This year's World Mental Health Day, on 10 October, came at a time when our daily lives have changed considerably as a result of the pandemic. The past months have brought many challenges. With many losing work, gaining carer responsibilities and grappling with social isolation, experts warn of a looming wave of mental illness
Coping is the process of responding effectively to problems and challenges. These strategies can be classified in many ways, but a key distinction is between problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies.
What’s the difference?
Problem-focused coping involves actively engaging with the outside world. This might mean making action plans, seeking further information about a threat, or confronting an adversary.
Emotion-focused coping, in contrast, is directed inward, attempting to change how we respond emotionally to stressful events and conditions, rather than to change them at their source.
Effective emotion-focused strategies include meditation, humour and reappraising difficulties to find benefits.
Less effective emotion-focused strategies include seeking distractions, denial and substance use. Although these tactics may stave off distress in the short term, they neither address its causes nor prevent its longer term effects.
Which is best?
Neither of these coping strategies is intrinsically more or less effective than the other. Both can be effective for different kinds of challenges.
Problem-focused strategies are said to work best when we can control the problem. However, when we face an immovable challenge, it can be better to adjust our response to it using emotion-focused strategies, rather than battling fruitlessly against it.
Coping strategies during the pandemic
Physical activity and experiencing nature can offer some protection from depression during the pandemic. One study even points to the benefits of birdwatching.
But there’s more evidence around coping strategies to avoid. Rising levels of substance use during the pandemic are associated with greater distress.
Eating too many snacks and accessing too much Covid-related media have also been linked to higher levels of stress and depression.
Social distancing and lockdowns have left us with a reduced coping repertoire. So remember to cut yourself some slack. When judging how well we’ve coped we should practise self-compassion. Let’s not make things worse by criticising ourselves for failing to cope better.
How can I tell if I’m not coping well?
We should be able to assess how well we are coping by judging how we’re going compared to our previous normal. Think of yourself this time last year. Are you drinking more, sleeping poorly or experiencing fewer positive emotions?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, your coping may not been as good as it could be. But before you judge your coping critically, it’s worth considering a few things.
Your coping is relative to your challenge: The pandemic may be shared, but its impacts have been unequal. If you live alone, are a caregiver or have lost work, the pandemic has been a larger threat for you than others. If you’ve suffered more distress than others, or more than you did last year, it doesn’t mean you have coped less well — you may have just had more to cope with.
Negative emotions can be appropriate: Experiencing anxiety,
sadness at separation from loved ones is justified. Suffering does not mean maladjustment. In fact, unpleasant emotions draw our attention to problems and motivate us to tackle them, rather than just being signs of mental fragility or not coping. We should, of course, be vigilant for serious problems, such as thoughts of self-harm.
Coping isn’t just about emotions: It’s also about action and finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life, despite our distress.