Emotion-Focused Coping

Emotion-Focused Coping: Lessening Emotional Reaction

Emotion-focused coping refers to behaviors aimed at controlling your internal, subjective, emotional reactions to stress. With such behaviors, you alter the way you feel or think in order to reduce stress.

Stressors are believed to activate a variety of emotions, including anxiety, worry, guilt, shame, jealousy, envy, and anger. Because these emotions are usually experienced as unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or avoid them.

An Example Scenario

Suppose that a young woman is anticipating the arrival of her partner at a party where they planned to meet, and he is already an hour late. The stress of this situation not only activates unwanted physiological sensations but also triggers emotional reactions, as the following circumstances might ensue.

  • She may be angry with him because she feels that he is purposely ignoring her.
  • She may take her anger out on a friend, or she may turn all of her emotional energy into being the life of the party.
  • Conversely, she may experience anxiety and worry, fearing that something harmful has happened to him.

When he arrives, she may express her anger by complaining about his lateness or ignoring him altogether, or she may be especially loving and attentive. Either way, her coping behavior is directed at reducing the emotions that she is experiencing.

The effects of these emotions can be lessen in two ways: by engaging in cognitive reappraisal and by using psychological defense mechanisms.

  1. Cognitive reappraisal
    Cognitive reappraisal is an active and conscious process in which we alter our interpretation of the stressful event.

    In the previous example, the young woman has appraised her partner’s lateness in a negative manner (he’s ignoring her or something bad has happened to him). These appraisals have led to feelings of anger and anxiety.

    She can reappraise or reinterpret his lateness in a more realistic manner—he got caught in traffic or he had to work late. These reappraisals are less likely to lead to emotional distress.

    Thus, cognitive reappraisal can be an emotionally constructive way of coping with a stressful event (Mauss et al., 2007; Ray, Wilhelm, & Gross, 2008). In one study, positive reappraisal even led to less immunosuppression during a chronic stress period (Koh et al., 2006).
  2. Defense mechanisms
    A rather automatic and unconscious way in which we lessen the effects of our emotions is by using defense mechanisms. Sigmund Freud was one of the first theorists to identify psychological defense mechanisms. He suggested that we use coping strategies unconsciously to reduce our anxiety and maintain a positive self-image and self-esteem.

    We use defense mechanisms to avoid or reduce the emotions associated with a stressor, but they do not necessarily eliminate the source of stress. For example, you might use the defense mechanism of displacement to deal with your anger toward a boss, a parent, or a significant other. You take your anger out on a friend by yelling at her, or on an object by throwing it against the wall. Afterward, you may feelbetter, but it does not resolve the issue that triggered your anger in the first place. The stressor is still present and may resurface again in the future.

Everyone uses defense mechanisms from time to time. Some of these defense mechanisms are adaptive. Directing your anger into a more constructive activity such as washing your car is more productive than hurting someone else (a defense mechanism known as “sublimation”).

Other defense mechanisms, especially when we use them excessively can prevent us from developing effective ways of coping. For example, the student who fails to study for a test may decide that his roommate who watches television is at fault. Such a defense on the part of the student does not promote an adaptive way of coping with failure. The more common defense mechanisms as formulated by Anna Freud are discussed in a designated literature hereOpens in new window.