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Coping Flexibility

Coping Flexibility

Coping Flexibility: A Useful Skill for Healthy Recovery

After a stressful event such as an injury, people engage in many different types of coping. But most types of healthy coping fall into one of two categories.

One form of coping is “Trauma Focused Coping.” This is coping in which people focus on the traumatic event and its aftermath. . They might also consider the meaning of the event as a whole, and value facing the challenge of the event head on. In other words, this type of coping involves focusing on the stressful event in order to better understand it and address the impacts it has had.

The other form of coping is “Forward Focused Coping.” This type of coping involves staying focused on current goals and plans, looking for “silver linings,” engaging in enjoyable activities or self-care routines, or planning activities as a distraction from thinking about the event. In other words, forward-focused coping involves focusing on the present and the future, and trying not to focus on the stressful event.

I use both of these strategies! What does that mean?

Using both types of coping is actually a good thing! Research seems to indicate that using both forms of coping, using a variety of coping strategies, and being able to be flexible in what type of coping you use can help people adapt after a stressful event. In fact, this ability is a skill that researchers call “Coping Flexibility.”

Coping Flexibility is the skill of using a variety of coping techniques to handle stressful situations. It involves the following:

  • Being aware that different coping strategies are better in some situations than in others (see below for some examples)
  • Understanding which are most helpful for you in a given situation (remember, people are different and there is no one correct way to cope),
  • Being able to adapt and use the techniques that are most helpful in a given situation

So using both styles of coping is probably a sign that you are working to process the events that have occurred and are working to take good care of yourself and move forward after the event.

There are times when it might feel most helpful to think about the future or to enjoy yourself rather than focus on the stressful events that have occurred. This is Forward Focused Coping. You may want to work toward long-term goals such as academic or work goals, or you may want to focus on  your physical health. Or maybe you want to watch a movie with friends! All of these are healthy ways of coping, particularly when your day to day stress levels are high.

Other times, you may feel the need to focus on memories of the event or emotions that you experienced at that time. This is Trauma Focused Coping.  You may want to talk about the scary parts of the experience with a friend, reflect on how this event has impacted you, or just spend time alone. These strategies can be beneficial too!

  •  There is a time and place for both types of coping.

For example, distraction or avoidance may be a very effective strategy when you have to focus on a task at hand (for example, if you are about to give a presentation at work). However, too much distraction (e.g., always pushing away your emotions) could slow your recovery. On the other hand, focusing on the event might help you understand its meaning and integrate it into your life story, but it might not be effective during times when you are feeling depressed and are having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning. Flexibility and balance are key factors for healing after a stressful event.

Research in this area is new, but the research findings seem to suggest that Forward Focused Coping is especially helpful when sources of stress are long-term or ongoing.

So, for example, imagine that Marcus is coping with permanent impacts from an injury and is experiencing a high level of stress related to work changes, difficulty getting tasks done due to pain, and dealing with lots of medical appointments. What type of coping might be best for Marcus?

Answer- While everyone is different, it would probably be good for Marcus to focus on forward-focused coping strategies, such as making time for enjoyable activities, trying to find “silver linings” hidden in all the difficulties, and working to develop a positive outlook for the future. Spending a lot of time and energy processing the scary and difficult aspects of the injury may not be a good strategy for Marcus right now, because stress levels are already quite high. Of course, if the situation changes in the future it will likely be important for Marcus to consider some other coping strategies as well.  

Now let’s consider a different example. Imagine that Deana was in a car accident and it was very scary for her. She is noticing that it is impacting her sleep and that she is feeling irritable. But she has several supportive friends that are safe to talk to, her work situation is stable, and her day to day stress levels are manageable outside of the emotional impacts of the trauma. What type of coping might be helpful in this situation?

Answer- Deana may benefit from considering using some trauma-focused coping strategies, such as talking with a trusted friend about recent struggles or spending some time reflecting on how the accident has impacted things. Again, remember that everyone is different in how they cope, so what is right for Deana may be different than what is right for you. In this situation, Deana has supportive friends and feels safe talking to them. She also has most of her day to day stress managed. So, trauma focused coping may help her stay connected with friends, get support as she processes the experience, and eventually help her improve her sleep and mood.

Coping Flexibility is a healthy way for your brain to process what happened and how it fits into your greater life story. In fact, researchers have found that people who are able to flexibly switch between focusing on memories of the event and planning for the future may have an advantage! They tend to cope with events with fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions.

Tips for Coping:

  • Ask for support when you need it. This could be through family, friends, or helping professionals. Seek professional support if you find that you cannot stop yourself from thinking about the event or if that you cannot bring yourself to begin thinking about what happened. Click here for tips on talking with loved ones.
  • Be kind to yourself. Processing trauma is difficult and takes time. Healing looks different for everyone. Avoid comparing yourself to others who “may have had it harder” or “are coping better”.
  • Develop healthy thinking patterns. How we think about a stressful event has a big impact on how that event affects us. Click here for more info.
  • Learn about additional resources that are available to you. Websites, apps, and other resources can help you build a “toolbox” for your recovery journey.  Click here for more info.
  • Be aware of your stress levels, and take care of yourself when stress levels become difficult to manage. Adapting after a stressful injury event is not easy. Be sure to pay attention to how your body feels and how your stress levels are impacting you as you recover. When you need it, find ways to rest and relax. Click here to learn some relaxation techniques.

1. Bonanno, G. A., Pat-Horenczyk, R., & Noll, J. (2011). Coping flexibility and trauma: The Perceived Ability to Cope With Trauma (PACT) scale. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 3(2), 117–129. https://doi-org.libproxy.uccs.edu/10.1037/a0020921