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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:

  • Emotion-focused coping
  • Problem-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.

An example of a situation where emotion-focused coping strategies are helpful includes:

Job loss

Imagine you’ve just lost your job, which is a significant and stressful life event. Here’s how emotion-focused coping might play out:

  1. Initial Reaction: You feel overwhelmed with anxiety and sadness about the job loss. You might initially experience shock and denial, and that is okay. Feel the moment and allow yourself to process without judgment. 
  2. Emotional Regulation: Instead of immediately searching for a new job or addressing the financial implications, you decide to focus on managing your emotions. You reach out to trusted friends and family, journal, or practice mindfulness meditation to re-center yourself and bring your spirit back to equilibrium.
  3. Reframing: You start to reframe the situation in a more positive light. Instead of viewing the job loss as a disaster, you might identify the situation as being an opportunity for a new adventure, or think critically about the negative aspects of your previous job that really weren’t all that great to begin with. It may be an opportunity to reflect on what you truly want to achieve, and you’re grateful for the chance to redirect yourself to something more in line with your purpose.
  4. Seeking Comfort: You allow yourself to indulge in small comforts, like eating a favorite meal or listening to music that lifts your spirits. This is the essence of self-compassion, and you deserve to treat yourself with gentleness and respect as you manage your emotions.
  5. Positive Affirmations: You use positive affirmations to remind yourself of your strengths and capabilities, boosting your self-esteem during a difficult time.
  6. Take Action: You use your newfound balance to think about solutions in a more directed, non-judgmental way.

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.

Let’s look at the job loss example, but through the lens of problem-focused coping:

You’ve just lost your job and are facing the stress of unemployment and financial instability. Here’s how you might use problem-focused coping:

  1. Assess the situation: You recognize that your immediate concerns are loss of income, the need to secure another job. You’re pragmatic about the fact that the immediate future is going to require a strategy.
  2. Develop an Action Plan: You revise and update your resume to reflect your latest job experiences and skills. You decide to reach out to former colleagues, friends, and professional contacts to and seek potential job leads or referrals. You update your job search profiles and begin mapping out a plan.
  3. Financial Management:You create a detailed budget to manage your finances, cutting non-essential expenses and focusing on critical needs until you secure a new income source.
  4. Skill Enhancement: You identify skills that are in demand in your industry and enroll in online courses or workshops to enhance your qualifications.
  5. Utilize Support Services:You seek out career counseling services for advice on improving your job search strategies, interview skills, and resume writing.
  6. Organize Your Job Search: You set specific daily goals, such as applying for a certain number of jobs, following up on applications, and attending networking events. You keep a record of all job applications, including dates, responses, and follow-up actions, to stay organized and efficient in your job search.

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.

It’s important to recognize that both coping styles have their pros and cons:

Emotion-focused coping: 



  • You acquire immediate relief from your overwhelming emotions.
  • Helps us establish a feeling of control over uncontrollable events.
  • Enhances our emotional resilience in times of crisis.
  • Staves off emotional burnout and keeps us centered.



  • Doesn’t immediately address the root causes of our distress.
  • The relief is often temporary until the problem is remedied.
  • We risk maladaptive coping through unhelpful behaviors like substance abuse, overeating/undereating, or ignoring the problem entirely.
  • Delays problem solving if done without intention.


Problem-focused coping: 


  • Addresses the root cause of the problem.
  • Helps us establish actual control of the outcomes.
  • Keeps us actively engaged in our progress and allows us to advocate for ourselves.
  • Improves our ability to solve problems in the future.



  • Can increase stress and overwhelm our emotions.
  • Not always applicable if the problem cannot be solved or we have no control over the outcome in any fashion.
  • Requires a large time commitment to craft and execute an effective plan of action.
  • Neglects feeling our emotions and attending to our internal needs.


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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