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How to deal with any problem: Problem-focused vs Emotion-focused coping

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.


Problems come in all shapes and sizes. Needless to say, having only one method of addressing problems would be like having only one tool in your toolbox to fix every household maintenance problem that arose. By the way, I don’t recommend using a hammer to remove a light fixture. Usually doesn’t work out the way you hope. So it is obvious that we need multiple methods of addressing all of the different types of problems that we face each day. Obvious? Yes. Yet in reality we often get into trouble trying to use a preferred problem-solving method with problems that require a different approach.

One of the most important initial questions to ask yourself when you are trying to address a problem is; what do I have control over? Now, the idea of focusing on controlling things has gotten a bad rap at times in the past. Often eliciting the terms “control freak”, “manipulator”, “egomaniacal overlord”, and the like. But let’s be clear, feeling a sense of control is a good thing. It’s a necessary thing. Without feeling some sense of control, we feel…well, out of control. And that’s a bad thing. But with most things in life, the key to success is achieving a balance. We need to identify where we have control and accept where we do not have control.

The same is true for the problems we face. When we identify an aspect of a problem that we have control over, that is called problem-focused coping. This involves recognizing where we can make a change that will directly impact the elements of the problem. For example, if the problem is that you have plans to take a vacation but you currently lack the funds to pay for the trip, a problem-focused coping method would be to look at ways you could save money on unnecessary expenses and put that toward your vacation fund. Or you could decide to shop around to try to get a better deal on your travel expenses, making it easier to afford. In other words, change the actual elements of the problem at hand.

A different area that you have control over is how you feel about or react to the problem, which is called emotion-focused coping. You may not be able to change significant aspects of a problem, but you can change how that problem influences you. A classic example is the weather. You can’t control the weather but you can control how you feel about it (e.g., decide on things that you can enjoy in every weather condition so that inclement weather does not control whether your day goes well). Spending your energy trying to control the weather would be the epitome of futility. Unless of course you have invented a device that can do just that, in which case, please give me a call so I can talk to you about New England weather. Seriously, call me.

A more relevant example might be anxiety. Before speaking in front of a group of people, many people feel physical sensations (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach, etc.) that they interpret as warning signs of a threat (i.e., anxiety). No matter how much someone practices speaking in front of others (practicing would be a problem-focused coping method), sometimes the anxious physical sensations just don’t go away completely. A more effective strategy at that point would be to utilize an emotion-focused coping skill and focus on changing how you feel about those physical sensations. I often challenge people who have anxiety speaking in front of others to think of their physical sensations as excitement and not anxiety (since we often feel the same or similar physical sensations when excited). Changing how we think about our experiences directly influences how we feel about them. And with practice, you can learn to reduce your anxiety but interpreting your physical sensations in a different way. It is an empowering experience to exercise control in an effective way, and it is quite disempowering when you try to do so in an area where you have no control.


Shawn Healy, PhD


CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns | Uncategorized

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