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Problem-Focused Coping: 10 Examples and Definition

problem-focused coping examples and definition, explained below

Problem-focused coping refers to stress management strategies to deal with stress that involves directly confronting the source of stress to eliminate or decrease its impact.

This can involve developing a more constructive way of interpreting life events, formulating an action plan to build stress management skills, or modifying personal habits.

For example, a person who has a problem-focused coping orientation might write down their key obstacle and develop a list of actionable milestones for overcoming the problem.

Problem-Focused Coping Definition

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) make a distinction between problem-focused and emotion-focused coping :

“a distinction that we believe is of overriding importance, namely, between coping that is directed at managing or altering the problem causing the distress and coping that is directed at regulating emotional response to the problem” (p. 150).

Schoenmakers et al. (2015) defined problem-focused coping as:

“…all the active efforts to manage stressful situations and alter a troubled person-environment relationship to modify or eliminate the sources of stress via individual behavior” (p. 154).

Because stress is so damaging, every year since 2007, the American Psychological Association has commissioned an annual Stress in America survey.

And every year, the survey reveals that a majority of Americans have anxiety regarding numerous dimensions of life, including: concerns about the government, civil liberties , economic conditions, crime and violence, and the nation’s future.

Problem-Focused Coping Examples

  • Identifying Sources of Stress: The first step to solving a problem is to know what it is. Therefore, making a list of specific events that create stress will allow a person to take the next step and devise a solution.
  • Studying to Reduce Test Anxiety: Committing to studying at least 90-minutes a day during the week prior to an upcoming exam will reduce test anxiety by becoming better prepared.
  • Changing Careers: When a person realizes that their job is a major source of stress, they may decide on a career change. Sometimes this can be accomplished right away, or may require returning to school.   
  • Changing Social Circles: Spending time with people that are negative can create a lot of stress. So, changing the people in our circle of friends can eliminate a lot of stress from constantly being around so much negativity.  
  • Hiring a Public Speaking Coach: Hiring a professional public speaking coach can help a person develop several techniques to improve one’s articulation and persuasiveness, ultimately leading to a more engaging presentation.  
  • Changing Unhealthy Eating Habits: Food can have a tremendous impact on how we feel. Consuming healthy food makes the body feel good, which then helps reduce stress.
  • Not Working on the Weekends: Feeling stressed and anxious 7 days a week is very destructive. Making a firm rule to now work on Saturday and Sundays will give you a break from the stress of work and keep your mind fresh and ready to go on Monday.
  • Time Management: Managing time more efficiently improves productivity. Making a to-do list and prioritizing each task will allow a person to get more done in less time.  
  • Going Back to School: Being passed over for promotion year after year can be difficult to endure. Improving one’s educational background can help a person become more qualified for advancement.  
  • Learning to Say No: If a major source of stress is due to overwhelming job demands, then an effective strategy to reducing that stress is learning to say no when asked to do extra work.

Case Studies of Problem-Focused Coping    

1. setting boundaries.

Boundaries are rules that define the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of the people in your life. Setting boundaries is a type of problem-focused self-care that lets others know how you expect to be treated. They can exist in one’s personal or professional relationships.

The first step to setting boundaries is to recognize that you have a right to be treated respectfully and fairly by others.

Second, as Erin Eatough, Ph.D. from BetterUp explains, “spend some time reflecting on the area of your life where you’re looking to set the boundary.” It’s better to start small, but focused on those areas that are important to you.”

Next, communicate your boundaries in a polite, but firm manner. This can be a little tricky.

Letting someone know they have over-stepped and made you feel uncomfortable can create quite the awkward moment.

However, Dr. Abigall Brenner from Psychology Today makes a valid point: “Most people will respect your boundaries when you explain what they are and will expect that you will do the same for them; it’s a two-way street.”

This is one reason it is best to set boundaries early in the relationship.

Finally, remember that setting boundaries is an ongoing exercise. People will come and go into your life, so become comfortable with the idea of setting boundaries. Learn to appreciate how it will help you have better relationships with those around you.

2. Coping Strategies and Loneliness  

Being lonely is a common experience among older adults in many Western countries. For example, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ( NASEM ), approximately 30% of adults over 45 in the U. S. feel lonely.

To examine how coping strategies might alleviate loneliness, Schoenmakers et al. (2015) conducted face-to-face interviews with over 1,000 adults 61 – 99 years old that had participated in the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam (LASA).

Loneliness was measured and each participant was presented with 4 vignettes that described a person that was feeling lonely.

Participants were asked to indicate yes or no to six coping strategies, such as “Go to places or club meetings to meet people” (problem-focused), or “Keep in mind that other people are lonely as well, or even more lonely” (emotion-focused).

The results indicated that “persistently lonely older adults less frequently considered improving relationships and more frequently considered lowering expectations than their peers who had not experienced loneliness previously” (p. 159).

That is, they did not endorse problem-focused strategies, but did endorse emotion-focused strategies.

The researchers explain that “ongoing loneliness makes people abandon to look at options to improve relationships that are costly in time and energy. But because they still want to do something to alleviate their loneliness, they endorse lowering expectations” (p. 159).

3. Coping Strategies of College Students  

Stress among college students comes from a variety of sources. Of course, demanding courses and exams are prevalent. In addition, coping with the transition from secondary school to young adulthood involves being independent, handling finances, and adjusting to a new social environment . 

Coping strategies include talking to family and friends, leisure activities , and exercising, as well as less constructive activities such as alcohol consumption (Pierceall & Keim, 2007).

Broughman et al. (2009) surveyed 166 college students attending a liberal arts university in Southern California.

The survey included a coping inventory and measure of stress.

“Although college women reported the overall use of emotion-focused coping for stress, college men reported using emotion-focused coping for a greater number of specific stressors. For both women and men college students, problem-focused coping was used less than emotion-focused coping” (p. 93).

4.Marital Satisfaction of Families with Children with Disabilities

Having children creates both stress and joy in marital relations. While many might assume that having a child with a disability would lead to more stress, research over the last 4 decades has produced inconsistent findings ( Stoneman & Gavidia-Payne, 2006).

Stoneman and Gavidia-Payne (2006) surveyed 67 married couples with children with disabilities.

The survey included a measure of marital adjustment, occurrence of psychosocial stressors , and problem-focused coping strategies.

There were several interesting findings:

  • “18.6% of the mothers and 22.9% of the fathers in the sample could be classified as maritally discordant” (p. 6). This is similar to percentages found in the general population.
  • “Mothers reported significantly more daily hassles than did fathers” (p. 6).
  • “Problem-focused coping did not differ by parent gender” (p. 6).
  • “Marital adjustment for mothers was higher when mothers’ hassles/stressors were fewer and when fathers used more problem-focused coping strategies” (p. 7).
  • “Fathers reported higher marital adjustment when they had fewer hassles and when they utilized more problem-focused coping strategies” (p. 7).

The researchers explain this pattern through a historical cultural lens :

“Women are more positive about their marriages when their husbands have strong problem-focused coping skills; husbands, on the other hand, do not place relevance on their wives problem-focused coping skills as they assess their marital adjustment” (p. 9).

5. Transactional Model of Stress and Coping

The Transactional Model of Stress and Coping was originally proposed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984). The model identifies a process that begins with the perception and interpretation of a life event, and concludes with a reappraisal of the individual’s coping strategy.

Lazarus and Folkman contend that not all stressors will be perceived. If perceived, then the stressor must be interpreted.  This interpretation occurs during Primary Appraisal . If the event is perceived as positive or irrelevant, then no stress will occur.

graphical representation of the transactional model of stress

However, if the event is interpreted as dangerous, then a Secondary Appraisal will occur. The individual assesses if they have sufficient resources to overcome the stressor or not. If the answer is yes, then everything is fine.

If the answer is no, then a coping strategy is activated, which will either be problem-focused or emotion-focused.

After the coping strategy has been implemented, a Reappraisal of the situation will ensue and the process may be started all over again.

Problem-focused coping is when an individual engages in behavior to resolve a stressful situation. This can involve changing one’s situation, building skills, or other actions that are directly focused on addressing the root cause of the problem.

Research has shown that college students, married couples with and without children with disabilities, and the elderly experiencing loneliness, will engage in a combination of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping strategies.

The Transactional Model of Stress and Coping identifies the steps that individuals engage when encountering stressful life events.

Because stress is so prevalent in modern life, and is linked to major health conditions, it is a good idea to incorporate both problem- and emotion-focused coping strategies in one’s daily routine.

Brougham, R. R., Zail, C. M., Mendoza, C. M., & Miller, J. R. (2009). Stress, sex differences, and coping strategies among college students. Current Psychology, 28 , 85-97. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-009-9047-0

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer Publishing.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System . Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663 .

Pierceall, E. A., & Keim, M. C. (2007). Stress and coping strategies among community college students. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 31 (9), 703-712. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10668920600866579

Schoenmakers, E., van Tilburg, T., & Fokkema, T. (2015). Problem-focused and emotion-focused coping options and loneliness: How are they related? European Journal of Ageing, 12 , 153-161. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007%2Fs10433-015-0336-1

Stoneman, Z., & Gavidia-Payne, S. (2006). Marital adjustment in families of young children with disabilities: Associations with daily hassles and problem-focused coping. American Journal on Mental Retardation, 111 (1), 1-14. doi: https://doi.org/10.1352/0895-8017(2006)111[1:MAIFOY]2.0.CO;2

Appendix: Image Description

The image with alt text “graphical representation of the transactional model of stress” depicts a flow chart starting with “life event”. The next step is “perceptual process (event perceived/not perceived)”. If an event is perceived, we move on to the “primary appraisal (interpretation of perceived event)” step. Three options are presented: positive event, dangerous event, and irrelevant event. If it is perceived as a dangerous event, we move onto “secondary appraisal (analysis of available resources)”. Two options are presented: insufficient resources and sufficient resources. If insufficient resources are identified, we move onto the “stress coping strategy” step. The two options are problem-fcused and emotion-focused. The final step is reappraisal, where we apprause is the stragey was successful or failed. This flow chart is based on Lazarus and Folkman (1984).

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9 Problem-Based Coping Techniques to Help Your Mental Health - couple sitting and looking at bridge

9 Problem-Based Coping Techniques to Help Your Mental Health

We often push our internal struggles to the wayside. Unhealthy coping techniques are often used. Those that struggle with anxiety and depression often push away their feelings and thoughts—delaying much-needed healing.

Don't push away those feelings anymore! Learn how to get to the root of mental health struggles like anxiety and depression with these problem-focused coping techniques.  

What are coping techniques?

Coping techniques (or coping skills) are ways an individual can solve or tolerate stressful problems.

There are many different types of coping techniques, such as self-care, distraction, creativity, being social, taking action, mindfulness, and more.  

Problem vs. Emotion-Focused Coping Techniques

When your mental health needs a boost, you have two sets of coping skills to choose from: problem-focused and emotion-focused.

Problem-focused coping skills go to the root of the problem. They address what is causing you distress by changing your situation.

For instance, if you have a toothache and it is causing you stress, it is best to use a problem-focused coping technique to get to the root of the problem—go to the dentist! Soothing yourself by doing yoga or journaling won't make your stress go away.

Emotion-focusing coping techniques are great for when the thing that is causing you to stress is outside your control, or you are not willing to change the immediate situation.

If you are grieving the death of a loved one, emotion-focused coping techniques would be more appropriate.

Sometimes, you can use a combination of both techniques! For instance, if you have a big project at work to complete, take care of yourself with emotion-based coping techniques while you are off the clock, and use problem-based coping techniques while you are on the clock. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for yourself is bite the bullet and take action on the problem itself—or ask someone for help!

If you're looking for some quick ways to reduce stress right now with emotion-focused coping techniques, read our article on Stress Management Tools and Techniques . This article is jam-packed with emotion-focused coping skills that provide temporary relief. These two articles together will give you some great tools to face stress and mental health struggles!

As always, consult a professional first. This article should not take the place of professional mental health support.

9 Problem-Focused Coping Techniques (With Examples)

Looking for coping skills for anxiety and depression? Here are 9 positive coping skills to keep in mind.

1. Ask for support

Finding a support system can be a struggle. Try reaching out to your religious organization and find small groups. Talk to people you trust—like friends, family, mentors, or your significant other.

It is so important to talk to others about what you are going through. Otherwise, you can end up staying in your own bubble and stewing. You don't have to give all the gory details, especially at first. Just throw out that you need some support.

Call a trusted friend and ask if it would be okay to confide in them.

2. Set boundaries

Setting healthy boundaries is one of the best problem-based coping techniques out there. There are tons of books, podcasts, and other resources on creating healthy boundaries. Talk to a therapist about it.

Boundaries are meant to protect you. For example, if a friend keeps gossiping around you and it makes you feel uncomfortable, ask your friend politely to not gossip while you are around. Frame it as " I feel uncomfortable when you talk about my friend in that way."

Boundaries are one of the keys to healthy relationships. Just because you love someone or are close to them doesn't mean you can't speak up for yourself.

3. Leave unhealthy situations

Sometimes boundaries aren't enough—you may need to leave the situation altogether. This can apply to a dating relationship, for instance, or even a job.

If your job is stressing you out so much that is it making it hard to connect with your loved ones or take care of yourself (and there is no end in sight), you may want to consider leaving the job altogether. Seek the support of others during these times as well—it can be really hard to disconnect, even from things that are causing you a lot of pain.

4. Time management and prioritization

This is a great problem-focused coping strategy for those that are struggling with work or chores. Write down what you have to do. Prioritize them. Pick 3 to tackle today. Create a schedule for the week. Don't overcommit.

Use a calendar. Block out your time. The key is to get everything written down so it isn't floating around in your head!

5. Tackle the problem

This coping technique isn't used enough! If the stressor is a tangible problem that needs to be solved—like a broken air conditioner, a project at work, or a messy house—sometimes the best thing is to just get it done!

