Coping is defined as the thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations. It is a term used distinctively for conscious and voluntary mobilization of acts, different from 'defense mechanisms' that are subconscious or unconscious adaptive responses, both of which aim to reduce or tolerate stress.
When individuals are subjected to a stressor, the varying ways of dealing with it are termed 'coping styles,' which are a set of relatively stable traits that determine the individual's behavior in response to stress. These are consistent over time and across situations. Generally, coping is divided into reactive coping (a reaction following the stressor) and proactive coping (aiming to neutralize future stressors). Proactive individuals excel in stable environments because they are more routinized, rigid, and are less reactive to stressors, while reactive individuals perform better in a more variable environment.
Coping scales measure the type of coping mechanism a person exhibits. The most commonly used scales are COPE (Coping Orientation to Problems Experienced), Ways of Coping Questionnaire, Coping Strategies Questionnaire, Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations, Religious-COPE, and Coping Response Inventory.
Coping is generally categorized into four major categories which are:
- Problem-focused, which addresses the problem causing the distress: Examples of this style include active coping, planning, restraint coping, and suppression of competing activities.
- Emotion-focused, which aims to reduce the negative emotions associated with the problem: Examples of this style include positive reframing, acceptance, turning to religion, and humor.
- Meaning-focused, in which an individual uses cognitive strategies to derive and manage the meaning of the situation
- Social coping (support-seeking) in which an individual reduces stress by seeking emotional or instrumental support from their community.
Many of the coping mechanisms prove useful in certain situations. Some studies suggest that a problem-focused approach can be the most beneficial; other studies have consistent data that some coping mechanisms are associated with worse outcomes. Maladaptive coping refers to coping mechanisms that are associated with poor mental health outcomes and higher levels of psychopathology symptoms. These include disengagement, avoidance, and emotional suppression.
The physiology behind different coping styles is related to the serotonergic and dopaminergic input of the medial prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. The neuropeptides vasopressin and oxytocin also have an important implication relative to coping styles. On the other hand, neuroendocrinology involving the level of activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, corticosteroids, and plasma catecholamines were unlikely to have a direct causal relationship with an individual's coping style.