Problem Focused Coping: Discovering the Source, and Moving On

problem focused copingStress effects everyone.  Whether you are cramming for a difficult final exam, or trying to sell a home, or working on a troubled relationship, or even just trying to get weeds to stop growing through the cracks in your walkway, you are probably feeling that familiar squeeze.  While it is true that stress can actually be a good motivator in the right context, to much of it is undeniably a bad thing.  Coping with stress is a life skill, and one that everyone approaches in their own way.  Those weeds I mentioned?  Maybe the way your neighbor would deal with them is completely different than the way you would.  The guy three houses down?  He has yet another approach.  The way we manage stress can be just as important as they way we manage our time, or our bills.  If you feel that you are having trouble with stress management, the good news is that you can change your approach.

Many psychologists will tell you that there are three main means of coping with stress.  They are problem focused coping, emotion focused coping, and biology focused coping.  All three are different gut reactions to the same stressors, but depending on the situation, they may have vastly different results.  Each is recommended for different, stressful circumstances, with problem focused coping generally considered to be the best approach.  Let’s take a look at why, and how you can begin implementing this practice into your life.

What is Problem Focused Coping?

To put it simply, problem focused coping is a means of dealing with stress by looking for the fundamental cause of the stress.  For instance, a common source of stress if obviously work.  You are feeling pressured and rushed at work, and it is beginning to creep into every facet of your life.  Your family and friends can see it, and the quality of your work is beginning to suffer.  This obviously needs to be addressed, but how?

By stepping back, and looking at the situation objectively, and without letting emotion get in the way (this might be more difficult than it sounds, but it is worth trying), you might begin to understand the source of your stress.  In this imaginary work scenario, perhaps you are so rushed and overworked because your department was restructured  two months ago, and the new system is not working.  There it is!  You have just found the root cause of your stress: an inefficient and frustrating work environment.

How Do You Begin Coping Once You Have Identified The Problem?

The first thing you need to do is take some time to really consider whether or not the problem is changeable or modifiable.  In most cases, it will be.  Continuing on with the workplace example, you have a few options.  For starters, you might consider approaching your superiors, and speaking openly about the issues you are facing.  Try to remain as objective as possible, but make it clear that you are in an unworkable situation.  From this point, you may be able to suggest the much needed changes around the office.  Perhaps hiring more help, or doing away with needlessly complex filing systems, etc.

What has just happened in that scenario is that the power struggle has shifted in your favor.  Often, stress comes about because we feel powerless to change our surroundings and our situations.  Problem focused coping pulls the rug out from under that kind of thinking, and asks you to look at it from another angle.  Is there any way you can take control of the situation?  If you were in control of the situation, what would you do to change it?  This is both empowering and action oriented.  It helps motivate you to do something about your situation, rather than simply remain resigned to it.

What Are Some Effective Strategies for Problem Focused Coping?

  1. Outline a plan.  Identifying the source of your stress if an important step, but only the first one.  Addressing, and hopefully removing the stressor may take some time.  In order to help you remain focused, it is a good idea to outline a plan for how you hope to address the situation, complete with a time frame, and milestones.  For example: “Improving the kitchen is going to make life so much easier.  I will begin by addressing the leaky plumbing this weekend, and then move on to researching appliances.  I want to make sure I have made my selections in time for the summer sales so that I can get the best prices.  While I am waiting for appliance delivery, I will paint the walls.”
  2. Enlist help if applicable.  So you have discovered the thing that is stressing you out so much, but there is just one problem: it’s huge.  The source of your stress might be a large part of your life, and addressing it on your own might not be practical.  In the case of obstacles like selling a home, or working around a medical issue, or improving your financial well being, it may be wise to get the help of a professional.  Let them guide you on the path towards taking control yourself, but definitely accept the help they offer.
  3. Negotiate. Not to be flippant, but I am sure anyone could look around and say “Well, obviously my life would be easier if I had a maid, a nanny, a personal cook, and an assistant!”, but there may be more realistic ways of approaching your stress.  If housework is overwhelming you, begin making deals with your family or roommates.  You will continue to do laundry, but each person is responsible for bringing their dirty clothes down to the washer, and then carrying them back up when they are clean.  If you are upset because you want to eat healthier, maybe negotiate a cooking schedule between you and your spouse, to reduce the number of times you eat out.

Above all, remain focused.  Maybe even consider some meditation for stress to help you work towards your ultimate goal of a less stressful life.