6. Talk to a counselor

Anybody can benefit from therapy. A therapist will help you build coping skills that are best for your specific situation. Your therapist isn't there to judge you—they are there to help.

This is a great option if you don't feel comfortable talking to anyone in your circle.

7. Eliminate what you don't need

Simplify your life, à la Maria Condo. This can be reducing clutter in your home and embracing minimalism or stepping back from responsibilities you have in your life that take up too much time and stress.  

It is good to say no sometimes!

8. Challenge false beliefs

This is a classic CBT coping technique.

If you find yourself thinking things like, "I'm not good enough", "I can't do this", or "I am a failure", focus on changing the thought. Replace that thought with something that is true and choose to change your belief.

For instance, if your parents really pushed that you get straight A's in school, you may be prone to overworking and chronic overachieving as an adult. Whenever you receive criticism, you might think, "I am a failure". Change the thought by making a statement to yourself: "I am not a failure. I did a great job on this project at work recently. And I keep getting promoted. I am not a failure—I do good work and have achieved a lot."

A therapist can help you through the process of changing your thoughts.

9. Lower your expectations

This includes the expectations you have for yourself and for others.

Perfectionism is impossible to achieve—accept that. Lowering your expectations can protect you from unnecessary disappointment.

Don't go full-blown pessimist, though—have healthy expectations.

Unhealthy Coping Skills

Unhealthy coping techniques worsen mental health and stress in the long run. Here are 3 common unhealthy coping skills to avoid:

It may be cathartic in the moment but talking about your negative feelings and situation repeatedly can keep you stuck in a negative cycle. This doesn't mean you shouldn't talk to anyone about your struggles—getting a different perspective, empathy, and simply getting it out for a bit is healthy and can help propel you towards a solution.

2. Overdoing it

Overeating, overdrinking, oversleeping, overexerting, overspending... these are all about seeking pleasure to cope with problems. These unhealthy coping skills don't get to the root of the problem, and often only make you feel worse in the end.

Have an accountability partner to help you stay on track. And prevent yourself from being tempted. If you are prone to overspend, for instance, cut up your credit card and stick to cash or your checking account. Set limits on yourself.

You can also underdo it. The key is to find balance.

3. Avoidance and denial

This includes avoiding the problem itself or avoiding support from others. Some people do this by overworking. Others avoid their work as much as they can. Some don't talk to others about their struggles.

We all need other people. Find a good support system you can lean on. Undoubtedly, someone else out there has been in a situation similar to yours.

Try to get to know yourself better. Figure out which coping techniques—emotional and problem-focused—help you the best and in which situations. Keep track of these things and refer to your notes whenever you need to cope.

A great start is to set an appointment with a therapist. They can walk alongside you on your mental health journey!

How Nivati Can Help You Cope

Nivati is all about giving people the tools they need to take care of themselves. Gain access to counselors from all over the world from a variety of backgrounds that will help you build healthy coping techniques. Tell your employer about Nivati today!  

By participating in/reading the service/website/blog/email series on this website, you acknowledge that this is a personal website/blog and is for informational purposes and should not be seen as mental health care advice. You should consult with a licensed professional before you rely on this website/blog’s information. All things written on this website should not be seen as therapy treatment and should not take place of therapy or any other health care or mental health advice. Always seek the advice of a mental health care professional or physician. The content on this blog is not meant to and does not substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Haeli Harris

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Problem-Focused Coping

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Active coping

Coping refers to the intentional efforts we engage in to minimize the physical, psychological, or social harm of an event or situation. There are many different frameworks for understanding coping and many different ways of classifying coping strategies, but one such classification is problem-focused coping vs. emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping is that kind of coping aimed at resolving the stressful situation or event or altering the source of the stress. Coping strategies that can be considered to be problem-focused include (but are not limited to) taking control of the stress (e.g., problem solving or removing the source of the stress), seeking information or assistance in handling the situation, and removing oneself from the stressful situation.

Problem-focused coping is distinguished from emotion-focused coping, which is aimed at managing the emotions associated with the situation, rather than changing the situation itself. For...

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References and Readings

Field, T., McCabe, P. M., & Schneiderman, N. (1985). Stress and coping . Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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Lazarus, R. S. (1999). Stress and emotion: A new synthesis . New York: Springer.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal and coping . New York: Springer.

Moos, R. H. (1986). Coping with life crises: An integrated approach . New York: Plenum Press.

Zeidner, M., & Endler, N. S. (1996). Handbook of coping: Theory, research, applications . New York: Wiley.

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Carroll, L. (2013). Problem-Focused Coping. In: Gellman, M.D., Turner, J.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1005-9_1171

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Stress Management Techniques

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Stress arises when individuals perceive a discrepancy between a situation’s physical or psychological demands and the resources of their biological, psychological, or social systems (Sarafino, 2012).

There are many ways of coping with stress. Their effectiveness depends on the type of stressor, the particular individual, and the circumstances.

For example, if you think about the way your friends deal with stressors like exams, you will see a range of different coping responses. Some people will pace around or tell you how worried they are, and others will revise or pester their teachers for clues.

Lazarus and Folkman (1984) suggested there are two types of coping responses emotion focused and problem focused :

Emotion-focused Coping

Emotion-focused coping is stress management that attempts to reduce negative emotional responses associated with stress.

Negative emotions such as embarrassment, fear, anxiety, depression, excitement, and frustration are reduced or removed by the individual through various methods of coping.

Emotion-focused techniques might be the only realistic option when the source of stress is outside the person’s control.

Drug therapy can be seen as emotion-focused coping as it focuses on the arousal caused by stress, not the problem. Other emotion-focused coping techniques include:

  • Distraction, e.g., keeping yourself busy to take your mind off the issue.
  • Emotional disclosure. This involves expressing strong emotions by talking or writing about negative events which precipitated those emotions (Pennebaker, 1995)
  • This is an important part of psychotherapy .
  • Praying for guidance and strength.
  • Meditation, e.g., mindfulness.
  • Eating more, e.g., comfort food.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Using drugs.
  • Journaling, e.g., writing a gratitude diary (Cheng, Tsui, & Lam, 2015).
  • Cognitive reappraisal. This is a form of cognitive change that involves construing a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact (Lazarus & Alfert, 1964).
  • Suppressing (stopping/inhibiting) negative thoughts or emotions. Suppressing emotions over an extended period of time compromises immune competence and lead to poor physical health (Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, 1988).

Critical Evaluation

A meta-analysis revealed that emotion-focused strategies are often less effective than using problem-focused methods in relation to health outcomes(Penley, Tomaka, & Weibe, 2012).

In general, people who used emotion-focused strategies such as eating, drinking, and taking drugs reported poorer health outcomes.

Such strategies are ineffective as they ignore the root cause of the stress. The type of stressor and whether the impact was on physical or psychological health explained the strategies between coping strategies and health outcomes.

In addition, Epping-Jordan et al. (1994) found that patients with cancer who used avoidance strategies, e.g., denying they were very ill, deteriorated more quickly than those who faced up to their problems. The same pattern exists in relation to dental health and financial problems.

Emotion-focused coping does not provide a long-term solution and may have negative side effects as it delays the person dealing with the problem. However, they can be a good choice if the source of stress is outside the person’s control (e.g., a dental procedure).

Gender differences have also been reported: women tend to use more emotion-focused strategies than men (Billings & Moos, 1981).

Problem-focused Coping

Problem-focused coping targets the causes of stress in practical ways, which tackles the problem or stressful situation that is causing stress, consequently directly reducing the stress.

Problem-focused strategies aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stressor, including:

  • Problem-solving.
  • Time-management.
  • Obtaining instrumental social support.
In general problem-focused coping is best, as it removes the stressor and deals with the root cause of the problem, providing a long-term solution.

Problem-focused strategies are successful in dealing with stressors such as discrimination (Pascoe & Richman, 2009), HIV infections (Moskowitz, Hult, Bussolari, & Acree, 2009), and diabetes (Duangdao & Roesch, 2008).

However, it is not always possible to use problem-focused strategies. For example, when someone dies, problem-focused strategies may not be very helpful for the bereaved. Dealing with the feeling of loss requires emotion-focused coping.

The problem-focused approach will not work in any situation where it is beyond the individual’s control to remove the source of stress. They work best when the person can control the source of stress (e.g., exams, work-based stressors, etc.).

It is not a productive method for all individuals. For example, not all people are able to take control of a situation or perceive a situation as controllable.

For example, optimistic people who tend to have positive expectations of the future are more likely to use problem-focused strategies. In contrast, pessimistic individuals are more inclined to use emotion-focused strategies (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).

Billings, A. G., & Moos, R. H. (1981). The role of coping responses and social resources in attenuating the stress of life events. Journal of behavioral Medicine , 4, 139-157.

Cheng, S. T., Tsui, P. K., & Lam, J. H. (2015). Improving mental health in health care practitioners: Randomized controlled trial of a gratitude intervention. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 83(1) , 177.

Duangdao, K. M., & Roesch, S. C. (2008). Coping with diabetes in adulthood: a meta-analysis. Journal of behavioral Medicine, 31(4) , 291-300.

Epping-Jordan, J. A., Compas, B. E., & Howell, D. C. (1994). Predictors of cancer progression in young adult men and women: Avoidance, intrusive thoughts, and psychological symptoms. Health Psychology , 13: 539-547.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American psychologist , 46(8), 819.

Lazarus, R. S., & Alfert, E. (1964). Short-circuiting of threat by experimentally altering cognitive appraisal. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 69(2) , 195.

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress,appraisal, and coping . New York: Springer.

Moskowitz, J. T., Hult, J. R., Bussolari, C., & Acree, M. (2009). What works in coping with HIV? A meta-analysis with implications for coping with serious illness. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1) , 121.

Nes, L. S., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2006). Dispositional optimism and coping: A meta-analytic review. Personality and social psychology review, 10(3) , 235-251.

Pascoe, E. A., & Smart Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 135(4) , 531.

Penley, J. A., Tomaka, J., & Wiebe, J. S. (2002). The association of coping to physical and psychological health outcomes: A meta-analytic review. Journal of behavioral medicine, 25(6) , 551-603.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1995). Emotion, disclosure, & health. American Psychological Association .

Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, J. W. (1998). The immunological effects of thought suppression. Journal of personality and social psychology, 75(5) , 1264.

Sarafino, E. P. (2012). Health Psychology: Biopsychosocial Interactions. 7th Ed . Asia: Wiley.

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What Is Problem-Focused Coping? Problem Focused Strategies To Help You

  • Updated September 23, 2021

How Learning Stress Management Can Benefit You

No one likes uncomfortable or stressful situations. When we are faced with a stressful situation, we have to decide on and choose a coping strategy to employ to deal with the issue at hand.

This article will explain both problem-focused coping strategies as well as emotion-focused coping techniques to deal with the stressors in our lives. This way, we can face our problems, stressful life events, and negative feelings with less anxiety and without feeling overwhelmed. 

What Is Focused Coping?

Focused coping involves identifying our stressors and focusing on how to deal with them. There are two types. Problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.

When we focus on the problem, we identify the root cause and use focused strategies to address it head-on, eradicating the stressors at their source. 

When we focus on the emotion, we employ focused strategies to help us rid ourselves of the emotions we are feeling as a direct result of the stressors. This helps us to banish negative thoughts so that we can more efficiently cope with the physical stressors. 

Focused Coping Strategies

Coping strategies are any strategies that we use to improve our mood, reduce stress , and improve our overall physical and mental health. There are many different coping strategies, and what works for one person may not work for another.

Clinical psychology generally accepts focused coping as the most direct and effective way to rid ourselves of stress and turmoil over an event when we cannot change the negative emotions we feel surrounding them immediately.

Problem Focused Strategies

Suppose that there was the possibility for a big promotion at work. You have been working for the company for a long time, and while the thought of tossing your hat into the ring with other promotion hopefuls seems like a stressful situation, you feel as though you really deserve it.

Going after the promotion will mean that you will be competing with other employees for one spot. Let’s say that you have recently made several new friends and a few of them would also like the promotion.

This adds to the stress of going for the promotion.

Now let’s complicate this matter further because that’s the way life is. Stress does not pause itself in the course of life to wait until you have successfully dealt with your other issues. Stress has a way of piling on when you least need it.

Now let’s say that you are having financial problems as well. Unless you get this promotion, you’re looking at facing an extended period of time dealing with the negative effects of debt.

Maybe you’ve got student loans; maybe there was an emergency bill you needed to pay. Perhaps family members needed a loan, and you didn’t have the money to give, but you did it anyway.

Money issues definitely add to the stress. Suddenly, you realize that this promotion is not a want. It’s a need. And you find that your stress levels are now through the roof, and it’s affecting everything from your confidence to your work performance to your well-being.

You know that there is going to be a performance review, and if you make it past that stage, an interview. The stress level is now at its peak. You need to employ focused coping, but where do you start?

You can seek professional medical advice and try to learn important coping skills that way, or get a referral to seek further help.

But if you don’t have much time and you know that time is of the essence on this issue, then you’ve got to figure out some coping strategies by using other means, such as cognitive appraisal.

Here’s where we can help.

Focused Coping in this Example

Coping skills and problem solving go hand in hand. So when developing a coping strategy to deal with this issue, try to tell yourself that you are just solving a problem, and you do that all the time in life.

Emotion-Focused Coping Strategies

The emotion-focused coping method involves dealing with the way things make you feel rather than addressing the physical stressors head-on. So if your performance review is coming up, and you don’t have the dispositional optimism to keep yourself from feeling stress and anxiety about it, try to distract yourself.

You are combating the feelings, not the source of the stress.

You can try to distract yourself by reading a book or going for a walk instead of sitting around worried about a poor performance review. This will relieve some of the stress.

It does nothing to address the potential stressors of the situation, but it will get you out of your head.

