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Stress and Coping

Coping Responses

Older adults vary in the extent of their coping resources, and thus in the types of coping that they bring to bear when under stress. Coping responses are behavioral responses, which refer to what people do in confronting stress. In one widely used definition, coping is defined as ‘‘constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person’’ (Lazarus and Folkman, p. 141). Coping involves those things individuals do to prevent, avoid, or control emotional stress in order to maintain psycho-social adaptation during stressful situations and conditions; it encompasses direct actions to resolve the problems as well as cognitive responses to control emotional distress.

Coping behaviors are used to help alleviate a difficult situation, to reduce perceived threats, and to manage the symptoms of stress. One basic classification of coping strategies recognizes two types of coping: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Presented by Folkman and Lazarus (1980), this classification has been used as a guideline in coping research. Problem-focused coping includes active strategies to change stressful situations, whereas emotion-focused strategies are efforts to control one’s emotional responses to modify the meaning of the stress. Coping is most effective when the strategy employed matches the characteristics of the individual, the individual’s needs, and the nature of the stressors involved.

Some studies have shown that older individuals use fewer active problem-focused strategies and employ more emotion-focused strategies. However, such age differences between young and old may be due to functions of different types of stressors. Older persons facing relatively uncontrollable stressors (such as a chronic disease) may cope effectively via acceptance and other emotion-focused coping strategies. In fact, empirical studies have shown that after controlling for types of stressors, few age differences exist in either the number of coping strategies or in their effectiveness. Therefore, it is important to consider the types of stressors and their natures when trying to identify true age differences in coping. Also, older adults have gone through a variety of stressful experiences through life course transition. They may come to know what strategies are effective in particular situations, and to develop their own ways to cope from their experiences. Therefore, older adults may use fewer but more effective coping strategies.

Nolen-Hoeksema and Davis (1999) published a paper on bereavement illustrating the way that stressors, personality, coping, and social support interact. Individuals who suffered the loss of a loved one and who scored high in a personality dimension indicating a tendency to ruminate as a coping style were increasingly likely to seek out social support from others after bereavement. These high ruminators also tended to appraise themselves as having received low levels of social support, but showed increased benefit from social support, when compared with low ruminators. Thus the personality trait not only affected the use of social support as a coping technique, but also the subjective perception and effectiveness of support.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Stress and Coping - The Stress Process Paradigm, Types Of Stressors, Individual Differences In Coping With Stress, Coping Responses