Stress Management

Stress arises when individuals perceive a discrepancy between the physical or psychological demands of a situation and the resources of his or her 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, 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 involves trying to reduce the negative emotional responses associated with stress such as embarrassment, fear, anxiety, depression, excitement and frustration. This may 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/inhibition of) negative thoughts or emotions. Suppressing emotions over an extended period of time compromises immune competence and leads to poor physical health (Petrie, K. J., Booth, R. J., & Pennebaker, 1988).

Critical Evaluation

A meta-analysis revealed 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 wether 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 then 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.

Critical Evaluation

In general problem-focused coping is best, as it removes the stressor, so 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 diabettes (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.

Problem focused approached 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 perceived 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, whereas pessimistic individual are more inclined to use emotion-focused strategies (Nes & Segerstrom, 2006).


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

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2009). Emotion Focused Coping. Retrieved from

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