When you use emotion-focused coping, you are employing a method of coping that alleviates the negative emotions that you feel surrounding the stressors, so that the actual stressors don’t seem like such a big deal.

Emotion-focused strategies such as distraction and addressing and fixing psychological symptoms that are a direct result of the stressors will help you to feel more prepared in dealing with the stressors.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Stressful events cause our bodies to tense up. One method of stress management involves totally relaxing your body so that you cannot feel anxious. Anxiety can’t occur if you are completely relaxed physically, and there is no tension in your muscles.

Focus on specific muscle groups in your body. When you inhale, contract them. When you exhale, relax them. That’s all there is to it.

Doing this so that your body ends up relaxed not only reduces negative psychological effects, but it helps you sleep better and it increases your chances of having more positive emotions regarding the stressful event you will have to face. It only takes a few minutes, and it does a massive amount of good.

Most stressors can be reduced if we can eradicate the negative feelings that come along with them.

Problem-focused coping is where you take action to alleviate the actual stressors that are causing you psychological and emotional distress. It is always a good idea to employ emotion-focused strategies first so that you are relaxed and less upset, but if you want to really get back to a less stressful life, you have to identify and deal with the root cause.

In the example about the job promotion, after you have dealt with the emotions invoked by the stress, look for possible solutions to the external stress.

Go directly to the person who performed the performance review and ask them what you may have been able to do better. Ask the person if you can improve in any way, regardless of whether you get the promotion or not.

This will make you look determined and interested not only in the goal, which was the better job but in being a better employee. You will most likely feel better when you leave that meeting.

If the person tells you that you did have some weak spots in your performance, you now know what they are. You can focus on those areas and improve them and be better prepared for the promotion when another opportunity presents itself.

This has alleviated the stress associated with not knowing how you did on the review, and it has made your boss take you more seriously as a driven employee.

Whether you get the job you wanted or not, you can now move past that issue. You can move on to the financial issue you are facing.

Go to the person at your job who is responsible for setting the pay rate and giving raises. If you got the promotion, you can skip this step.

If you didn’t get the promotion, address the rate you are being paid with the person responsible for setting it. Ask for a raise. Tell them that while you were considered for the promotion, you did not get it.

Bring up the good parts of your performance review, focus on the point that you are determined and driven enough to have applied for the higher paying job in the first place and that you think that you deserve more pay.

You may get what you ask for, and you may not. But knowing is half of the battle. If you get the raise, then you can make a plan to save the extra income to pay off debt or better your financial situation.

If you are turned down, you can either find a higher-paying job, or you can practice good time management and try to create a second line of income in your downtime. Either way, you have directly addressed this source of stress by asking for a raise.

Other Types of Coping

Health psychology.

Health psychology is a branch of behavioral medicine. Health psychologists study why people react the way they do to illness, why some don’t take the advice doctors give them to prevent and treat illness, and how best to encourage behavioral efforts of patients so that they can lead healthier lives.

Why do some people who are overweight or on the verge of diabetes do nothing to change their eating behaviors? Is eating one of their coping responses to stress? Is the issue environmental factors such as not having the resources to eat healthy foods?

Why are some people genetically predisposed to have issues with substance abuse and alcoholism still partaking in reckless behaviors, such as, drinking alcohol, and using drugs as a coping mechanism? They may be well aware that they are a prime candidate for developing alcoholism, but they do it anyway.

Why do some people who are more at risk for certain cancers not get preventative testing?

The examples of this are endless. Health psychologists look at a person’s physical health and habits and then try to engage the patients in a way that will push them towards better habits with the goal of good health in mind.

Behavioral medicine exists for purposes like this. Teaching patients coping strategies so that they can control their behavior in a way that spawns better health. When we learn to cope with our issues, we can control our habits in a way that benefits our health rather than harming it.

Sometimes removing oneself from the equation and thinking about someone else being in the same situations we are in is all it takes.

As an example, let’s say that you smoke cigarettes. You go to the doctor for regular checkups, and every time you do, your doctor urges you to quit smoking.

You tell him that you know they’re bad for you. You may even tell him that you’ll work on cutting back.

Your doctor offers to write you a prescription for medication that can help you quit, as well as recommending other resources that you may not have been aware of, like acupuncture. However, you politely decline, and you go on your way, smoking.

What if the next time you had an appointment, the doctor decided to engage you in conversation before the appointment really got started and told you that one of his close friends just died due to lung cancer. You will most likely convey your condolences.

What if the doctor then went on to say that his friend was perfectly healthy and lived a life full of good habits and healthy decisions, aside from smoking, and that’s what caused the cancer. What if he told you that his friend was your age and that no one saw his death coming.

Now you may have a different perspective. Now you may be more inclined to take that prescription or go see a therapist to stop smoking. You are removed from the situation and saw it from the outside looking in, and things can shift more easily that way.

Health psychologists research why these things work. They research coping mechanisms that work based upon the individual differences in patients.

They help to develop strategies for coping that work for an individual by doing the research necessary to understand why people behave the way they do when it comes to health.

Can Focused Coping Work For You?

Focused coping seems scary in some ways. Rushing right at a problem doesn’t come naturally to all of us. F

ight or flight response to stress kicks in, and some of us run while some of us attack. If you’re not on the fight end of the fight or flight spectrum, it seems very unnatural to directly confront stressors.

It really is true, though, that if you address stressors as they occur, they’re alleviated much more quickly. They can’t hang over your head because you have faced them, and you now know the outcome. It truly is a “ripping off the band-aid” action that gets the things we’re stressed about out of the way, and therefore, out of our minds.

When we employ coping focused on emotions, we are forced to address how we feel about things. This is never a bad idea.

Understanding the ways we are prone to react, getting to know ourselves, and then finding out what alleviates the feelings we have when we feel stress is part of the process of learning to accept and love ourselves.

When we love ourselves, we are less hard on ourselves; therefore, we are more relaxed. When we are more relaxed, anxiety cannot plague us as easily.

Coping skills, whether problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, or both, are necessary to get through life. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to hold jobs, have relationships, or be happy.

Coping responses that are positive help us pave the way to better health in every aspect.

We can use strategies like cognitive appraisal to address our problems and understand the stress process. We can also work on our time management skills so that when stress hits us, we don’t shut down and kill our chances of bouncing back.

Analysis of our issues as well as proper time management are great starting points in coping.

Seek Professional Help When Necessary

There is nothing wrong with asking for help. In fact, any time a problem seems or has gotten bigger than what we can handle, we should reach out for help.

Friends and family members are great resources for this, but sometimes we need experts.

Behavioral psychologists, psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists are there for you. Use the help that is available to you to learn how to live a life that is stress-free or at least reduced.

An affordable and convenient option to find a therapist is online where you can speak with a therapist from the comfort of your own home, on your schedule.

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Problem Focused Coping (A Complete Guide)

problem solving coping examples

As a BetterHelp affiliate, we may receive compensation from BetterHelp if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

The Optimistminds editorial team is made up of psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health professionals. Each article is written by a team member with exposure to and experience in the subject matter.  The article then gets reviewed by a more senior editorial member. This is someone with extensive knowledge of the subject matter and highly cited published material.

Problem focused coping is a stress management approach in which an individual honestly faces a stressor in an effort to reduce or get rid of it.

This might engage generating probable solutions to a problem, confronting others who are accountable for or else linked with the stressor, and other forms of involved action.

For instance, a student who is anxious about an upcoming examination might deal with by studying more, taking every class, and attending revision sessions to make sure he or she completely knows the course subject matter.

It has been considered that problem focused coping is used first and foremost when a person assesses a stressor the same as within his or her capability to adjust.

In this article we will discuss problem focused coping. 

Problem focused coping aims for the reasons of stress in realistic ways which engage in the difficulty or stressful circumstances that are causing stress or anxiety, so openly dropping the stress or anxiety. 

Problem focused strategies mean to get rid of or decrease the origin of the stressor, plus: Problem solving.

Problem Focused Coping vs. Emotion Focused Coping:

When you are feeling anxious, then you should ask yourself, “Do I have to change my circumstances or do I have to discover a method to better handle the condition?”

Then, you can make a decision on which kind of coping strategy will assist you best.

There are two main types of coping skills: 

  • Problem focused coping 
  • Emotion focused coping.

Problem focused coping is supportive when you require changing your circumstances, maybe by reducing a worrying object from your life.

For instance, if you are in a damaging relationship, your sadness and anxiety may be best determined by finishing the relationship (as disparate to relaxing your emotions).

Emotion focused coping is cooperative when you want to be concerned of your feelings when you also do not need to alter your condition or when state of affairs are not in your control.

For instance, if you are sad over the loss of your loved one, it would be essential to take care of your feelings in a healthy manner (as you cannot change the incident).

There is not always one top way to progress.

As a substitute, it is up to you to make a decision which kind of coping skill is possible to work most excellent for you in your exacting condition.

The following example of stressful situations is considered below and how each type might be used under this circumstance.

You have been asked to deliver a presentation in front of a huge group. You were so thrilled and stunned by the invite that you decided to do it.

However, as the occasion draws near, your anxiety and nervousness escalates as you hate public speaking.

Problem focused coping:  You make a decision to employ a public speaking trainer to assist you discover how to write down a high-quality speech and how to convey it boldly.

You put into practice giving your words in front of a small number of friends and family members so you would experience much geared up to step on stage.

Emotion focused coping:  You let yourself know that you can achieve this. You follow relaxation exercises at any time you start to fear.

And you repeat yourself that still if you are anxious, no one as well is even expected to observe.

Identifying the Prblem

Problem focused coping centers are just about the cause of your stress, so the first step is to recognize the problem.

Even though this might look simple, how many times have you come home from the workplace and felt stressed out?

Can you identify exactly what the problem was? It could have been the never ending meetings, unreliable clients, or your time consuming distance.

Figuring out what problem you would like to deal with is not always simple.

Once you identify what problem you need to deal with, there are quite a lot of ways to make use of problem focused coping.

The primary thing you require to do is get some time to actually think whether or not the problem is unreliable or changeable. 

In most cases, it will be. Continuing on with the workplace instance, you have only some options. 

For starters, you may think about talking to your superiors, and communicate honestly about the problems you are facing. 

Try to stay as objective as feasible, but make it obvious that you are in an impractical situation. 

First this point, you might be capable of proposing the much wanted changes around the workplace. 

Maybe hiring extra assistance, or doing unnecessarily difficult filing systems, etc.

What just happened in that circumstance is that the power effort has shifted in your favor. 

Frequently, anxiety comes about as we feel helpless to transform our environment and our surroundings.  Problem focused coping drags the rug out from under that type of thoughts, and requests you to look at it from a different point of view.

It helps inspire you to do something about your circumstances, somewhat than merely stay resigned to it.

Healthy Problem Focused Coping Skills: 

There are many methods you might choose to deal with a problem face-to-face and get rid of the cause of your anxiety.

On some occasions, that might indicate altering your actions or making an arrangement that helps you recognize what actions you are going to take.

In other circumstances, problem focused coping might engage more radical procedures, like shifting jobs or eliminating someone out of your life.

At this point, there are some examples of healthy problem focused coping skills:

  • Doing effort in organizing your time well (just like, turn off the notifications on your cell phone)
  • Set up  stimulating boundaries  (say to your friends that you are not going to spend time with them if they make fun of you)
  • Problem Solving
  • Ask for support from an expert or a friend
  • Time Management
  • Employ in problem solving
  • Walk away (go away from the situation which is a source of your stress)
  • Create a to do list
  • Acquire influential social support

Healthy Emotion Focused Coping Skills:

When you are feeling  lonely , anxious, depressing, or  angry , emotion focused coping skills might help you deal with your behaviors and feelings in a healthy way.

Healthy coping strategies can calm you, for the time being divert you, or assist you bear your sorrow.

Sometimes it is useful to encounter your emotions face-to-face.

For instance, you feel sad after the loss of a loved one might help out to credit your loss.

Here are a few ways of healthy emotion focused coping skills:

  • Writing a journal
  • Draw something
  • Listening music
  • Taking a bath
  • Have fun with a pet
  • Spending time in natural world
  • Clean the house 
  • Reading a book
  • Use of aromatherapy
  • Play a sport with your kids
  •  Cook a meal
  •  Engage in a hobby
  • Perform breathing exercises

Unhealthy Coping Skills: 

It does not mean it is healthy just because a tactic helps you tolerate your emotional pain. 

A few coping skills could generate bigger troubles in your life. Some examples of unhealthy coping skills are:

Drinking alcohol:

Drugs and alcohol might momentarily insensitive your pain, but they won’t determine your issues.

These are possibly to initiate new troubles into your life. Alcohol, for instance, is a depressant that can make you suffer badly.

Using substances also puts you at danger for raising a substance abuse crisis and it might make permissible issues, financial issues, and a multiplicity of public issues.

Overeating: 

Food is an ordinary coping strategy. But, demanding to “stuff your feelings” with food can lead to an  unhealthy relationship with food and weight issues.

Occasionally people go off to the extreme and confine their intake and obviously, that can be just as harmful.

Sleeping too much: 

Sleeping offers a momentary escape from your troubles whether you take a nap when you are stressed out or you get a sleep not on time to stay you away from facing the day.

But, when you get up, the problem would still be there.

Communicating to others: 

Discussing your problems so that you can get support, build up a solution, or perceive a problem in a diverse way can be healthy. 

But researchers explain constantly discussing to people  about how bad your circumstances are or how horrible you sense is more expected to stay if you are fixed in a rest of pain.

Overspending: 

As many people say that they enjoy  retail therapy  as a technique to feel good, shopping can turn out to be damaging.

Owning a lot of belongings can add stress and anxiety to your life. Moreover, spending more than you can afford will only go wrong in the end and develop more anxiety and stress.

Avoidance: 

Even “healthy” coping strategies can become unhealthy if you’re using them to avoid the problem. 

