Emotion-focused coping refers to strategies to manage stress that involve emotional regulation.
The goal of emotion-focused coping is to reduce or eliminate the negative feelings brought about by a psychosocial stressor.
For example, an emotion-focused approach might involve journaling, reframing, meditating, and exercising in order to regulate our emotions. That’s in juxtaposition to a problem-focused approach that will work on solving problems through planning and goal setting.
Emotion-Focused Coping Definition
Lazarus and Folkman (1984) make a distinction between emotion-focused and problem-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) stated that:
“…emotion-focused coping includes all the regulative efforts to diminish the emotional consequences of stressful events” (p. 154).
Stress may seem like a normal part of life, but it shouldn’t be taken lightly.
The American Psychological Association has commissioned a yearly Stress in America survey since 2007.
The results consistently reveal that a large percentage of Americans experience significant stress and anxiety.
Unfortunately, stress can lead to mental and physical health issues.
Emotion-Focused Coping Examples
- Journaling: Writing about stressful events is a way of releasing negative energy. Describing what happened can increase perceptions of control, and might even help a person brainstorm solutions, which is also a problem-focused coping strategy.
- Selective Attention: After a difficult day at work, focusing attention on the positive things that happened can reduce the anxiety of the negative events that occurred that day.
- Reframing: Changing one’s perspective on a negative event can actually turn it into a positive. Professional athletes try not to dwell on defeats, but instead look at them as opportunities to learn from their mistakes and improve.
- Recognize Cognitive Distortions: Some people have a tendency to see even positive events as negative. This is a type of cognitive distortion that can become very destructive. Learning how to recognize when you are over-analyzing a situation and looking for negatives is the first step to stopping this destructive habit.
- Exercising: We all know that exercising is good for the body. But it is also a great way to release steam. If you exercise hard enough, the brain will actually release endorphins that will put you in a much better mood.
- Creative Expression: Painting, sculpting, or playing a musical instrument can take the negative energy from stress and turn into a form of creative expression.
- Seeking Social Support: Simply talking about stressful events with friends and family has several benefits. It allows one to vent those negative emotions, increases a sense of control, and knowing that other people support you can be comforting in and of itself.
- Downward Comparison: Comparing one’s situation with others that have it worse may not sound like a nice thing to do, but it reduces the negative feelings a person has about their situation by making it seem not so bad after all.
- Forgiveness: A lot of stress can come from the actions of other people in our lives. Either a rude comment or an act of workplace sabotage can make a person feel angry, vindictive, and unfairly treated. But dwelling on those actions only makes matters worse. Allowing yourself to forgive others is a way to stop the chain of negativity before it does too much harm.
- Psychological Distancing: Adopting a mindset of detaching one’s ego to an aversive event is a way to minimize its impact. Instead of ramping up the meaning the event has in our lives, it can be helpful to take a more objective, clinical perspective.
Case Studies of Emotion-Focused Coping
1. Positive Affect Journaling (PAJ)
Negative emotions can be particularly strong in populations enduring chronic medical conditions.
As Smyth et al. (2018) explain:
“Patients with medical conditions face several challenges and often need to modify life aspirations, daily routines, and employment” (p. (p. 2).
Although cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) has proven effective at reducing depression and anxiety (Spek et al., 2007), these services can be costly and not widely accessible.
To examine the effectiveness of online positive affect journalling (PAJ), Smyth et al. (2018) randomly assigned 70 medical patients to take part in online journalling sessions or a wait-list control condition.
Participants in the online journalling condition logged onto the study’s website and then responded to several positive affect prompts such as “What are you thankful for?” and “What did someone else do for you?”
These sessions lasted 15 minutes, 3 days per week, for 12 weeks.
The results found that:
“Compared with the patients receiving standard care, patients randomized to the PAJ intervention exhibited reduced mental distress, anxiety, and perceived stress” (p. 8).
This study demonstrates the effectiveness of a simple and easily accessible emotion-focused coping strategy.
2. Nature-Based Guided Imagery
When experiencing stress and feelings of anxiety, one way to reduce those feelings and replace them with positive emotional experiences is to take a walk through the woods (Schweitzer, 2018).
Unfortunately, as Nguyen and Brymer (2018) point out, many people live in highly dense urban environments with limited access to nature.
In the absence of actual nature, the researchers suggested that guided imagery (GI) could be almost as effective. Guided imagery involves a series of verbal instructions used to guide an individual’s visualization of images and associated sensations.
To assess if GI of nature could reduce the negative emotional experience of anxiety, 48 Australians participated in either a nature-based or non-nature-based GI session.
