1) Avoidant coping — Avoidant coping is just what the name implies: You avoid dealing with the stressor/fear. The most common ways of “coping” using avoidance are behavioral disengagement (e.g., drug and alcohol use; emotional eating) and cognitive/mental disengagement (e.g., denial). Let’s go back to our scenario. You could take a swig of vodka, plug your ears, and try to go back to sleep, hoping the problem will go away. Not a very effective strategy in this situation. Not surprisingly, avoidant coping is one that we recommend you use only sparingly and for short periods of time, as it can lead to depression if you use it too often. So if you found out your grandmother died right before you had to give your big presentation, avoidance could get you through your talk. But as soon as you finish your presentation, you need to deal with the situation so you don’t get depressed later on. That leads us to our next coping strategy.
2) Emotion-focused coping — Emotion-focused coping attempts to reduce distress by addressing the emotional consequences of the stressor. For example, you could seek social support (call your sister to complain), try to put a positive spin on things (“At least I’m not worried about my presentation anymore!”), accept the situation (ah, that’s life, what are you going to do?), pray or meditate, or vent to your poor kid (“Why’d you pick today of all days to get sick?”). Again, not super helpful in this situation. While you might feel better after venting, your rant hasn’t changed anything. Your kid is still sick and you still have to give that presentation. Emotion-focused coping is great for situations where you have no or little control over what is happening to you (e.g., your grandmother died; you just found out you have cancer). It’s not so great when you actually need to solve the problem. Luckily, we have the next strategy for that.
3) Problem-focused coping — The basic premise of problem-focused coping is this: “Have a problem? Fix it.” Problem-focused coping is the only approach in which you actually try to alter your situation. You might actively cope with the situation (call your neighbor and see if she’ll take your son for the morning), plan ahead (call your boss and explain that you will be a little late to work and will have to leave early to care for your son, but you will definitely be at your presentation), suppress any competing activities (you’ll have to skip the gym this morning), or seek social support for instrumental reasons (while you’re venting to your sister, ask her if she can watch your little tyke for a couple of hours mid-morning). Ninety-nine percent of the time this strategy is your best bet because — let’s face it — most of our stressors and fears are fixable. Deal with them effectively and they go away. It’s that simple.