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Sebastian's Blog

A review of non-pathologizing psychology research that expands our understanding of trans identity, experience, and mental health.

 

Coping 101

Sebastian Barr

Below is a review of an introductory discussion of coping strategies that I recently had with a group of trans and gender non-conforming youth.

The Chain of Emotion: Antecedents of Distress

The Chain of Emotion: Antecedents of Distress

Contrary to how it sometimes feels in the moment, emotions (that is, feelings) don't just come out of nowhere. And most emotions aren't a direct response to an event. As the diagram above highlights, there is typically an intermediate step between an event and our emotional response: the way we think about the event.

I define coping as managing our emotional responses or reducing distress. We can do this by directly targeting the distress or emotion, by directly targeting the thoughts or appraisals leading to distress, and/or by directly targeting the event or stressor at the beginning of the chain. So when we talk about coping strategies, they will fall in one (or more) of three categories, depending on which part(s) of the chain they target:

  • Problem-focused coping strategies directly target the stressor and try to change or remove it
    • Examples include:
      • Walking away from a negative situation
      • Seeking support and/or gathering resources to change a situation
      • Distracting yourself from the stressor
  • Cognitive-focused coping strategies directly target the thoughts about the stressor and try to change them
    • Examples include:
      • Minimizing the significance of a stressor
      • Focusing on the positive aspects of a stressor
      • Using self-talk to emphasize our ability to deal with a stressor
      • Making meaning out of a stressor
  • Emotion-focused coping strategies target the emotional response or distress and try to lessen that directly
    • Examples include:
      • Breathing exercises, meditation, and other calming activities
      • Rest and self-care
      • Engaging in activities that improve mood
      • Emotional release

Helpful Coping

There is no such thing as good vs. bad coping.

There are other ways of understanding and organizing coping strategies. But importantly, I do not believe in designating coping strategies as "good" or "bad." There is no such thing as good vs. bad coping, though you may have heard these phrases before. Instead, we should think about coping strategies in terms of how helpful they are and what risks they carry/how dangerous they are. 

Helpfulness.png

Coping strategies fall somewhere along multiple continuums of helpfulness:

  • How helpful the strategy is in reducing distress in the short-term
  • How helpful the strategy is in reducing distress in the long-term
  • How helpful the strategy is in aiding in you ability to cope in the future

There are strategies that are very helpful in reducing distress in the short-term, but might be unhelpful in reducing distress in the long-term, or might make it more difficult for you to cope in the future. Avoidant coping strategies often fall in this category. These include strategies in which we attempt to distance ourselves from the stressor, our thoughts about the stressor, and/or our emotional response. Sometimes this means actually avoiding situations and sometimes it means distracting ourselves or attempting to numb our emotions. Avoidant or distancing strategies tend to be pretty helpful in reducing distress in the moment, on the helpfulness continuum for the short-term, they might be pretty far to the right. But because avoidant coping strategies don't do anything to actually change the stressor, our thoughts about the stressor, or our emotional response, these strategies usually aren't helpful in preventing distress in the future, nor do they help us build a skill set that increases our ability to cope in the future. So on the other continuums of helpfulness, they are pretty far to the left.

Some examples of avoidant coping:

  • Stressor: Your mother continues to misgender you; Thought/appraisal: She doesn't accept me and my true gender; Emotional response: You feel rejected and experience distress
    • Avoidant problem-focused coping strategy: You distance yourself from the stressor by leaving home.
    • Avoidant cognitive-focused coping strategy: You distance yourself from your thinking about the stressor by watching your favorite Netflix show.
    • Avoidant emotion-focused coping strategy: You distance yourself from your emotional response by numbing your emotions through substance use (e.g., drinking alcohol).