For example, if you are stressed about your financial situation, you might be tempted to spend time with friends or watch TV because that’s less anxiety-provoking than creating a budget.

But if you never resolve your financial issues, your coping strategies are only masking the problem.

What Works For You Best:

The coping strategies that work for someone might not work for you. For example: going for a walk may help out your partner to calm down.

However, you may find going for a walk when you are angry makes you believe more about why you are crazy and it boosts your angry thoughts.

So then you make a decision to watch a humorous video for some minutes and it helps you to calm down.

It is significant to build up your individual toolkit of coping skills that you will discover helpful.

You might have to research with a selection of coping strategies to help you realize which one works best for you. You may identify that some coping strategies work best for particular issues or feelings.

For instance, to engage in a pastime might be an efficient way to relax after an extensive day at work. But on the other hand, to go for a walk in nature may be the best way when you are feeling miserable.

There is always a room for development when it comes to coping skills.

So, review what other gears and tools you can utilize and believe how you might carry on enhancing your skills in future.

FAQs about problem focused coping

What are the major differences between problems focused coping and emotion focused coping.

When the stress is perceived as controllable, problem-focused coping strategies are associated with fewer psychological symptoms, whereas in uncontrollable stressful situations, emotion-focused coping is related to fewer symptoms.

What is stress coping?

Coping With Life’s Stressors. 

Coping usually involves adjusting to or tolerating negative events or realities while attempting to maintain your positive self-image and emotional equilibrium. 

Coping occurs in the context of life changes that are perceived to be stressful.

What are examples of coping skills?

Now that we’ve examined common styles of coping, let us take a look at specific coping strategies: Humor. … Seeking support. … Problem-solving. … Relaxation. … Physical recreation. … Adjusting expectations. … Denial. … Self-blame.

What does coping skills mean?

Coping means to invest one’s own conscious effort, to solve personal and interpersonal problems, in order to try to master, minimize or tolerate stress and conflict.

The psychological coping mechanisms are commonly termed coping strategies for coping skills.

What are some coping skills for anger?

Start by considering these 10 anger management tips. Think before you speak. … Once you’re calm, express your anger. … Get some exercise. … Take a timeout. … Identify possible solutions. … Stick with ‘I’ statements. … Don’t hold a grudge. … Use humor to release tension. Practice relaxation skills Know when to seek help

References:

verywellmind.com/forty-healthy-coping-skills-4586742

udemy.com/blog/problem-focused-coping/

study.com/academy/lesson/problem-focused-coping-definition-strategies-examples.html

https://dictionary.apa.org/problem-focused-coping

simplypsychology.org/stress-management.html

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Related posts, tutor resignation letters(5 samples), what should i comment on a good video, leave of absence letter for traveling abroad (+5 samples).

Julie Radico Psy.D. ABPP

Self-Esteem

It’s ok you can’t solve every problem, trying to “fix" everything can leave you feeling like a failure..

Updated May 10, 2024 | Reviewed by Ray Parker

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  • Your intrinsic value is more than what you can do for other people.

You are still worthwhile and can be successful, even if you don’t have all the solutions.

  • Consider which decision will make you feel you’ve stayed true to your values.

In coaching others, I often discuss problem-solving strategies to help individuals think creatively and consider many options when they are faced with challenging situations.

Problem solving 1-2 includes the following:

  • Define the problem, identify obstacles, and set realistic goals .
  • Generate a variety of alternative solutions to overcome obstacles identified.
  • Choose which idea has the highest likelihood to achieve the goal.
  • Try out the solution in real-life and see if it worked or not.

Problem-solving strategies can be helpful in many situations. Thinking creatively and testing out different potential solutions can help you come up with alternative ways of solving your problems.

While many problems can be solved, there are also situations in which there is no “perfect” solution or in which what seems to be the best solution still leaves you feeling unsatisfied or like you’re not doing enough.

I encourage you to increase your comfort around the following three truths:

1. You can’t always solve everyone else’s problems.

2. You can’t always solve all of your own problems.

3. You are not a failure if you can’t solve every problem.

Source: Hans-Peter Gauster / Unsplash

You can’t always solve everyone else’s problems.

When someone around you needs help, do you feel compelled to find solutions to their problem?

Are you seen as the problem solver at your job or in your close relationships?

Does it feel uncomfortable for you to listen to someone tell you about a problem and not offer solutions?

There are times when others come to you because they know you can help them solve a problem. There are also times when the other person is coming to you not for a solution to their problem, but for support, empathy, and a listening ear.

Your relationships may be negatively impacted if others feel that you don’t fully listen and only try to “fix” everything for them. While this may feel like a noble act, it may lead the other person to feel like they have failed or that you think they are unable to solve their own problems.

Consider approaching such situations with curiosity by saying to the other person:

  • As you share this information with me, tell me how I can best support you.
  • What would be most helpful right now? Are you looking for an empathetic ear or want to brainstorm potential next steps?
  • I want to be sure I am as helpful as I can be right now; what are you hoping to get out of our conversation?

You can’t always solve all of your own problems.

We are taught from a young age that problems have a solution. For example, while solving word problems in math class may not have been your favorite thing to do, you knew there was ultimately a “right” answer. Many times, the real world is much more complex, and many of the problems that you face do not have clear or “right” answers.

You may often be faced with finding solutions that do the most good for the most amount of people, but you know that others may still be left out or feel unsatisfied with the result.

Your beliefs about yourself, other people, and the world can sometimes help you make decisions in such circumstances. You may ask for help from others. Some may consider their faith or spirituality for guidance. While others may consider philosophical theories.

Knowing that there often isn’t a “perfect” solution, you may consider asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • What’s the healthiest decision I can make? The healthiest decision for yourself and for those who will be impacted.
  • Imagine yourself 10 years in the future, looking back on the situation: What do you think the future-you would encourage you to do?
  • What would a wise person do?
  • What decision will allow you to feel like you’ve stayed true to your values?

You are not a failure if you can’t solve all of the problems.

If you have internalized feeling like you need to be able to solve every problem that comes across your path, you may feel like a failure each time you don’t.

It’s impossible to solve every problem.

problem solving coping examples

Your intrinsic value is more than what you can do for other people. You have value because you are you.

Consider creating more realistic and adaptive thoughts around your ability to help others and solve problems.

Some examples include:

  • I am capable, even without solving all of the problems.
  • I am worthwhile, even if I’m not perfect.
  • What I do for others does not define my worth.
  • In living my values, I know I’ve done my best.

I hope you utilize the information above to consider how you can coach yourself the next time you:

  • Start to solve someone else’s problem without being asked.
  • Feel stuck in deciding the best next steps.
  • Judge yourself negatively.

1. D'zurilla, T. J., & Goldfried, M. R. (1971). Problem solving and behavior modification. Journal of abnormal psychology, 78(1), 107.

2. D’Zurilla, T. J., & Nezu, A. M. (2010). Problem-solving therapy. Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies, 3(1), 197-225.

Julie Radico Psy.D. ABPP

Julie Radico, Psy.D. ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and coauthor of You Will Get Through This: A Mental Health First-Aid Kit.

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Maladaptive Coping: 15 Examples & How to Break the Cycle

Maladaptive Coping

I’ve checked my email twice and scrolled through social media for more than an hour. And yet, I’m still writing the same paragraph.

We all find ways of escaping what needs to be done – typically, it’s a task we don’t want to perform – but it can get out of control. Maladaptive coping can escalate and even cause us to avoid engaging with others and facing up to stressful situations.

Several techniques can help us reframe our thinking, get back on track, and engage with the activities we avoid. This article explores the background to maladaptive coping and how we can help our clients put better strategies in place.

Before you continue reading, we thought you might like to download our three Grief Exercises [PDF] for free . These science-based tools will help you move yourself or others through grief in a compassionate way.

This Article Contains:

What is maladaptive coping, 15 examples of maladaptive coping strategies, negative coping mechanisms for stress and depression, 7 techniques to break your maladaptive coping patterns, positivepsychology.com’s helpful resources, a take-home message.

“ Problems  are not the problem; coping is the problem,” says Virginia Satir, a prominent clinical therapist (Thompson et al., 2010).

We are all experts in avoidance to some degree; we put off tasks and get out of situations that risk being stressful.

Rather than writing the email, we empty the dishwasher, check the news on our phone, or stare at our screensaver, daydreaming .

Wasting time can be annoying; we are often delaying the inevitable. But when magnified, such behavior, known as maladaptive coping , can be harmful. We avoid situations, events, and people, damaging our development, restricting our growth, and failing to meet our psychological needs.

Maladaptive coping strategies are not only unhelpful, they negatively impact our mental wellbeing. Such behavior prevents us from engaging in stressful situations – mentally, physically, or emotionally – and can lead to social isolation (Thompson et al., 2010; Enns, Eldridge, Montgomery, & Gonzalez, 2018).

So, where does it come from ?

Learning to cope

Coping strategies begin in early childhood with psychological and physiological responses to stress. Research using psychobiological models suggests that our sensitivity to input from the environment in our early life contributes to both our physical and mental health problems as adults (Wadsworth, 2015).

In the first year of life, we begin using coping strategies as we adapt to our interactions with caregivers. Sucking our thumb and looking away provide early examples of self-soothing and regulation behaviors. In the decades that follow, we become more independent and develop a toolkit of coping skills – more or less appropriate – to handle stress.

After all, stressful situations are a part of life. They are natural and essential, and encourage us to learn how to develop and respond to them, forming a balanced approach to life.

Toddlers move on from crying and looking for physical comfort to seeking help and ways of avoiding stress. Elementary school years begin with the development of more emotional awareness and higher cognitive functions (metacognition) and showing increasing signs of engaging in problem solving and cognitive reframing – looking at situations differently.

As these approaches continue to develop, by late adolescence, most of us have a repertoire of healthy coping strategies , including ones that are (Wadsworth, 2015):

  • Active – solving problems, looking for appropriate support, planning, and reframing
  • Accommodative – adjusting expectations and preferences to suit the situation and reduce stress (e.g., forgiveness and compromise)
  • Emotional – regulating emotional responses to stress and difficult situations
  • Behavioral – using behavior to manage stress (e.g., going for a walk, taking a deep breath, or talking to a friend)
  • Cognitive – mental activities that help manage stress (e.g., thinking about the bigger picture, pleasant images, or the potential benefits of the situation)

How and when each strategy gets implemented depend on the context and answers to questions such as:

How stressful is the situation? How urgent is it? Do I have control?

Being too rigid in the tactics we use can be detrimental. Typically, we develop and use a combination of strategies, depending on the situation and our state of mind.

Maladaptive coping origins

Maladaptive strategies can arise from a disruption to the typical coping development sequence in response to (Wadsworth, 2015):

  • Overwhelming stress – conflict within the family, financial hardship, death of a loved one, etc.
  • Poor treatment – growing up in a violent environment or not being given love and parental support, etc.
  • Emotional invalidation  – being told your emotions are not reasonable, rational, or valid, etc.

Research shows that children placed in such situations are less likely to develop coping skills involving managing emotions and solving problems.

In response to stressful situations or not experiencing adaptive behavior, older children and adolescents may continue with less mature coping strategies such as avoidance and denial.

Development in later life

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When confronted with stressful situations that leave us with feelings of anxiety, panic, and extreme stress, we often resort to maladaptive behaviors.

And yet the range in human response is vast. For some, it may be relatively harmless – occasional daydreaming or procrastination – for others, it could be self-harm or drug use.

Such maladaptive behavior may temporarily relieve stress or anxiety, but the underlying thoughts, fears, and concerns are not being addressed. Short-term relief may result in a longer term psychological upset.

Maladaptive coping techniques

Unhelpful coping techniques vary in terms of their frequency of use and degree of negative impact. Such variation is a good indication of the inability of many of us to cope and the lengths we will go to either ignore the issue or the feelings and regain a sense of control.

Maladaptive coping techniques include the following (Thompson et al., 2010; Enns et al., 2018; Wadsworth, 2015; Tapu, 2016):

  • Substance abuse Consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol and taking legal and illegal drugs.
  • Rumination Extreme and ongoing focus on “depressive symptoms and on the implications of those symptoms” (Thompson et al., 2010).
  • Emotional numbing Shutting down feelings to provide relief from stress and anxiety.
  • Escape Changing behavior to avoid the situation and difficult feelings.
  • Intrusive thoughts Unwelcome or involuntary ideas and thoughts that may be upsetting and difficult to manage.
  • Daydreaming While occasional daydreaming may result in a loss of focus and delayed task completion, in its extreme, maladaptive daydreaming is a form of addiction to daydreaming that can last for hours at a time.
  • Procrastination Procrastination, like rumination, can lead to the conscious or unconscious avoidance of difficult issues or tasks that require completion.
  • Self-harm and binge eating Both can be ways of dealing with difficult feelings and usually need specialist support.
  • Blaming and self-blaming These form cognitive strategies that affect how an individual relates to difficult circumstances.
  • Behavioral disengagement Under challenging situations, individuals may disengage or reduce the effort in a task or social situation.
  • Risk-taking behavior Another form of behavioral disengagement used to alleviate the adverse effects of a situation.
  • Sensitization Overly rehearsing a future event, excessive worrying, and hyper-vigilance.
  • Safety behaviors The tendency to rely on someone or something to help cope with extreme anxiety . The person may seek continual reassurance that things will be okay.
  • Anxious avoidance Avoiding situations or events that may cause upset. Unfortunately, this causes the person never to confront their fears or unlearn their faulty beliefs. Removing or avoiding such unpleasant experiences may cause the behavior to worsen.

Long-term use of such coping styles – and there are many others – is unhealthy. Such strategies are associated with high levels of psychological distress, including anxiety and depression in adolescents and adults (Thompson et al., 2010).

