What Is Emotion-Focused Coping? Techniques and Examples

Thursday, November 16 2023

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for dealing with stress. Some people deal with stress by doing some physical activity, like going for a run. But others turn inward, focusing on processing the emotions associated with their stress. This technique is called emotion-focused coping.

Below, we’ll discuss emotion-focused coping in greater detail, including its benefits, examples of this technique in action, and tips for improving this skill in your own life.  

What is emotion-focused coping?

Emotion-focused coping focuses on managing your emotional response to stressors rather than controlling, changing, or eliminating the stressor itself. You acknowledge how the stress makes you feel, and instead focus on making yourself feel better rather than dwelling on those negative emotions associated with your stress.

Let’s say that you lose your job. Rather than trying to “solve” the problem by trying to get your job back, you could use emotion-focused coping strategies to process your emotional response to the situation. 

For example, you may check in with yourself and determine that you feel angry. Then, instead of focusing on that anger, you may do something that makes you feel happier — like spending time with a loved one or practicing a hobby.

How is emotion-focused coping different from problem-focused coping?

Problem-focused coping involves addressing the root cause of stress or directly confronting stressors instead of managing your emotional reactions to them. Using a problem-focused approach means taking action to change or eliminate stressors. 

Both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping can be useful for managing stress and anxiety, and they can be even more powerful when used together. These are skills you can learn — and it’s never too late to pick up a new skill.

Let’s take a closer look at the main differences between these two coping strategies:

  • How they’re used: Emotion-focused coping involves regulating your emotions. You might work on accepting your feelings, try to understand your emotional reactions, or replace unhelpful emotions.

Problem-focused coping involves resolving the root cause of your stress. You might brainstorm potential solutions, talk to someone you trust about the problem, or confront the stressor directly. 

  • When they’re used: Emotion-focused coping techniques are helpful when stressors are out of your control — like the death of a loved one. Problem-focused coping strategies are helpful when you can change or control stressors — like dealing with a flat tire on the way to work. 

Advantages of emotion-focused coping skills 

Learning to manage emotional reactions through emotion-focused coping not only improves your overall mental well-being but also enhances your quality of life. In fact, research shows a strong connection between emotion-focused coping strategies (like forgiveness) and improved health outcomes. 

When you use emotion-focused coping to manage stress, you can expect benefits like:

Reduced stress 

Prolonged exposure to stressors can lead to chronic stress, which may affect your physical and mental health in several ways — like poor sleeping habits or heightened anxiety, just to name a few. 

Emotion-focused coping helps you accept your feelings for what they are but focuses on finding ways to make yourself feel better. This way, those negative feelings associated with your stress don’t snowball and contribute to chronic stress in your everyday life. This approach can lower overall stress levels, resulting in better physical and mental health. 

Focused critical thinking and problem-solving 

Letting your emotional reactions to stressors run wild can cloud your thinking, making it harder to solve problems or make decisions. Unfortunately, this can affect many areas of your life — like your job, personal relationships, or academic performance. 

Managing emotional reactions to stressors through emotion-focused coping can help you think more clearly because you’re not dwelling on things you cannot control.

Better emotional regulation 

Studies show that emotional regulation can improve physical health and well-being, so being able to manage your emotions is a valuable skill that emotion-focused coping techniques can help you master. 

Strong emotional regulation skills may make you more patient, leading to fewer emotional outbursts — which can greatly improve your interpersonal relationships. 

Improved mindfulness 

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment instead of worrying about the past or future. Emotion-focused coping techniques allow you to be present with your emotions.

When you’re in touch with your emotions, you become more self-aware. Studies show that mindfulness also makes the part of your brain associated with stress responses less active. This helps you feel calmer and eases stress.

Becoming more mindful and achieving greater emotional intelligence puts you in a better position to manage your responses to stressors. A NeuroImage study finds that because mindfulness calms your brain, you may find it easier to think more clearly — which can allow you to experience your emotions without letting them overwhelm you.

More positive emotions 

Anger, sadness, and other emotions are normal to have from time to time. However, experiencing these emotions frequently or feeling stuck in them may lead to bigger problems. 

Emotion-focused coping can help you process these emotions, which makes more room for adaptive or positive emotions. For example, let’s say you feel sad after finding out that a loved one has a chronic illness. Emotion-focused coping can help you make room for these normal feelings without becoming overburdened by them.

Healthier emotional expression

When you experience strong emotional reactions to stressors, you might bottle up those feelings instead of expressing them. You might even express these emotions in ways that increase stress, such as directing anger at others and causing more conflicts. 

Emotion-focused coping helps you learn how to express emotions in adaptive ways that reduce stress and enhance your relationships with others. For example, a therapist might help you learn how to talk calmly about why you’re angry with someone, rather than lashing out, yelling, or getting defensive. 

This more adaptive approach cultivates a less hostile environment that helps you work through problems with your loved ones — which helps bring you closer rather than drive relationships apart. 

Examples of healthy and unhealthy emotion-focused coping strategies 

While there are many benefits to emotion-focused coping, much like any other skill, some strategies are more helpful than others. It’s important to use the right approach for the best possible outcome, rather than making your stress levels even worse.

In the sections below, we’ll explore some examples of adaptive and maladaptive emotion-focused coping. These may help you evaluate your own approach to managing your emotions related to stressors or unexpected changes

Responding to the loss of a loved one

Losing a loved one can result in overpowering emotions, such as sadness or hopelessness. You may consider joining a support group or attending grief counseling to process these emotions adaptively. 

Maladaptive approaches include turning to alcohol or substance use to numb your emotions, or isolating yourself from others while dealing with the grief. 

