Friedman and Scholnick 1997) and influence lifespan development (Freund and Baltes 1998), and how they are affected by personal, social, and environmental factors will add greatly to the understanding of successful proactivity and, ultimately, inform interventions to foster proactivity in health, educational, and work settings (Schwarzer 2000).

Additionally, increased attention to the role of social factors in successful proactivity may prove fruitful. In the aging and workplace examples, people entering new environments acted quickly to cultivate social resources. Social resources may play a key role in proactive coping, as people use the opinions and outcomes of others to make predictions about what the future might hold for themselves (Aspinwall 1997) and actively enlist others’ assistance in appraising and managing potential stressors. Further, understanding how people prevent losses of social resources by altering their behavior to counteract expected discrimination (Miller and Myers 1998) or by responding to incipient problems in close relationships may prove to be important in understanding mental and physical health outcomes over time.

Finally, the study of proactivity may be expanded to include thoughts and actions in the service of not only preventing adverse outcomes, but also creating future opportunities (Schwarzer 2000). Future efforts to understand both kinds of proactivity may increase our understanding of people’s capacity to shape their environments and outcomes through their capacities for future-oriented thinking and action.

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