Maladaptive coping mechanisms

But over time, poor coping tactics can cause ongoing problems including:

  • Reinforcement of fear of particular situations
  • Avoiding family and friends to reduce the chance of being put in situations you don’t want to be in
  • Limited use of social skills , leading to a failure to develop or practice skills needed for interaction with others
  • Lowered educational and professional achievement due to avoiding interpersonal relationships and putting yourself forward
  • Avoiding difficult conversations , leading to problems being assertive and taking control when needed
  • Deteriorating physical and mental health  – adopting unhealthy strategies and behaviors will ultimately damage both mind and body.

What is a maladaptive coping mechanism? – More Love

https://youtu.be/522XPHhHWHY

People suffering from depression or heightened stress tend to focus excessively on the negative while failing to recognize positive experiences. In turn, activities can seem pointless and hopeless.

While reactions to situations are often emotional, the strategies adopted are frequently avoidant, removing the need for engagement with people and situations (Beck, 2011; Orzechowska, Zajączkowska, Talarowska, & Gałecki, 2013).

Examples of such thinking include:

I’m not going to text my friends; they will not want to see me. I’m not going to apply for the job; I will probably not get an interview anyway .

Other avoidant strategies include safety behaviors – such as not smiling, avoiding small talk, and dressing down – that make the individual less visible.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been beneficial in such cases by focusing on strengths and positive qualities while helping patients (Beck, 2011):

  • Identify automatic thinking
  • Devise solutions to their problems
  • Learn new skills

Writing as a coping mechanism

Avoidance-oriented coping is a way of ignoring the existence or impact of a situation. Approach-oriented coping focuses on managing emotions or changing the situation to one that is less stressful or challenging (Joseph, 2013).

We can help children at risk of developing maladaptive coping strategies – or adults already presenting with them – by encouraging them to engage in more appropriate approach-oriented behavior (Wadsworth, 2015).

And it is vital. Improved coping strategies have been linked to decreased psychological distress, lowered anxiety, reduced depression, and better overall health and resilience  (Thompson et al., 2010).

While maladaptive coping may initially appear to work, it increases stress and anxiety and reinforces damaging behavior over time.

And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Avoidance-oriented coping can be replaced by approach-oriented coping that focuses on managing, eliminating, or reducing stressors.

Try some of the following with your clients:

1. Cognitive restructuring

Replace negative thoughts with more healthy, positive ones that reduce the impact of real or imagined events.

  • The Cognitive Restructuring Worksheet uses Socratic questioning – a series of open, focused questions between two people – to challenge irrational thoughts.
  • The Decatastrophizing Steps Worksheet uses five questions to take a person through deconstructing a ‘catastrophe.’

2. Distraction

When a difficult situation presents itself, it is possible to distract oneself from negative urges through music, breathing techniques, writing down thoughts, meditation, etc.

Such techniques can have a calming effect while redirecting attention away from the stressor.

3. Thought stopping

Interrupting or breaking the cycle of negative thoughts as they arise can help stop panic from spiraling and the domino effect of negative thoughts.

Work with clients to find an appropriate mechanism to interrupt negative thinking. For some, it may be to say ‘stop’ out loud (or in their head); for others, it could be snapping an elastic band on the wrist.

  • Outside of the immediate situation, the Finding Discrepancies Worksheet can be useful to consider the positive and negative effects of continuing or stopping a behavior.
  • Automatic reactions can be overwhelming and occur before conscious thought can intervene. Use the Automatic Thought Record Worksheet  to reflect on faulty ways of thinking.

4. Self-compassion

Shauna Shapiro (2020) describes two common and yet ineffective coping mechanisms in her book, Rewire Your Mind . When confronted by a challenge, we often respond by either dwelling on our shame or bolstering our self-esteem .

Both are of limited value in helping us cope; instead, we should adopt a mindset of self-compassion (Shapiro, 2020).

  • We view ourselves with shame and self-judgment. We attempt to motivate change within ourselves by poring over our shortcomings and scrutinizing our inadequacies.

It doesn’t work. Instead, it triggers an adverse biological response – the release of stress hormones, cortisol, and norepinephrine. They take away our cognitive flexibility and remove our capacity to learn.

  • While some self-help literature tells us that self-esteem  is crucial to our resilience and a happy life, there is a problem. Self-esteem requires success to prove our worth.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, is like your dog. It looks at you and says you are “worthy no matter what” (Shapiro, 2020). If we want to stop the cycle of repeating our mistakes, then we need to learn from them. Self-compassion releases oxytocin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that reduces distress, increases feelings of safety, and helps us form new connections.

A particularly useful approach to creating self-compassion in our clients’ lives is by asking them to write themselves a Letter of Self-Compassion . By capturing how unworthy they feel and then viewing it with unconditional love, they can change how they think about themselves.

5. Coping statements

Christine Wilding (2015) suggests that creating a set of coping statements can help a client face up to challenges. Once written down, they can be regularly repeated and used to frame the client’s worries and difficulties in a more positive way (modified from Wilding, 2015):

  • I’m going to face this challenge and handle it as best as I can.
  • So, it may not work out 100%, but I will give it my best and see what happens.
  • I’ve been in this situation before and survived.
  • I’m strong enough to handle this, whatever happens.
  • Things often aren’t as bad as they first seem .

Repeating positive statements can significantly impact the client’s state of mind and level of preparedness for what is to come.

6. Openness

Research by Barbara Fredrickson (2010) found that approaching challenges in an open way leads to improved handling of stress, finding novel solutions to existing problems, and an increased ability to cope.

Using the Stress as a Stimulus For Change exercise, your client can think about what they wish to change in their lives and open up to the possibility of starting the transformation process.

Imagine getting more done in the same time and producing your best work more often. That is the potential of flow.

Often our maladaptive coping mechanisms are more unhelpful than damaging. Finding that sweet spot when it comes to work can help. Indeed flow, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002), is the “sense of everything coming together” and being the best version of ourselves.

When immersed in an experience, we achieve our highest focus and our best work, and perhaps most importantly, we enjoy it.

So how do we get there ?

It is crucial to find a balance between the situation’s difficulty and an individual’s skillset to reach flow. Ask your client to try some activities from this list of common flow activities to see if they can increase the frequency and duration of that optimum balance.

problem solving coping examples

17 Exercises For Grief & Bereavement

Apply these 17 Grief & Bereavement Exercises [PDF] to help others process difficult emotions, leverage self-compassion, and find balance following painful loss.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

The Realizing Resilience Masterclass is an excellent resource for practitioners.

Teach your clients how to become more resilient and mentally tough with the science-based techniques and tools in this online masterclass. It will help them not only bounce back from life’s challenges, but also adopt more life-enhancing coping strategies.

A resource on how to manage cognitive restructuring is this valuable article with 16 Decatastrophizing Worksheets and Tools .

This article on How to Deal With Anxiety provides helpful coping resources.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others move through grief in a compassionate way, this collection contains 17 validated grief and bereavement exercises . Use them to help others find balance as they attempt to make sense of a life that has been irrevocably changed.

There are times in our lives when we avoid situations or tasks that we know will be challenging or painful. We put it off, thinking it will not have a significant effect on our physical or mental wellbeing, but ultimately, we know it has to be done.

Depending on the circumstances, delaying may even be the right thing to do. But when such avoidant tendencies stop us from leading a full and authentic life, we can benefit from help.

For example, not applying for a job because we are fearful of being put in a position we cannot handle may leave us feeling unfulfilled. And excessive drinking or drug use to get through the day will damage us and those close to us in our lives.

Whether maladaptive coping strategies developed in our early years or later in life, they are not fixed. As humans, we have an incredible ability to change; our brain’s neuroplasticity enables us to replace unhelpful or damaging behavior with something that encourages growth and positivity.

Helping clients recognize their maladaptive behaviors and understand the harm they cause is vital. Work with them to identify strategies that are not working, replace them with more appropriate techniques that ultimately meet their psychological needs, and live a more fulfilling life.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Grief Exercises [PDF] for free .

  • Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond . New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The psychology of happiness . London, UK: Harper & Row.
  • Enns, A., Eldridge, G. D., Montgomery, C., & Gonzalez, V. M. (2018). Perceived stress, coping strategies, and emotional intelligence: A cross-sectional study of university students in helping disciplines. Nurse Education Today , 68 , 226–231.
  • Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive . London, UK: Oneworld.
  • Joseph, S. (2013). What doesn’t kill us: A guide to overcoming adversity and moving forward . London, UK: Piatkus.
  • Orzechowska, A., Zajączkowska, M., Talarowska, M., & Gałecki, P. (2013). Depression and ways of coping with stress: A preliminary study. Medical Science Monitor , 19 , 1050–1056.
  • Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness . London, UK: Aster.
  • Tapu, M. (2016). Maladaptive daydreaming. The Psychologist. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/december-2016/maladaptive-daydreaming
  • Thompson, R. J., Mata, J., Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J., & Gotlib, I. H. (2010). Maladaptive coping, adaptive coping, and depressive symptoms: Variations across age and depressive state. Behaviour Research and Therapy , 48 (6), 459–466.
  • Wadsworth, M. E. (2015). Development of maladaptive coping: A functional adaptation to chronic, uncontrollable stress. Child Development Perspectives , 9 (2), 96–100.
  • Wilding, C. (2015). Cognitive behavioural therapy: Techniques to improve your life . London, UK: Hodder.

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Sarah Ludwick

Amazing article! Extremely helpful for group therapy with my patient base of recovering adults’ (SUD) as it has given me a few more key concepts to introduce.

Mr Richard

Thanks for this great work concerning your findings on Maladaptive behaviors. Nimejifunza mengi.

Robert Stevenson

How are intrusive thoughts maladaptive coping >>technique<< ?

Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

That’s a great question. Intrusive thoughts can sometimes take the form of obsessively thinking about a particular topic. This persistent way of thinking can give us the illusion of having control over a situation, but in reality, we’re just cycling unproductively through the same thoughts. An example would be if you were to agonize over your partner’s fidelity or commitment to you by attempting to overanalyze their words of behaviors.

Again, this way of thinking can give us the illusion of control, thereby helping us feel like we’re coping, but when it’s spurred by underlying OCD, it’s likely to do more psychological harm than good.

Hope this answers your question!

– Nicole | Community Manager

Thomas Reinhardt

Dear Doctor Sutton, Thank you very much for your articles and work. They are helpful beyond words. Please pray for us and keep up your great much needed work. sincerely, Thomas

adina

amen God bless you

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Problem-focused and emotion-focused coping options and loneliness: how are they related?

Eric c. schoenmakers.

1 Department of Applied Gerontology, Fontys University of Applied Sciences, Ds. Th. Fliednerstraat 2, 5631 BN Eindhoven, The Netherlands

2 Department of Sociology, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Theo G. van Tilburg

Tineke fokkema.

3 Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute (NIDI-KNAW), University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands

We examine the extent to which coping options endorsed by older adults help alleviate loneliness, and experiences with loneliness influence the coping options. Two ways of coping are distinguished: problem-focused, i.e., improving one’s relationships, and emotion-focused, i.e., lowering one’s expectations about relationships. Loneliness is assessed using three observations over 6 years among 1,033 61- to 99-year-old respondents in the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam. Combining the first two observations yielded four loneliness types: not lonely at T0 and T1, recently lonely, persistently lonely, and recovered from loneliness. Between the second and third observations, respondents were asked to evaluate which coping options lonely peers described in various vignettes had. From this, individual coping scores were calculated. The option to improve relationships did not affect the likelihood of one’s own loneliness, and the option to lower expectations even increased it. Compared to non-lonely respondents, recently lonely ones endorsed both ways of coping equally frequently, persistently lonely ones endorsed improving relationships less frequently and lowering expectations more frequently and recovered respondents endorsed improving relationships equally frequently and lowering expectations more frequently. We conclude that considering various ways of coping does not help alleviate loneliness and that persistently lonely and recovered respondents are at risk of a circular process with loneliness experiences resulting in considering lowering expectations more frequently, which results in a greater likelihood of loneliness, thus contributing to sustaining or re-establishing loneliness.

Introduction

Loneliness is a negative experience (Dahlberg 2007 ; De Jong Gierveld 1998 ; Peplau and Perlman 1982 ) observed to be related to negative effects on well-being (De Jong Gierveld 1998 ) and physical and mental health (Hawkley and Cacioppo 2010 ; Heinrich and Gullone 2006 ; Holwerda et al. 2012 ; Ó Luanaigh and Lawlor 2008 ; Routasalo and Pitkala 2003 ; Shankar et al. 2013 ). We assume that due to its negative impact on people’s lives, lonely people generally do not want to remain that way and try to overcome their loneliness. To do so, people may consider various coping efforts. Previous studies on coping with loneliness distinguished efforts ranging from seeking social interaction to seeking distraction, e.g., by reading, and varying from reflection and acceptance to improving social competencies (Pettigrew and Roberts 2008 ; Rokach and Brock 1998 ). However, not much is known about how effective the coping options are in terms of alleviating loneliness. Nor do we know much about why people consider certain coping options. Previous studies on coping with various stressors show that experiences with the stressor influence the selection of coping options (Aldwin and Revenson 1987 ; Folkman and Moskowitz 2004 ). The first aim of this study is to examine the extent to which endorsing coping options is associated with subsequent reductions in loneliness. The second aim is to examine the extent to which experiences with loneliness influence the consideration of two distinct coping options.

