Psychology Coping Processes
Benjamin Gottlieb
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0143


As ubiquitous as it is in everyday life, in media accounts of disasters, and in old and new cinema, it has proved difficult for investigators to capture the coping process in a way that is faithful to its complexity and dynamic character. Lazarus and Folkman’s groundbreaking work on the cognitive and behavioral ways that people deal with the alarms of life is replete with phrases like “constantly changing,” “process-oriented,” and “contextual,” signaling that the landscape surrounding the study of coping is steep and treacherous, and certainly not for the faint of heart (Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. NY: Springer, 1984). Even their definition of coping is daunting: “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding a person’s resources” (p. 141). Indeed, the many empirical studies, literature reviews, and conceptual papers launched in the wake of their formulations of the appraisal and coping process have borne out the challenges that await those entering this field of study. They range from such fundamental questions as how coping differs from ordinary and routine behaviors and thoughts to profound questions about the contribution that coping makes to the survival of the human species. The principal foci of coping research since the late 20th century have been the measurement of coping; productive exploration of particular modes of coping, notably social support and social comparison; examination of coping with specific life stressors; cultural variations in coping; and recent research on proactive and religious/spiritual coping. Social and clinical research psychologists have been most active as investigators in this field of study, followed by sociologists and nurses. Remarkably, psychodynamic concepts associated with Freud’s formulation of such defensive mechanisms as repression and projection have largely been replaced by a daily process approach that eschews unconscious desires, conflicts, and wishes in favor of emotion-regulatory and adjustment goals. This article offers a path for students, professional researchers, clinicians, and human services personnel seeking their way through the coping literature on adults from the 1980s to the present.

General Overviews

A number of panoramic overviews of the coping field have been written by experts and provide summaries, some including critiques, of the field’s progress and priorities for future research. In 2000 an influential special section on coping appeared in the American Psychologist, authored by several prolific and renowned contributors to the field, including the late Richard Lazarus (see Lazarus 2000). In their lead article, the special section’s editors begin with the lament that coping research has produced so little and the field is in danger of collapsing. Presumably, to remedy this morass, the special section contains incisive papers on research design issues, such as the value of a within-person process-oriented approach to coping and on the contribution of coping research to clinical practice. Collectively, this set of papers provided much of the impetus for the subsequent four reviews that are spotlighted here, commencing with Skinner, et al. 2003, which is a Psychological Bulletin article that exhaustively covers every coping classification system that had been published, how it was constructed, and the criteria for rigorous classification schemes. The authors have done a great service to the field by distinguishing among the specific ways that people cope and two intermediate levels that classify these specific responses in terms of their functions. Folkman and Moskowitz 2004 follows this entry, covering the “pitfalls” associated with the measurement and nomenclature of coping and exploring new research on adaptive psychological processes that reflect the individual’s values, beliefs, and goals. This is followed by Taylor and Stanton’s fascinating treatise on the origins and effects of coping (Taylor and Stanton 2007), in which they bring to bear information about its genetic, physiological, neurological, emotional, and developmental substrates. Those interested in the neural links between coping and mental health will find their treatment of that subject intellectually rewarding as well. The chapter is far less about ways of coping than about the broader nexus between person and environment that shapes health under conditions of adversity. The most recent review, Carver and Vargas 2011, is written on a far larger canvas than the earlier reviews, presenting a model of the process leading from stress to coping to health outcomes, with rich application to examples that unfold in the contexts of cardiovascular disease, viral infection, and wound healing.

  • Carver, C. S., and S. Vargas. 2011. Stress, coping, and health. In The Oxford handbook of health psychology. Edited by H. S. Friedman, 162–188. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195342819.001.0001

    Sweeping in its coverage of the relationships among stress, coping, and health, this chapter begins with a useful account of viewpoints and principles related to the nature of stress, proceeds to a discussion of classes of coping responses, considers several important methodological and design issues, and concludes with a penetrating analysis of the process or pathways through which stress leads to distress, physiological responses, and adverse health outcomes.

  • Folkman, S., and J. T. Moskowitz. 2004. Coping: Pitfalls and promise. Annual Review of Psychology 55:745–774.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141456

    A kaleidoscopic chapter that spotlights measurement issues, nomenclature problems, and assessment of effectiveness as pressing domains for future research. The “promise” consists of three short paragraphs, the bulk of the chapter devoted to the subjects of emotion-regulation, the role of social ties in coping, and the measurement of coping effectiveness. New work on benefit-finding and meaning-making is highlighted.

  • Lazarus, R. S. 2000. Toward better research on stress and coping. American Psychologist 55.6: 665–673.

    DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.55.6.665

    The voice of the master in a trenchant commentary on the preceding special section on coping articles. Lazarus lauds new study designs that combine longitudinal data with daily, microanalytic, in-depth investigations of coping. He also praises research on the protective role of positive affect even while coping with stress and touches on the quandary of assessing coping effectiveness, calling for objective physiological and behavioral criteria to supplement the subjective perspective of the person doing the coping.

  • Lazarus, R. S., and S. Folkman. 1984. Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.

    Now a classic, this seminal volume lays out foundational concepts and propositions about the nature of coping, its measurement, goals, and protective effects. The transactional theory of coping is explicated, as are the processes of primary and secondary cognitive appraisals. The Revised Ways of Coping Checklist (RWOC) is included as an appendix. Readers from many disciplines will be rewarded by consulting this monumental work.

  • Skinner, E. A., K. Edge, J. Altman, and H. Sherwood. 2003. Searching for the structure of coping: A review and critique of category systems for classifying ways of coping. Psychological Bulletin 129.2: 216–269.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.129.2.216

    The structure of coping is the theme of this magnum opus on ways of classifying coping according to its principal axes or modes. One classifies them into “action types” such as escape, support-seeking, and problem-solving) while the other classifies them at a higher level in terms of their adaptive significance. The latter are referred to as “families” of coping. Three lengthy appendixes list every coping and classification scheme developed to date.

  • Taylor, S. E., and A. L. Stanton. 2007. Coping resources, coping processes, and mental health. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 3:377–401.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.3.022806.091520

    Commences with a graphic model of the varied substrates of coping and employs it as a roadmap for discussion of coping resources, coping processes, and their mediating role in the relationship between stressors and adjustment. Except for social support, the coping resources covered—mastery, self-esteem, and optimism—are largely dispositional in nature. Clinicians will gain instruction from the final section that considers interventions designed to enrich coping resources and improve coping processes.

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