Problem-Focused Coping

Problem-Focused Coping: Changing the Situation

Problem-focused coping is strategic behavior aimed at controlling or altering the environment that is causing the stress.

An Example Scenario

Let’s say, for example, that you are working while going to school and your boss just increased your work hours. You now feel that you don’t have enough time for school or your social life.

A problem-focused approach to coping with this increased workload might be:

  • finding another job without as many required hours
  • or reducing the number of credit hours you are taking in school.

Both of these strategies are aimed at changing the situation to reduce the amount of perceived stress.

One benefit of either of these problem-focused coping strategies would be elimination of the perceived stressor. At the same time, you benefit by experiencing more control over your environment, which may also enhance your self-esteem. However, it is also possible that you have misdiagnosed the problem, which is a cost of problem-focused coping.

Maybe the number of work hours isn’t affecting your college work as much as your motivation or your social schedule is. You may actually increase your long-term level of stress by choosing an inappropriate course of action. For example, reducing your college hours increases the time it will take to complete your college education. Alternatively, changing jobs may result in lower wages, making it more difficult to pay for your education.

Generally, problem-focused coping tends to be most useful when we feel that we can actually do something about a situation (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2000). Under these circumstances, problem-focused coping is more likely to lead to a more positive health outcome (Largo-Wight, Peterson, & Chen, 2005; Penley, Tomaka, & Wiebe, 2002; M.C.Smith & Dust, 2006). However, when we do not feel that a situation is controllable, we often rely more on emotion-focused coping strategies (Lazarus, 1993).