Coping is defined as individuals’ constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and internal demands appraised as taxing or exceeding their resources (Lazarus and Folkman 1984 ). It is essential to this definition that coping is process-oriented, i.e., coping efforts can change over time, and that coping is contextual, i.e., coping preferences differ in various contexts. Many ways of coping with various stressors have been distinguished. In an effort to categorize these ways of coping, Skinner et al. ( 2003 ) compiled a list of four hundred distinct ways of coping. A division into two higher-order ways of coping is commonly used (Baker and Berenbaum 2007 ; Carver et al. 1989 ; Dysvik et al. 2005 ; Lazarus and Folkman 1984 ; Parker and Endler 1992 ; Pearlin and Schooler 1978 ). Problem-focused coping includes all the active efforts to manage stressful situations and alter a troubled person-environment relationship to modify or eliminate the sources of stress via individual behavior. Emotion-focused coping includes all the regulative efforts to diminish the emotional consequences of stressful events. More recently, a third higher-order way of coping has been introduced, meaning-focused coping, which is appraisal-based coping whereby an individual draws on beliefs, values, and existential goals to motivate and sustain coping. It typically occurs when coping was unsuccessful and is used to restart the coping process (Folkman 2007 ).

As regards loneliness, there are also a problem-focused and an emotion-focused way of coping (Schoenmakers et al. 2012 ). According to the approach to loneliness developed by Peplau and Perlman ( 1982 ), people are lonely if there is a discrepancy between the relationships they have and the ones they want. The incongruence between desired and actual relationships can be solved by either improving one’s relationships or lowering one’s expectations about relationships. Their approach also suggests a third way, i.e., reducing the perceived importance of a social deficiency, for example by telling oneself most people are lonely at one time or another. Because it only delays dealing with the problem at hand, we do not consider this a separate way of coping. Improving relationships is a problem-focused way of coping and can be achieved by making new friends or re-establishing contact with old ones. Lowering expectations is an emotion-focused way of coping and can be achieved by lowering one’s expectations about how frequently others should visit or comparing oneself with someone who is worse off (Revenson 1981 ). Both ways of coping are problematic for lonely people: improving relationships because it requires time and effort to establish a satisfying set of relationships (Perese and Wolf 2005 ) and lowering expectations because it is hard to accept that they cannot achieve the set of relationships they initially wanted. We focus on the ways of coping that individuals see as an option instead of their actual coping behavior. With these options, the person evaluates in what way the problematic emotional experience can be solved or the consequences can be mitigated (Folkman et al. 1986 ; Smith and Kirby 2009 ). By measuring the various coping options, we can examine the efforts non-lonely consider for coping with loneliness and compare them with those of people who have experience with loneliness. By doing so, we hope to gain insight into whether there are differences between the coping options by people with different loneliness experiences. The coping options are a reflection of the intentions they have for coping. Intentions are the most immediate and important predictor of individuals’ behavior (Sheeran 2002 ). Without intentions, cognitive or behavioral changes are unlikely or coincidental at best.

In Fig.  1 , we present the theoretical framework to be tested. Three observations of loneliness at three moments of time (T0, T1, and T2) are at the core of the model. The first and second observations are combined to create four types of experiences with loneliness, i.e., not lonely at T0 and T1, recently lonely (lonely at T1 but not at T0), persistently lonely (lonely at both observations), and recovered (lonely at T0 but not at T1). In comparison to people who are not lonely, we expect recently lonely people, persistently lonely people and people who have recovered from loneliness to have a higher likelihood of loneliness at T2. This means that we expect the chances of recovery from loneliness to be smaller than the chances of becoming lonely, and the chances of relapsing into loneliness to be greater than the incidence of loneliness. Between the second and third observation, we measured the coping options that respondents see for other older adults who feel lonely.

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Schematic representation of the theoretical framework. Lonely (vs. not lonely) is dichotomous and measured at T2. Recently lonely (vs. not lonely at T0 and T1), persistently lonely (vs. not lonely at T0 and T1), and recovered (vs. not lonely at T0 and T1) are dichotomous and based on measurements at T0 and T1

The straightforward way of thinking about coping is that individuals who are confronted with a problem will consider more coping options than those who are not. Considering more coping options indicates that the lonely person sees more potential to combat loneliness, and when followed by (various forms of) coping behavior this should lead in turn to a higher likelihood of reduction of the problem. However, problem-focused and emotion-focused ways of coping with loneliness may not be equally successful in reducing the problem. In general, coping researchers find active ways of coping to be more successful at problem-solving than emotion-focused ones (Aldwin and Revenson 1987 ; Thoits 1995 ). This is because problem-focused ways of coping are used to remove the stressor (Carstensen et al. 2003 ), and emotion-focused coping pertains to short-term distractions and does not help increase satisfaction with one’s social life (Rook and Peplau 1982 ). By improving their relationships, lonely people combat the main source of their loneliness, i.e., the lack of satisfying relationships. In contrast, by lowering their expectations, people only change the emotions attached to loneliness. Lowering expectations about relationships may reduce loneliness without addressing the source or helping people make their loneliness more endurable. This is why we expect that the more coping options people consider to improve their relationships, the less likely it is that they will be lonely at T2 (Hypothesis 1, depicted in Fig.  1 as a negative effect on loneliness of options to improve relationships), but considering more options to lower expectations has no effect on loneliness at T2 (Hypothesis 2, depicted in Fig.  1 as a zero effect on loneliness of options to lower expectations).

Coping is a process, so the options to cope may change over time, depending on the situation. This means experiences with loneliness influence which ways of coping are considered. We expect people who have not recently experienced loneliness to have a general idea about how to cope with it. When individuals experience loneliness, the problem of coping with it becomes real, which may result in considering both ways of coping to different extents. In general, we expect lonely people to consider more coping options than non-lonely ones. Thus, we expect recently lonely people to consider both options more frequently than people who were not lonely at T0 and T1 (Hypotheses 3 and 4). However, if loneliness becomes persistent, the options may change. Efforts to improve relationships require time and energy, and a failure of this coping can be disappointing. This is why persistently lonely people might reject this option. If persistently lonely people want to continue their coping efforts, they may need to lower their relationship expectations. We hypothesize that persistently lonely people see fewer options to improve their relationships and see more options to lower their expectations than people who were not lonely at T0 and T1 (Hypotheses 5 and 6). People who have recovered from loneliness are likely to view the coping option that worked for them as being right for their lonely peers as well. Because improving relationships helps lonely people combat the source of their loneliness and lowering expectations only changes the emotions attached to loneliness, we expect improving relationships to be a more effective way of coping with loneliness than lowering expectations. So we hypothesize that people who have recovered from loneliness see more options to improve their relationships (Hypothesis 7), and see options to lower their expectations as frequently as people who were not lonely at T0 and T1 (Hypothesis 8).

The Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam (LASA) is a continuing study of the physical, emotional, cognitive and social functioning of older adults (Huisman et al. 2011 ). First conducted in 1992–1993, the survey consisted of 3,107 55-to-84-year-old adults. The sample was stratified by sex and age and the respondents were selected from the registers of eleven municipalities varying in religion and urbanization. Follow-ups were conducted in 1995–1996 ( N  = 2,545), 1998–1999 ( N  = 2,076), 2001–2002 ( N  = 1,691), 2005–2006 ( N  = 1,257), 2008–2009 ( N  = 985) and 2011–2012 ( N  = 764). In 2002–2003 an additional sample of 1,002 55-to-64-year-old respondents was selected from the same municipalities. Follow-ups were conducted in 2005–2006 ( N  = 908), 2008–2009 ( N  = 833) and 2011–2012 ( N  = 759). The initial cooperation rates for the two samples were 63 and 62 % respectively. On the average 82 % of the respondents were re-interviewed for each follow-up, 11 % had died, 2 % were too ill or cognitively impaired to be interviewed, 5 % refused to be re-interviewed, and less than 1 % could not be contacted because they had moved to another country or an unknown destination. For this study, we analyzed data from the observations in 2005–2006, 2008–2009 and 2011–2012 and a side study conducted in 2010.

A face-to-face interview including loneliness questions was held with 1,308 of the 1,523 respondents in the 2011–2012 observation. Loneliness data from this observation was not available for five respondents because the interview was not completed. Another 199 respondents were excluded because they had not participated in the 2010 side study (non-response). Further exclusion was due to a lack of data on the coping scales from the 2010 side study ( N  = 19) and non-completion of the 2008–2009 observation ( N  = 35) or the 2005–2006 observation ( N  = 17). After this selection, the data pertained to 559 women (54 %) and 474 men (46 %) with an average age in 2011–2012 of 75 (SD = 7.9 in a range of 64–102). Logistic analysis of the non-response showed that compared to the 490 older adults not included in the analyses, the 1,033 older adults in the analyses were younger ( B  = −0.04, SE = 0.01, p  < 0.001) and less frequently female ( B  = 0.37, SE = 0.11, p  < 0.01).

Measurements

In the 2010 side study, the respondents were introduced to four fictional individuals with a different age, health status and marital status in written vignettes. One vignette individual had the same gender and age as the respondent, about the same health status (simplified to good or poor) and the same marital status (simplified to married if one had a partner or widowed if one had not a partner). The second vignette individual was 15 years older if the respondent was under the age of 75 and 15 years younger if the respondent was aged over 75, and had the same health and marital status. The third and fourth were in the other health status and in the other marital status, respectively, keeping the other characteristics equal to the first vignette individual. Respondents were not informed that one of the vignette individuals had about the same characteristic as they had at the time of the previous face-to-face interview. The sequence of the four vignettes was randomly chosen and varied from respondent to respondent. Vignettes are short hypothetical scenarios designed to elicit people’s perceptions, beliefs and attitudes (Torres 2009 ). By using vignettes, we were able to reveal the options lonely and non-lonely older adults consider for coping with loneliness. Here is an example of a vignette. ‘Ms Berg is 69 years old and married. Ms Berg is in good health.’ After the introductory question, ‘Assuming this person is lonely, how can this loneliness be alleviated?’ we suggested six coping efforts. The respondents were asked whether each effort should be made, yes or no. Confirmatory factor analysis as in the LISREL 8 program (Jöreskog and Sörbom 1993 ) was used to compose the scales representing the two ways of coping. Because the item scores were dichotomous, tetrachoric correlations were computed and Weighted Least Squares estimation was applied. We adopted the evaluation criteria for a model fit recommended by Schermelleh-Engel et al. ( 2003 ). The analysis of responses ( N  = 3,962) showed an acceptable or good fit of the two-factor model (RMSEA = 0.057; p for test of close fit RMSEA = 0.11; 90 % confidence interval for RMSEA = 0.048–0.066; SRMR = 0.063; NNFI = 0.98; CFI = 0.99; GFI = 0.95; AGFI = 0.85) with an exception of the χ 2 based fit statistics ( χ 15 2 = 11265.4 ; p  = 0.00; χ 2 /df = 751.0) due to the large sample size. The scale for improving relationships consisted of three items, ‘Attend a course to learn to make and keep friends,’ ‘Go to places or club meetings to meet people,’ and ‘Become a volunteer’ (reliability as computed from the LISREL model = 0.84). The other three items were on the scale for lowering expectations, ‘Keep in mind that other people are lonely as well, or even more lonely,’ ‘Appreciate the existing contacts with relatives and friends more,’ and ‘Family and friends should say don’t complain and be realistic’ (reliability = 0.77).

Loneliness was measured via the question, ‘If we divide people into not lonely, moderately lonely, severely lonely and extremely lonely, how would you categorize yourself?’ A single item was used because the direct approach to loneliness corresponded with how loneliness was introduced in the vignettes on coping. Direct and indirect measures of loneliness present a somewhat different picture of loneliness and the characteristics of lonely people (Shiovitz-Ezra and Ayalon 2012 ). Single-item measurements referring explicitly to loneliness are commonly used, especially in epidemiological studies, and have been found to be a valid way to measure loneliness (Victor et al. 2005 ).

We observed an unequal distribution of the loneliness scores. Only few respondents labeled themselves as severely or very severely lonely. For instance at T0 only 11 respondents indicated being more than moderately lonely. At T1 this number was 15. We therefore distinguished between the non-lonely (0) and the moderately, severely or extremely lonely (1) respondents. As to the coping scales, scores on the two coping scales were available for each respondent from one (in case of missing values) to four vignettes. To calculate the scale scores of each respondent, we applied a two-step procedure. There were differences in the characteristics of the vignette persons presented to the respondents, so we conducted multilevel regression analyses of improving relationships and lowering expectations on the other way of coping and the vignette person’s age, marital status, health status and individual characteristics such as gender (for details, see Schoenmakers et al. 2012 ). To arrive at a respondent score, the regression residuals were averaged for each respondent. The two ways of coping were positively interrelated ( r  = 0.39; p  < 0.001). To create two independent scales, the computed scale for improving relationships was regressed on the scale for lowering expectations and the regression residuals indicated that the expectations had indeed been lowered. For an easy interpretation, the two scales were rescaled to a range from 0 to 3 reflecting the original scale scores.

We tested our hypotheses by conducting Structural Equation Modeling, as in the Mplus version 5 program. Using maximum likelihood as the method of estimation, Mplus allows for the use of linear as well as logistic regressions in the same model (Muthén and Muthén 1998 –2002). Dummy variables are included for the four types of experiences with loneliness, i.e., not lonely at T0 and T1 as the category of reference, recently lonely, persistently lonely, and recovered. The analysis is repeated with changing the category of reference to determine the significance of differences between the four types.

The mean scores on improving relationships ( M  = 1.8; SD = 0.3) and lowering expectations ( M  = 1.4; SD = 0.3) indicate that both options were amply considered by the respondents. Options to improve relationships were considered to the same extent by men and women ( M  = 1.82; SD = 0.3 vs. M  = 1.81; SD = 0.3; t (1031)  = 0.5; p  > 0.05) and by younger and older respondents ( M  = 1.83; SD = 0.3 vs. M  = 1.79; SD = 0.4; t (1031)  = 1.9; p  > 0.05). Options to lower expectations were considered more frequently by women than men ( M  = 1.41; SD = 0.3 vs. M  = 1.35; SD = 0.3; t (1031)  = −3.2; p  < 0.01) and by older than younger respondents ( M  = 1.48; SD = 0.3 vs. M  = 1.34; SD = 0.3; t (1031)  = −6.7; p  < 0.001).