“The results reveal that both conditions were in themselves significantly effective in reducing anxiety” (p. 6).
The study also found that nature-based GI was “more effective at reducing state anxiety than the non-nature-based GI” (p. 8).
This study demonstrated a simple but effective emotion-focused intervention to diminish the negative emotions associated with stress and anxiety.
There are a lot of resources available for those that would like to practice GI at home. For example, The Beach is an already written GI script, this link goes to narrated nature videos, and the University of Michigan offers numerous podcasts.
3. Loneliness and Coping
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), approximately 30% of adults over 45 in the U. S. feel lonely.
Feeling lonely is definitely not limited to the United States either.
It has been of considerable concern in the Netherlands for quite some time (Schoenmakers et al., 2015).
To examine the use of emotion- and problem-focused coping strategies to alleviate loneliness, Schoenmakers et al. (2015) interviewed over 1,000 adults 61 – 99 years old.
Research participants were presented with 4 written scenarios that described another lonely person.
They were then asked to either endorse or reject specific 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).
Participants were more likely to endorse emotion-focused coping strategies than problem-focused strategies:
“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).
As the researchers explained,
“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).
4. Coping Strategies of College Students
Transitioning from secondary school to college can result in significant stress. Adjustments have to be made regarding academic demands, learning to function independently, and adjusting to a new social environment.
Research has identified a range of coping strategies utilized by college students. These include participating in leisure activities, seeking social support from family and friends, and exercising (Pierceall & Keim, 2007).
To examine the use of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping strategies, Broughman et al. (2009) surveyed 166 college students at a liberal arts university in Southern California.
Students were given a survey that assessed coping strategies and levels of stress.
The main findings indicated a preference for emotion-focused coping strategies of both male and female students.
“For both women and men college students, problem-focused coping was used less than emotion-focused coping. 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” (p. 93).
5. Practicing Self-Regulation
Stress can come from a variety of sources, and many of those sources can be avoided with just minimal effort. Practicing self-regulation by avoiding certain activities can help prevent a lot of anxiety and negative emotions from occurring in the first place.
Eliminating the occurrence of stress is both emotion- and problem-focused. Here are a few suggestions:
- Increasing Self-Awareness: Becoming more aware of “hot-button” issues that provoke anger or anxiety can help a person either avoid those issues all together.
- Avoiding Social-Media: Although there is a lot of entertaining content online, there are also many negatives. Some content presents people in an exceptionally favorable light.
This creates expectations that most will never be able to achieve. In fact, a lot of times, those that appear to have achieved such greatness have actually just created a great illusion.
A key component of self-regulation is knowing what to avoid.
6. Transactional Model of Stress and Coping
Lazarus and Folkman originally proposed the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping in 1984. Although the model has been modified (Folkman, 2007), the basic steps that begin with the interpretation of a life event and conclude with a reappraisal of coping strategies has remained intact.
The model first states that not all stressors will be perceived. Once a stressor is perceived, then it must be interpreted as either a threat, an opportunity, or irrelevant.
That occurs during Primary Appraisal.
If the stressor is interpreted as a threat (i.e., dangerous event), then Secondary Appraisal will involve an assessment of how to overcome the event.
If the individual does not have sufficient resources to overcome the threat, then either a problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategy will be engaged.
The final step involves a Reappraisal to determine if the coping strategy was effective or not.
If not effective, then either another strategy will be tried or a sense of helplessness may ensue.
Emotion-focused coping refers to trying to diminish or eliminate the negative emotional state that comes from stress.
This can involve a cognitive distortion of the event that caused stress, or the engagement of an activity that reduces the intensity of the negative emotion, such as exercising or learning forgiveness.
Research has identified several effective emotion-focused coping strategies such as journalling and guided imagery.
One popular model of coping is the Transactional Model of Stress and Coping.
The model describes the process that individuals engage when encountering life events, from a Primary Appraisal to a Reappraisal of emotion- and problem-focused coping strategies.
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
Folkman, S. (2007). The case for positive emotions in the stress process. Anxiety Stress Coping, 21, 3–14. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10615800701740457
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.
Nguyen, J., & Brymer, E. (2018). Nature-based guided imagery as an intervention for state anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1858. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01858
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/s10433-015-0336-1
Schweitzer, R., Glab, H., and Brymer, E. (2018). The human-nature relationship: A phenomenological-relational perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 969. doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00969
Spek V, Cuijpers P, Nyklícek I, Riper H, Keyzer J, Pop V. (2007). Internet-based cognitive behaviour therapy for symptoms of depression and anxiety: a meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 37(3), 319-328. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0033291706008944
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).