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June 8, 2015       

“Which Coping Strategy Should I Use?”
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Sometimes when people visit Excel At Life's website they are overwhelmed with the variety of coping techniques and are unsure where to start. “Should I use an audio?” “Which audio is best for me?” “Or, should I use the cognitive diary?” “Which kind of cognitive diary should I use?” “Or, should I use a reward system?” “Should I take a tai chi class?” They want a step-by-step manual to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, such a manual is impractical because different people may be responsive to different methods. And different situations may be handled best by different methods. My experience has been that clients will tend to find the methods that work best for them and rely on those. However, coping flexibility, the ability to use a variety of strategies, appears to be most related to psychological health when coping with stress.

Researchers Cheng and colleagues (2014) examined 90 studies looking at coping flexibility and found the most beneficial approach was fitting the coping strategy to the situation and engaging in an ongoing process to evaluate and adjust the strategies as necessary. What this means is that different situations may respond better to different coping strategies. And it depends upon the individual, their personality and skill level for the technique.

This approach is similar to what a cognitive-behavioral therapist does. When a client tells me “that didn't work” we evaluate the strategy, why it didn't work, and make adjustments or try a different strategy. What this means for you is to develop a wide variety of skills and experiment with using them for different types of stressful situations.

Tips for Using Coping Strategies

1) Learn many strategies. Those who cope well with stress have developed a wide variety of skills. Choose skills that appeal to you. Certain skills will be more effective depending upon the personality of the individual. For instance, I find that most people respond well to the relaxation imagery audios but some people need more active relaxation methods such as qi gong.

2) Try anything. If unsure which method to use, try anything. Be sure to make a reasonable effort with using the skill. If it doesn't work you can try something else.

3) Evaluate. If your first efforts aren't successful, evaluate the strategy. Were your skills strong enough? Do you need to practice more first? Would a different strategy be more effective with the situation?

4) Flexibility. As you evaluate skills over time, you will find particular methods that work for different purposes. You will also find that you are more skilled with certain techniques. However, even if you rely on certain strategies, continue to develop your abilities with other methods. Having multiple coping strategies and being flexible in choosing strategies will allow for greater success in coping with stress, anxiety, and depression.

Cheng, C., Lau, H.B., and Chen, M.S. (2014). Coping Flexibility and Psychological Adjustment to Stressful Life Changes: A Meta-Analytic Review. Psychological Bulletin,140, 1582–1607. DOI: 10.1037/a0037913

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Dr. Monica Frank

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