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.
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).