Note that "avoidant" is not my euphemism for "bad." Sometimes avoidant coping strategies are the most appropriate or the only type of coping you have access to. They are, however, overall less helpful in achieving your goal of reducing distress, so when you can, try to utilize facilitative coping strategies instead. Rather than utilizing distancing techniques, facilitative coping strategies are those which actually change the stressor, your thoughts about the stressor, and/or your emotional response. These tend to be much more helpful in the long-term in reducing emotional distress, because they decrease future severity and frequency of the stressors and thoughts that led to distress AND they help you develop your coping skills so you are more equipped to take on difficult situations, thoughts, and emotions in the future. So using the above example, let's look at some examples of facilitative coping strategies:

  • Stressor: Your mother continues to misgender you; Thought/appraisal: She doesn't accept me and my true gender; Emotional response: You feel rejected and experience distress
    • Facilitative problem-focused coping strategy: You change the stressor by asking a supportive family member to talk to your mother about the way the misgendering is affecting you.
    • Facilitative cognitive-focused coping strategy: You change the way you think about the stressor by reminding yourself that your mother's interactions with you are due to her own ignorance and misunderstanding and not a lack of love for you.
    • Facilitative emotion-focused coping strategy: You change your emotional response by engaging in deep breathing and gratitude exercises.

Just like the examples of avoidant coping strategies, some of these may not be accessible to you in a particular situation. That's why therapists and others in the mental health and helping worlds like to talk about LOTS of different coping strategies. You can think of coping strategies as different tools. Your toolbox in your garage doesn't just have one tool in it nor does it have multiple sets of the same tool. Also your toolbox will have a different combination of tools based on the job you need the tools for, your personal preference, and other characteristics about yourself. An electrician's toolbox looks pretty different from a car mechanic's. It's the same way with coping tools. Your coping toolbox will be different than mine. And importantly, you won't be able to use the same coping tool all the time, so it's important to have multiple ones to pick from. And just like a real tool in a toolbox, it will take practice to be able to use it most effectively. And it's better to practice ahead of time - you wouldn't want to be using a wrench for the first time when your toilet is shooting water all over the place, and you wouldn't want the first time you practice a breathing exercise or a cognitive-focused coping strategy to be in the middle of a really serious episode of distress.

The final thing to consider when thinking about coping strategies is how dangerous they are. In other words, what risks are involved with a particular coping strategy? These risks could be interpersonal - for example, using a coping strategy that involves trying to change your mother's misgendering behavior may carry the risk of making her angry or hurting her feelings. Using a coping strategy of resting or taking nap may carry the risk of you not completing your homework or chores and/or receiving a consequence. Using a coping strategy of cutting carries the risk of scarring yourself and seriously injuring yourself on accident. Using a coping strategy of binge drinking carries risks related to cognitive impairment (e.g., you could get in a car accident), bodily harm (e.g., alcohol poisoning or long-term liver and brain impact), and interpersonal problems (e.g., yelling at your friend). I'm sure you can think about more risks and danger involved with a whole host of coping strategies. You want to consider these because 1) you are worth protecting and 2) often these risks are just more things you will have to cope with.


So in sum, to reduce distress, you can target the distress/emotion itself, or the things that lead to the distress: the situation/stressor and your thoughts about the stressor. Because we are all unique and are dealing with unique stressors, the strategies we employ to reduce our distress vary from person to person and between situations/stressors. Coping strategies fall along continuums in terms of how helpful they are at relieving distress in the short-term, how helpful they are at relieving/preventing distress in the long-term, and how helpful they are at building your coping skills for the future. The most effective coping strategies are called facilitative coping strategies, which focus on changing the stressor, your thoughts about the stressor, and/or your emotional response; they are most effective, because they reduce distress in the short-term and long-term and help you strengthen your coping skills for the future. Sometimes we engage in avoidant coping strategies, which instead of aiming to change anything, focus on distancing yourself from the stressor, your thoughts about the stressor, or your emotional response. These tend to be more helpful in reducing distress in the short-term, but not  helpful (and sometimes even harmful) in terms of reducing or preventing long-term distress and building your ability to cope with future stressors. Most coping strategies also carry some degree of risk with them - or the possibility of negative consequences, which must also be considered when deciding which strategy or strategies to utilize. Most coping strategies require practice and not all of them are easily mastered. But you are fully equipped with the ability to engage in helpful coping, and this is something therapists are literally trained to assist you with if you ever feel overwhelmed.