We focused on the development of the respondents’ loneliness and how it was related to the coping options they considered. At the first observation, 23 % of the respondents classified themselves as lonely, as did 21 % at the second observation and 23 % at the third. The loneliness observations correlated over time, so being lonely once increased the likelihood of loneliness at a later observation. The unstandardized estimates from the Mplus model are presented in Fig.  2 . Compared to the respondents who were not lonely at T0 or T1 ( N  = 717), those who were recently lonely ( N  = 82) were more likely to be lonely at the third observation ( B  = 2.14; SE = 0.26; p  < 0.001, depicted in Fig.  2 as a positive effect of recently lonely on lonely at T2), as were those who were persistently lonely ( N  = 133; B  = 3.52; SE = 0.25; p  < 0.001) or had recovered from loneliness ( N  = 101; B  = 1.30; SE = 0.26; p  < 0.001). Changing the category of reference, the results showed that differences between the recently lonely, persistently lonely and recovered respondents were all significant (details not showed in Fig.  2 ). Apparently, the respondents who experienced loneliness at T0 or T1 were at a greater risk of being lonely at T2, with being lonely at T1 having the greatest risk.

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Unstandardized parameters of the regression analysis of loneliness at T2 on coping options and loneliness at T0 and T1 ( N  = 1033). * p  < 0.05, ** p  < 0.01, *** p  < 0.001. Lonely (vs. not lonely) is dichotomous and measured at T2. Recently lonely (vs. not lonely at T0 and T1); persistently lonely (vs. not lonely at T0 and T1); and recovered (vs. not lonely at T0 and T1) are dichotomous and based on measurements at T0 and T1. Intercept options to improve relationships: 1.82 (0.01)***; intercept options to lower expectations: 1.37 (0.01)***; threshold loneliness: 3.10 (0.67)***; threshold recently lonely: 2.45 (0.12)***; threshold persistently lonely: 1.91 (0.09); threshold recovered: 2.22 (0.11)***

Our first two hypotheses pertain to the relation between coping options and the feelings of loneliness at a later time. We expected a higher number of options to improve relationships related to a smaller chance of loneliness at T2 (Hypothesis 1). We also expected that the number of options to lower expectations has no effect on loneliness at T2 (Hypothesis 2). Neither of the hypotheses were confirmed. Considering more options to improve relationships had no effect on loneliness. Considering more options to lower expectations increased the likelihood of loneliness ( B  = 0.75; SE = 0.29; p  < 0.01). Even though we rejected our second hypothesis, our results confirmed that as a way of coping, the option to lower expectations did not help alleviate loneliness.

We formulated six hypotheses on the effects of experiences with loneliness on coping options. As regards improving relationships, we expected the recently lonely respondents and the respondents who had recovered from loneliness to consider more options to improve their relationships (Hypotheses 3 and 7) and the persistently lonely respondents to consider fewer options to improve theirs (Hypothesis 5) than the respondents who were never lonely. Hypotheses 3 and 7 were refuted. The recently lonely respondents and the respondents who had recovered from loneliness considered improving their relationships to the same extent as the respondents who were not lonely at T0 and T1. Hypothesis 5 found support in the results. The persistently lonely respondents endorsed fewer options to improve their relationships than respondents who were never lonely ( B  = −0.07; Fig.  2 ), and also fewer than respondents who had recovered from loneliness ( B  = −0.09; SE = 0.04; p  < 0.05; not shown in Fig.  2 ). As regards lowering expectations, we expected the recently lonely and persistently lonely respondents to consider more options than respondents who were never lonely (Hypotheses 4 and 6) and the recovered respondents equally frequently (Hypothesis 8). The results show that the recently lonely respondents considered an equal number of options to lower their expectations ( B  = −0.01) and the persistently lonely and recovered respondents more options than the respondents who were never lonely ( B  = 0.06 and 0.07, respectively; there was not a mutual difference), thus confirming Hypothesis 6 and refuting Hypotheses 4 and 8. Effects for recent lonely respondents were not different from effects for the three other types. In sum, persistently lonely respondents considered the two coping options as we expected them to, but recently lonely respondents and respondents who had recovered from loneliness did not.

How coping influences loneliness

In this study we distinguish two pathways of coping with loneliness based on the approach to loneliness focusing on the balance between the quantity and quality of existing relationships and individual’s relationship standards. The problem-focused pathway suggests that older adults who were lonely at previous observations were apt to consider more options to improve their relationships than older adults who were not lonely at previous observations. Considering more options to improve their relationships should in turn alleviate loneliness. The emotion-focused pathway suggests that older adults who were lonely at previous observations were apt to consider coping options to lower their expectations about relationships in order to reduce their loneliness. In previous studies, it has been suggested both ways of coping can help alleviate loneliness (Heylen 2010 ; Rook and Peplau 1982 ). However, the results of this study show that neither pathway results in a lower likelihood of loneliness.

Moreover, the emotion-focused way of coping is even counter-productive, as considering more options to lower expectations increases the likelihood of loneliness. A possible explanation might be that even though the older adults amply considered the two coping options, many lonely people may not have believed their loneliness could actually be alleviated. In Western society, the stereotypical view of older adults is that they are a predominantly lonely group (Abramson and Silverstein 2006 ; Tornstam 2007 ; Walker 1993 ). The idea that loneliness is part of old age might reinforce the older adults’ own belief that it is inevitable, and thus obstruct effective coping, in contrast to middle-aged or younger adults who may see more coping options. Considering coping options may keep older people from getting lonelier rather than help them recover from loneliness or regulate the negative emotions accompanying loneliness. In the current study we followed our respondents for 6 years, but for many of the lonely ones, loneliness had been a problem for much longer. If lonely older adults did not succeed in overcoming their loneliness in the past, it is unlikely they will be able to do so later.

Starting from other theoretical approaches to loneliness a different set of ways of coping might have been distinguished. For example, Russell et al. ( 2011 ) assume that there is an inherent human need for intimacy to realize in social relationships, and consequently the emotion-focused pathway is not passable. Others emphasize social competences as a prerequisite for developing satisfying relationships. For example, people lacking social competency may prefer texting to voice communication in using their mobile phone because it requires less emotional and cognitive commitment (Jin and Park 2013 ). To prevent or overcome loneliness social and emotional skills are required such as the ability to chat with people, to talk about sensitive matters, to listen to others, and to interpret signals (e.g., body language) that people transmit in conversations (DiTommaso et al. 2003 ). One of our three items on problem-focused coping fits with this emphasis on competencies, but based on the approach suggested by Peplau and Perlman ( 1982 ) we categorized this under a more general focus on improving relationships.

How loneliness influences coping

Experiences with loneliness influence the coping options under consideration. As expected, the persistently lonely older adults less frequently considered improving relationships and more frequently considered lowering expectations than their peers who had not experienced loneliness previously. This is in line with the findings of previous studies on coping with different stressors that problem-focused coping efforts are more frequently observed in situations perceived as more changeable and regulating coping efforts are more frequently observed in situations perceived as less changeable (Cacioppo et al. 2000 ; Cecen 2008 ; Folkman et al. 1987 ; Hansson et al. 1986 ; Thoits 1995 ). We suggest that ongoing loneliness makes people abandon to look at options to improve relationships that are costly in time and energy. But because they still want to do something to alleviate their loneliness, they endorse lowering expectations.

Older respondents who had recovered from loneliness considered lowering their expectations more frequently than those who had never been lonely. This finding is striking. How can these older adults have successfully combated loneliness while considering a counter-productive way of coping with loneliness? One possible explanation is that their loneliness empowered them on the hard path toward improving their relationships. Experiencing how hard this task was may have led them to focus on lowering their expectations, something the never lonely have not experienced and the recently lonely are still learning. The recently lonely older adults considered the two coping options to the same extent as those who were not lonely at T0 and T1. The recently lonely older adults might not have realized their loneliness was a problem they would have to cope with, or may not have been willing to do so.

Our results indicate that considering more options to lower expectations can lead to a circular process with loneliness resulting in lowering expectations, then resulting in loneliness, and so on and so forth. Persistently lonely older adults and older adults who have recovered from loneliness are at risk of falling into this circular process. Our results show that the respondents who had recovered from loneliness were at risk of recurrence. One might expect recovered and other non-lonely older adults to be equally at risk, having all been not lonely at T1. One might also expect recovered older adults to be less at risk than other non-lonely older adults, because they did manage to overcome loneliness once and might be more aware of the risk factors. The risks of older adults who have recovered from loneliness might be overlooked by researchers, health practitioners and policy-makers.

Limitations

There are limitations to this study. First, we measured the coping options respondents see for others, rather than asking the respondents to reflect on their own efforts to cope with loneliness, as was typically done in previous studies (De Ridder 1997 ; Folkman and Moskowitz 2004 ; Rokach and Brock 1998 ). Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. One advantage of the retrospective approach is that it reflects a real situation. However, people might not accurately recall their own behavior (Folkman and Moskowitz 2004 ). Measuring the coping options via vignettes enabled us to examine how non-lonely older adults considered coping with loneliness and compare their strategy with those of different types of lonely older adults. We acknowledge, however, that coping options may be perceived as an intention to act, but intentions only partly predict actual coping behavior (De Ridder 1997 ; Sheeran 2002 ). Further, we also assessed coping options as seen by non-lonely people. We assume that compared to lonely people, non-lonely people consider less options because they are not exposed to the problem. However, in our study, we exposed them the loneliness of others and asked for their advice. It might be that by doing so, the number of coping options non-lonely people consider may increase. While this may be true to a certain extent, we argue that own experiences with loneliness are more intense than experiences of others and that non-lonely people will thus consider less coping options.

Second, coping is generally regarded as a dynamic process that changes over time in response to situational demands and subjective appraisals of the situation. However, we only conducted one observation of coping options in the 6 years we followed the respondents. This only provides a partial view of the continuous process of coping. We also did not control for the occurrence of life events such as geographic relocation and bereavement that might have affected people’s loneliness and their coping efforts.

Third, most of the lonely respondents in this study were not severely but only mildly lonely. There are two reasons why this might explain their lack of success in alleviating their loneliness using the coping options. One is that the discomfort of feeling mildly lonely might not warrant the hardship and sacrifices required for the coping efforts under consideration. The other is that depending on the cause and duration of their loneliness, mildly lonely older adults may not feel it is necessary to consider coping because they hope their loneliness will be alleviated without them. The process of coping with loneliness outlined in the introduction might be more applicable to more severely lonely people. As they face a greater problem, they might be in need of more coping efforts and be more inclined to actually make the effort to successfully cope with loneliness. So we suggest that future studies on coping with loneliness include respondents with more variety in their levels of loneliness.

We conclude that in itself, considering coping options does not help alleviate loneliness. On the contrary, we observed a pattern of persistently lonely and recovered respondents being at risk of a circular process with loneliness experiences more frequently resulting in lowering their relationship expectations. In this process, the focus is not on improving relationships and abandoning this ambition contributes to sustaining or re-establishing loneliness. It seems that individuals are unable to break this cycle and might need individuals or organizations in the vicinity to step in and provide guidance and assistance in coping with loneliness.

Acknowledgments

This study is based on data collected in the context of the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam, a program conducted at VU University Amsterdam and VU University Medical Centre, which is largely funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports, Directorate of Long-Term Care. The study was made possible by support from ‘Erbij’, the Dutch Coalition against Loneliness, and a grant from Rabobank Foundation.

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What Is Problem-Solving Therapy?

Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

problem solving coping examples

Daniel B. Block, MD, is an award-winning, board-certified psychiatrist who operates a private practice in Pennsylvania.

problem solving coping examples

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Problem-Solving Therapy Techniques

How effective is problem-solving therapy, things to consider, how to get started.

Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness.

Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression , among other conditions. It can be administered by a doctor or mental health professional and may be combined with other treatment approaches.

At a Glance

Problem-solving therapy is a short-term treatment used to help people who are experiencing depression, stress, PTSD, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other mental health problems develop the tools they need to deal with challenges. This approach teaches people to identify problems, generate solutions, and implement those solutions. Let's take a closer look at how problem-solving therapy can help people be more resilient and adaptive in the face of stress.

Problem-solving therapy is based on a model that takes into account the importance of real-life problem-solving. In other words, the key to managing the impact of stressful life events is to know how to address issues as they arise. Problem-solving therapy is very practical in its approach and is only concerned with the present, rather than delving into your past.

This form of therapy can take place one-on-one or in a group format and may be offered in person or online via telehealth . Sessions can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours long. 

Key Components

There are two major components that make up the problem-solving therapy framework:

  • Applying a positive problem-solving orientation to your life
  • Using problem-solving skills

A positive problem-solving orientation means viewing things in an optimistic light, embracing self-efficacy , and accepting the idea that problems are a normal part of life. Problem-solving skills are behaviors that you can rely on to help you navigate conflict, even during times of stress. This includes skills like:

  • Knowing how to identify a problem
  • Defining the problem in a helpful way
  • Trying to understand the problem more deeply
  • Setting goals related to the problem
  • Generating alternative, creative solutions to the problem
  • Choosing the best course of action
  • Implementing the choice you have made
  • Evaluating the outcome to determine next steps

Problem-solving therapy is all about training you to become adaptive in your life so that you will start to see problems as challenges to be solved instead of insurmountable obstacles. It also means that you will recognize the action that is required to engage in effective problem-solving techniques.

Planful Problem-Solving

One problem-solving technique, called planful problem-solving, involves following a series of steps to fix issues in a healthy, constructive way:

  • Problem definition and formulation : This step involves identifying the real-life problem that needs to be solved and formulating it in a way that allows you to generate potential solutions.
  • Generation of alternative solutions : This stage involves coming up with various potential solutions to the problem at hand. The goal in this step is to brainstorm options to creatively address the life stressor in ways that you may not have previously considered.
  • Decision-making strategies : This stage involves discussing different strategies for making decisions as well as identifying obstacles that may get in the way of solving the problem at hand.
  • Solution implementation and verification : This stage involves implementing a chosen solution and then verifying whether it was effective in addressing the problem.

