Critical Coping: Problem-Focused vs. Emotion-Focused

I used to always use problem focused coping. Like 99.9% of the time. And it usually served me well, but not always, and certainly not always after my chronic illness snuck up on me. Then I started to use more emotion-focused coping, a totally different coping style. And here’s the thing, I now use both and you probably need to as well. But hold on! What the heck are problem-focused and emotion-focused coping anyway?

Problem-focused coping is typically used for solvable problems, ones that can be fixed, and make the problem go away. For example, if we lose our job due to company restructuring (this happened to me back in the day) then we would use problem-focused coping in order to find another job and make sure we can support ourselves in the meantime.
Emotion-focused coping is what we use when the problem can’t be fixed, and the problem will not go away. It is dealing with emotions that arise from an unfixable problem. Kind of like what happens when you have a chronic illness.
Both of these skills are necessary in life, but the problem is, most of us are taught more about problem-focused coping that emotion-focused.

Problem-focused would be how to get out of the canyon you and your friend went hiking in.

Let’s look at problem-focused in the context of chronic illness or chronic pain. What are some solvable problems or areas in which we would use problem focused coping? Well, lifestyle changes are one area. We are told or we read up on different “diets” or exercise routines or incorporating meditation, etc that will help us with some of our symptoms. Or maybe it’s just taking medication as prescribed. We would use problem-focused coping because lifestyle changes and medication adherence are fixable problems. We’ll likely use SMART goals (specific-measurable/meaningful-attainable/adaptive-relevant/realistic-timebound) or other techniques to make these changes. And, while nothing is a guarantee, there is a lot of evidence supporting that certain lifestyle changes will help with symptoms, essentially “fixing” (I use that term loosely) the problem.

Emotion-focused is more about accepting emotions and pain.

How about emotion focused coping in the context of chronic illness or chronic pain? While, chronic disease distress, anxiety and depression are all common in those of us with chronic illness. Our illnesses likely won’t go away and our emotions – well, we’re meant to have them. So with this I see a lot of acceptance practices being used and needed (here’s a link to one of my favourites). Self-compassion is another area where we are utilizing emotion focused coping (here’s a link to one of those practices). We have to learn to live with difficult emotions that come and go, and difficult sensations, such as pain. If you’re not good at this, I want to normalize it for you – most people aren’t! This is a skill set most people need help with.

It is essential for people with chronic illness to have both types of coping skills.

Who can help you add these skill sets? Well, there are lots of places to go. A counsellor/therapist or health coach is one place. I would say the health coach would help more with problem-focused and therapist with emotion focused (as well as problem-focused). You can also look in the self-help section of your local library or bookstore. Those meditations I linked are another place, and I’ve done a number of episodes on these in my podcast (check out this episode on acceptance for example).

Once you have and start using both types of coping skills, you can start making the most of it!

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