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Emotion Focused Coping vs. Problem Focused Coping

No matter how exciting, positive, and beautiful life’s big and small moments can be, it’s inevitable we will face some challenges on our journey. These challenges can include major ones that appear in a person’s life, like financial problems or a chronic health condition, or smaller stressors that tend to eat at our emotions and distract from our goals. Whether we’re dealing with stressful situations, physical pain, emotional pain, or negative thoughts, we have the ability to meet these challenges through being proactive and employing healthy coping strategies.

What is coping?

Coping refers to the broad behaviors and thought patterns we use during stressful situations and life events. Coping strategies vary between people; individual differences emerge when we study how people tend to handle negative emotions and improve well being through coping. The coping process is complex, and people may employ a number of coping strategies to address stressful events. Whenever a stressful event happens, people fall back on coping strategies that they know best. This doesn’t necessarily mean the coping strategy is always healthy — for example, maladaptive coping strategies would include drinking alcohol in response to stress, or avoidance strategies that only prolong our negative emotions. Generally speaking, maladaptive coping strategies are associated with poorer health outcomes, especially if the way we cope damages our long term health. However, coping is a dynamic process that is associated with a number of psychological health outcomes. When done the right way, we empower ourselves during times of stress, and manage our emotional response to the problems we may be facing. There are two major styles of coping that people tend to fall into:
  • Problem focused coping
  • Emotion focused coping
Today, we’re going to dive into the differences between a problem focused approach and an emotion focused approach, where one style may be more beneficial to our mental health depending on the situation. By understanding the nuances of each approach, we can equip ourselves with a versatile toolkit to navigate life’s twists and turns with resilience and grace.

What is emotion focused coping?

Emotion-focused coping centers on managing and regulating the emotional turmoil that challenges bring. This approach involves acknowledging and embracing the emotions that arise. For example, when remembering a negative experience or dealing with present stress, someone who tends to employ emotion focused coping strategies may try to acknowledge, target, and resolve their emotional response. Techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and seeking emotional support allow us to process our feelings and find solace amidst chaos. People who practice mindfulness are experts at this, where rather than suppressing emotions, we employ cognitive reappraisal, seek social support, and gain a greater sense of control over our responses. Emotion focused coping doesn’t necessarily resolve the external issue, but it provides emotional relief and enables us to regain equilibrium. Cognitive reappraisal of a negative circumstance helps us address the psychological symptoms provoked by the stressor. There are mixed findings on whether emotion focused coping strategies alone are beneficial for mental health, broadly. However, emotion focused coping skills are critical for regaining that essence of control over our emotions, and they are best integrated into a plan that also uses problem focused coping.

What is problem focused coping?

Problem focused coping takes a pragmatic approach, focusing on addressing the root cause of a challenge. This strategy involves identifying the problem, brainstorming solutions, and taking concrete actions to mitigate or resolve the issue. There is a general belief that problem focused coping is the most beneficial strategy for improving mental health than emotion focused coping, but there are conflicting results depending on the nature of the stressor. For instance, a person that feels lonely may find it more beneficial to improve their relationships (problem focused coping) as opposed to lowering expectations (emotion focused coping). Problem focused coping empowers us to take charge, build problem-solving skills, and reshape our circumstances. While it may not eliminate all stress, it promotes a sense of control and empowers us to shape our reality. However, we shouldn’t be so quick to disregard the power of both problem focused coping and emotion focused coping used in tandem. Together, they may prove to be our most useful tools for facing negative outcomes and improving our psychological well being.

Which coping strategy should I use when faced with stress?

The choice between emotion focused and problem focused coping depends on the nature of the challenge and our emotional state. In situations where the problem is beyond our control, such as the loss of a loved one, emotion focused coping provides comfort and healing. On the other hand, challenges that can be tackled with actionable steps, like work-related issues, call for problem focused coping to bring about tangible change. The most effective coping strategies often integrate elements of both emotion-focused and problem-focused approaches. For instance, when facing a significant life change, acknowledging our emotions (emotion focused) while also devising a plan to adapt (problem focused) can help us navigate the transition with greater resilience. By using tools from emotion focused coping, we can keep our heads cool in the midst of a stressful situation, and improve our chances of solving the problem at hand. In some cases, seeking guidance from a mental health professional can be immensely beneficial. They can help us navigate our emotions, develop coping strategies, and provide valuable insights tailored to our unique circumstances. A professional will be able to guide you towards coping strategies best-suited for your situation, and determine whether an emotional approach, or a more proactive coping process is better.


Life’s challenges offer us opportunities for growth, resilience, and self-discovery. By embracing both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping, we equip ourselves to navigate these challenges with grace and effectiveness. Whether we need to nurture our emotions or take practical steps, understanding these coping strategies empowers us to face adversity head-on and emerge stronger on the other side. As we master the art of balancing these approaches, we weave a tapestry of inner strength, emotional well-being, and the ability to conquer life’s trials with unwavering resolve.

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