Other Techniques

Other techniques your therapist may go over include:

  • Problem-solving multitasking , which helps you learn to think clearly and solve problems effectively even during times of stress
  • Stop, slow down, think, and act (SSTA) , which is meant to encourage you to become more emotionally mindful when faced with conflict
  • Healthy thinking and imagery , which teaches you how to embrace more positive self-talk while problem-solving

What Problem-Solving Therapy Can Help With

Problem-solving therapy addresses life stress issues and focuses on helping you find solutions to concrete issues. This approach can be applied to problems associated with various psychological and physiological symptoms.

Mental Health Issues

Problem-solving therapy may help address mental health issues, like:

  • Chronic stress due to accumulating minor issues
  • Complications associated with traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Emotional distress
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Problems associated with a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, or diabetes
  • Self-harm and feelings of hopelessness
  • Substance use
  • Suicidal ideation

Specific Life Challenges

This form of therapy is also helpful for dealing with specific life problems, such as:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Dissatisfaction at work
  • Everyday life stressors
  • Family problems
  • Financial difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts

Your doctor or mental healthcare professional will be able to advise whether problem-solving therapy could be helpful for your particular issue. In general, if you are struggling with specific, concrete problems that you are having trouble finding solutions for, problem-solving therapy could be helpful for you.

Benefits of Problem-Solving Therapy

The skills learned in problem-solving therapy can be helpful for managing all areas of your life. These can include:

  • Being able to identify which stressors trigger your negative emotions (e.g., sadness, anger)
  • Confidence that you can handle problems that you face
  • Having a systematic approach on how to deal with life's problems
  • Having a toolbox of strategies to solve the issues you face
  • Increased confidence to find creative solutions
  • Knowing how to identify which barriers will impede your progress
  • Knowing how to manage emotions when they arise
  • Reduced avoidance and increased action-taking
  • The ability to accept life problems that can't be solved
  • The ability to make effective decisions
  • The development of patience (realizing that not all problems have a "quick fix")

Problem-solving therapy can help people feel more empowered to deal with the problems they face in their lives. Rather than feeling overwhelmed when stressors begin to take a toll, this therapy introduces new coping skills that can boost self-efficacy and resilience .

Other Types of Therapy

Other similar types of therapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT) . While these therapies work to change thinking and behaviors, they work a bit differently. Both CBT and SFBT are less structured than problem-solving therapy and may focus on broader issues. CBT focuses on identifying and changing maladaptive thoughts, and SFBT works to help people look for solutions and build self-efficacy based on strengths.

This form of therapy was initially developed to help people combat stress through effective problem-solving, and it was later adapted to address clinical depression specifically. Today, much of the research on problem-solving therapy deals with its effectiveness in treating depression.

Problem-solving therapy has been shown to help depression in: 

  • Older adults
  • People coping with serious illnesses like cancer

Problem-solving therapy also appears to be effective as a brief treatment for depression, offering benefits in as little as six to eight sessions with a therapist or another healthcare professional. This may make it a good option for someone unable to commit to a lengthier treatment for depression.

Problem-solving therapy is not a good fit for everyone. It may not be effective at addressing issues that don't have clear solutions, like seeking meaning or purpose in life. Problem-solving therapy is also intended to treat specific problems, not general habits or thought patterns .

In general, it's also important to remember that problem-solving therapy is not a primary treatment for mental disorders. If you are living with the symptoms of a serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia , you may need additional treatment with evidence-based approaches for your particular concern.

Problem-solving therapy is best aimed at someone who has a mental or physical issue that is being treated separately, but who also has life issues that go along with that problem that has yet to be addressed.

For example, it could help if you can't clean your house or pay your bills because of your depression, or if a cancer diagnosis is interfering with your quality of life.

Your doctor may be able to recommend therapists in your area who utilize this approach, or they may offer it themselves as part of their practice. You can also search for a problem-solving therapist with help from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Society of Clinical Psychology .

If receiving problem-solving therapy from a doctor or mental healthcare professional is not an option for you, you could also consider implementing it as a self-help strategy using a workbook designed to help you learn problem-solving skills on your own.

During your first session, your therapist may spend some time explaining their process and approach. They may ask you to identify the problem you’re currently facing, and they’ll likely discuss your goals for therapy .

Keep In Mind

Problem-solving therapy may be a short-term intervention that's focused on solving a specific issue in your life. If you need further help with something more pervasive, it can also become a longer-term treatment option.

Get Help Now

We've tried, tested, and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, BetterHelp, and ReGain. Find out which option is the best for you.

Shang P, Cao X, You S, Feng X, Li N, Jia Y. Problem-solving therapy for major depressive disorders in older adults: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials .  Aging Clin Exp Res . 2021;33(6):1465-1475. doi:10.1007/s40520-020-01672-3

Cuijpers P, Wit L de, Kleiboer A, Karyotaki E, Ebert DD. Problem-solving therapy for adult depression: An updated meta-analysis . Eur Psychiatry . 2018;48(1):27-37. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2017.11.006

Nezu AM, Nezu CM, D'Zurilla TJ. Problem-Solving Therapy: A Treatment Manual . New York; 2013. doi:10.1891/9780826109415.0001

Owens D, Wright-Hughes A, Graham L, et al. Problem-solving therapy rather than treatment as usual for adults after self-harm: a pragmatic, feasibility, randomised controlled trial (the MIDSHIPS trial) .  Pilot Feasibility Stud . 2020;6:119. doi:10.1186/s40814-020-00668-0

Sorsdahl K, Stein DJ, Corrigall J, et al. The efficacy of a blended motivational interviewing and problem solving therapy intervention to reduce substance use among patients presenting for emergency services in South Africa: A randomized controlled trial . Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy . 2015;10(1):46. doi:doi.org/10.1186/s13011-015-0042-1

Margolis SA, Osborne P, Gonzalez JS. Problem solving . In: Gellman MD, ed. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine . Springer International Publishing; 2020:1745-1747. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-39903-0_208

Kirkham JG, Choi N, Seitz DP. Meta-analysis of problem solving therapy for the treatment of major depressive disorder in older adults . Int J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2016;31(5):526-535. doi:10.1002/gps.4358

Garand L, Rinaldo DE, Alberth MM, et al. Effects of problem solving therapy on mental health outcomes in family caregivers of persons with a new diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or early dementia: A randomized controlled trial . Am J Geriatr Psychiatry . 2014;22(8):771-781. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2013.07.007

Noyes K, Zapf AL, Depner RM, et al. Problem-solving skills training in adult cancer survivors: Bright IDEAS-AC pilot study .  Cancer Treat Res Commun . 2022;31:100552. doi:10.1016/j.ctarc.2022.100552

Albert SM, King J, Anderson S, et al. Depression agency-based collaborative: effect of problem-solving therapy on risk of common mental disorders in older adults with home care needs . The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry . 2019;27(6):619-624. doi:10.1016/j.jagp.2019.01.002

By Arlin Cuncic, MA Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of The Anxiety Workbook and founder of the website About Social Anxiety. She has a Master's degree in clinical psychology.

IMAGES

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COMMENTS

  1. Coping Skills for Stress and Uncomfortable Emotions

    Here are some examples of positive problem-focused coping skills: Ask for support from a friend or a professional. Create a to-do list. Engage in problem-solving. Establish healthy boundaries. Walk away and leave a situation that is causing you stress. Work on managing your time better.

  2. Problem-Focused Coping: 10 Examples and Definition

    Problem-Focused Coping Examples. Identifying Sources of Stress: The first step to solving a problem is to know what it is. Therefore, making a list of specific events that create stress will allow a person to take the next step and devise a solution.

  3. What Is Problem-Focused Coping?

    Problem-focused coping skills target the root cause of stress, allowing you to reduce or eliminate an issue. Examples often include leaving a tense situation, practicing time management, and taking breaks for self-care. Problem-focused coping strategies can help some individuals feel less overwhelmed or anxious faster than other forms of stress management.

  4. Emotion-Focused Coping: Examples and Techniques

    For example, some people cope with a problem by not thinking about it or keeping busy. In general, avoidance isn't considered an effective coping response. Other types of emotion-focused coping ...

  5. 9 Problem-Based Coping Techniques to Help Your Mental Health

    Call a trusted friend and ask if it would be okay to confide in them. 2. Set boundaries. Setting healthy boundaries is one of the best problem-based coping techniques out there. There are tons of books, podcasts, and other resources on creating healthy boundaries. Talk to a therapist about it.

  6. 5 Emotion-Focused Coping Techniques for Stress Relief

    Journaling. Reframing. Cognitive Distortions. Positive Thinking. Stress management techniques can fall into two categories: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Basically speaking, problem-focused (or solution-focused) coping strategies aim to eliminate sources of stress or work with the stressors themselves.

  7. Stressors: Coping Skills and Strategies

    Some common coping mechanisms may challenge you to: Lower your expectations. Ask others to help or assist you. Take responsibility for the situation. Engage in problem solving. Maintain emotionally supportive relationships. Maintain emotional composure or, alternatively, expressing distressing emotions.

  8. The Science of Coping: 10+ Strategies & Skills (Incl. Wheel)

    Source: The Positive Psychology Toolkit© (The Coping Strategy Wheels) Techniques and strategies have a focus (e.g., actions, social resources), a coping family that shares the same action tendency (e.g., problem solving, negotiation), and a way of coping (e.g., surrender, emotion regulation).. 5 Strategies for Coping With Stress. Psychological stress arises in response to social and physical ...

  9. Problem-Solving Strategies and Obstacles

    Problem-solving is a vital skill for coping with various challenges in life. This webpage explains the different strategies and obstacles that can affect how you solve problems, and offers tips on how to improve your problem-solving skills. Learn how to identify, analyze, and overcome problems with Verywell Mind.

  10. Problem-Focused Coping

    Problem-focused coping is that kind of coping aimed at resolving the stressful situation or event or altering the source of the stress. Coping strategies that can be considered to be problem-focused include (but are not limited to) taking control of the stress (e.g., problem solving or removing the source of the stress), seeking information or ...

  11. Stress Management Techniques

    Problem-solving. Time-management. Obtaining instrumental social support. Critical Evaluation. In general problem-focused coping is best, as it removes the stressor and deals with the root cause of the problem, providing a long-term solution. ... For example, when someone dies, problem-focused strategies may not be very helpful for the bereaved ...

  12. 10 Best Problem-Solving Therapy Worksheets & Activities

    Problem-Solving Therapy assumes that mental disorders arise in response to ineffective or maladaptive coping. By adopting a more realistic and optimistic view of coping, individuals can understand the role of emotions and develop actions to reduce distress and maintain mental wellbeing (Nezu & Nezu, 2009).

  13. What Is Problem-Focused Coping? Problem Focused Strategies To Help You

    Focused Coping in this Example. Coping skills and problem solving go hand in hand. So when developing a coping strategy to deal with this issue, try to tell yourself that you are just solving a problem, and you do that all the time in life. Emotion-Focused Coping Strategies.

  14. Problem-Focused Coping: How and When to Use It to Deal with Hardships

    Here's how to use this coping strategy. 1. Face the problem. The first thing you have to do is face the situation. Facing the situation helps you to see the truth and create a solution with the truth in mind. It's simply amazing how the bold facts can mold how we fix a problem.

  15. What Is Problem-Focused Coping for Stressors in Life?

    Learn how to face and overcome stressors in life with problem-focused coping. Find out how SonderMind can help you empower your journey today.

  16. How to Cope With Stress: 10+ Strategies and Mechanisms

    Besides these healthy coping strategies, there are several psychological techniques or mechanisms that individuals can use to manage stress. One mechanism is problem-focused coping, which involves addressing the stressor directly through problem-solving strategies (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

  17. Problem Focused Coping (A Complete Guide)

    Problem focused coping aims for the reasons of stress in realistic ways which engage in the difficulty or stressful circumstances that are causing stress or anxiety, so openly dropping the stress or anxiety. Problem focused strategies mean to get rid of or decrease the origin of the stressor, plus: Problem solving.

  18. Problem-Solving Strategies: Definition and 5 Techniques to Try

    In general, effective problem-solving strategies include the following steps: Define the problem. Come up with alternative solutions. Decide on a solution. Implement the solution. Problem-solving ...

  19. CBT Coping Skills: Improving Cognitive Coping Skills

    CBT coping skills involve dealing with negative emotions in a healthy way. They provide strategies for getting through difficult situations with less tension, anxiety, depression, and stress. CBT coping skills help you deal with uncomfortable emotions (anxiety, depression, etc.) so you can feel better physically, make better decisions, and more.

  20. It's OK You Can't Solve Every Problem

    In coaching others, I often discuss problem-solving strategies to help individuals think creatively and consider many options when they are faced with challenging situations. Problem solving 1-2 ...

  21. Maladaptive Coping: 15 Examples & How To Break The Cycle

    2. Distraction. When a difficult situation presents itself, it is possible to distract oneself from negative urges through music, breathing techniques, writing down thoughts, meditation, etc. Such techniques can have a calming effect while redirecting attention away from the stressor.

  22. Problem-focused and emotion-focused coping options and loneliness: how

    In general, coping researchers find active ways of coping to be more successful at problem-solving than emotion-focused ones (Aldwin and Revenson 1987; ... By using vignettes, we were able to reveal the options lonely and non-lonely older adults consider for coping with loneliness. Here is an example of a vignette. 'Ms Berg is 69 years old ...

  23. Problem-Solving Therapy: Definition, Techniques, and Efficacy

    Problem-solving therapy is a brief intervention that provides people with the tools they need to identify and solve problems that arise from big and small life stressors. It aims to improve your overall quality of life and reduce the negative impact of psychological and physical illness. Problem-solving therapy can be used to treat depression ...