INSIDE Chico State
0 April 19, 2001
Volume 31 Number 14
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Walt Schafer
Walt Schafer

( Photo by Ian Gilmore )

Coping's Not a Dirty Word

When Virginia Satir was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times during her waning months, the late therapist and author was asked what key message she would like to leave the world. She said, "Life is not the way it's supposed to be. It's the way it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference."

Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, University of California psychologists, define coping as "constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person." In short, coping is what we think and do in dealing with adversity and challenge.

A 1999 study of stress, health, and thriving among California city managers by Professor Dan Toy and me is instructive. I mentioned this study in my first column in March 1999 in which I talked about habits of perspective, attitude, and self - talk that enable people to thrive under stress. The findings also taught us something about positive coping styles that increase job satisfaction and decrease distress.

As a group, these 225 city managers -- despite the considerable demands of their profession -- were remarkably low in distress symptoms and high in job satisfaction, self - reported health, optimism, vitality, and happiness. How did they typically respond when confronting difficult or stressful events in their lives? Below are their most common coping styles, ranked according to frequency of use.

  • Planning: "I make a plan of action."
  • Active coping: "I concentrate my efforts on doing something."
  • Positive reinterpretation and growth: "I look for the good."
  • Seeking social support for instrumental reasons: "I ask people who have had similar experiences what they did."
  • Suppression of competing activities: "I put aside other activities so I can concentrate on this."
  • Restraint coping: "I make sure not to make matters worse by acting too soon."

Some of the coping patterns city managers used less often were acceptance, focus on and venting of emotion, turning to religion, denial, mental disengagement, behavioral disengagement, and reliance on alcohol or drugs.

While our study is modest in design and size, and therefore limits how much we can generalize, the findings suggest that a useful pattern of coping for thriving under pressure is to focus on the issue at hand, plan how to solve the problem, use positive self - talk, seek advice, and take direct steps to do what needs to get done. In contrast, the study suggests it is not very useful to get distracted, deny the problem, ruminate, or try to escape.

How useful is your coping style in helping you deal with stressful situations?

Walt Schafer, recently retired from Sociology and Social Work, is the author of Stress Management for Wellness, 4th Edition
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