Facing a job loss or demotion 

Losing your job or being demoted can cause strong emotional reactions, such as fear or anger. Adaptive ways to manage these emotions may include talking to a trusted family member or friend about your feelings. You might also discuss your feelings with a mentor or therapist who can help you brainstorm job or career options. 

Maladaptive ways to cope might include rumination about what could have happened differently — which is out of your control. This can lead to additional distress, making it harder to move forward and find a new job. 

Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness

Finding out that you have a chronic illness or serious health issue can be extremely stressful — and understandably so. You may worry about how you’ll manage your symptoms long term. To handle this situation adaptively, you might practice meditation or mindfulness activities to help ease emotional distress and anxiety symptoms. 

On the other hand, maladaptive coping strategies might include being in denial about the diagnosis, avoiding necessary medical treatments, or refusing to make lifestyle changes. These emotion-focused coping strategies can have a direct impact on your physical health, which may lead to further distress. 

Handling child behavioral problems as a parent 

Parenting a child who struggles with anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems can be challenging. Positive emotion-focused coping in this situation might include:

  • Looking for books and other resources on effective parenting strategies
  • Joining a parenting support group
  • Pursuing therapy for the child for the child, parent, or both

These approaches can help parents care for their own mental health while learning to handle feelings of inadequacy. 

Maladaptive strategies might include avoidant behaviors, such as overworking or frequently making excuses not to be present. These approaches can result in further estrangement, which can make children’s behavioral problems even worse. 

Experiencing financial difficulties 

A loss of income, high debt, or other financial problems can cause ongoing stress that takes a toll on your mental health. To use adaptive emotion-focused coping to deal with financial difficulties, you might consider practicing tai chi or yoga. 

On the other hand, maladaptive coping might look like making impulsive purchases or partaking in excessive retail therapy — which can only make financial difficulties worse. While these approaches might offer short-term distractions from financial stress, they can make the situation more difficult to manage.

How to get better at healthy, adaptive emotion-focused coping 

Emotion-focused coping doesn’t develop overnight; it’s a continuous journey. However, the time and effort are worthwhile, as these skills can offer long-term benefits that affect your mental and physical health. 

Below are just a few ways that you can begin to cultivate strong emotion-focused coping skills within your daily life. 

Practice mindfulness, meditation, and journaling 

Mindfulness and meditation can help you become more in tune with your emotions without allowing them to overwhelm or distract you. Instead, these practices can help foster inner peace. Similarly, journaling gives you a way to process emotions by putting them on paper rather than bottling them up.

If you’ve never practiced mindfulness, meditated, or journaled, that’s okay — here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • For meditation, sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breathing for a short time to start, such as five minutes. After a few short sessions, you may decide to increase to 10 or 15 minutes.
  • For mindfulness, focus on your immediate surroundings, such as what you see and hear, in order to keep your mind in the present. You may benefit from practicing grounding techniques, such as the 5-4-3-2-1 method (wherein you identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste), to help you focus on what’s around you rather than ruminating on stressors.
  • For journaling, spend a few minutes or more in the morning or before bed writing down your feelings and thoughts. 

It’s important to remember to be patient with yourself as you practice these new techniques. Your mind may wander back to the stressful thoughts, and that’s perfectly normal. When it happens, gently redirect your thoughts back to the present moment. 

Seek social or professional support 

A support system, such as friends, family, or a support group, is very helpful for coping with stressors. It gives you a safe space to discuss your emotions and feelings without fear of judgment. However, sometimes, social support might not be enough to help you process your feelings. 

If you still struggle with your emotions while trying to cope, you may benefit from professional help. With SonderMind, you can connect with an experienced therapist — online or in person — who can help you on your journey to developing emotion-focused coping skills. 

Learn more about SonderMind’s personalized approach to therapy and get started today.

Try positive reframing 

Changing your perspective can help you cope with stress-related emotions. This involves reframing your thoughts in order to view situations from a different perspective. You might learn to identify unhelpful thought patterns — such as assuming the worst possible outcome or blaming yourself for a stressful situation that’s entirely out of your control. 

For example, a parent might blame themselves when their child struggles in school due to extreme anxiety symptoms. Rather than focusing on those guilty feelings, they may practice self-compassion instead — reminding themselves that they’re doing their best as a parent, and nobody is perfect.

Take care of your physical health 

Your physical health can affect your emotional well-being. This mind-body connection makes physical self-care highly important. So, how can you take good care of your body in order to help your mind

Eating a nutritious diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can help boost your mood, which can make it easier to regulate your emotions. These steps can also help improve your critical thinking skills and other cognitive skills, so you can stay focused and make informed decisions calmly. 

In fact, a Frontiers in Psychology study finds that diet, exercise, and sleep help your brain change and rewire itself. These new connections between brain cells improve cognitive skills such as memory, decision-making, and critical thinking. 

Set boundaries and limit avoidant behaviors 

Boundaries are limits you set with other people in order to protect your emotional health. For example, a boundary might involve letting others know that you won’t tolerate being talked down to or called names during disagreements. Similarly, you also agree not to resort to this behavior. 

But while boundaries are great mechanisms for protecting you and others, it’s important to ensure they don’t become avoidant behaviors. 

For example, you might set a boundary where you refuse to discuss a painful experience or past trauma with someone. However, healing often involves facing emotions from these experiences head-on instead of avoiding them. You might need to compromise this personal boundary in order to work on successful emotion-focused coping during therapy sessions.

‍Connect with a qualified therapist at SonderMind 

When you’re faced with a stressor beyond your control, emotion-focused coping is an excellent tool. Learning to manage your emotional reactions to this stressor, no matter how strong they are, can put you on the path toward healing. 

A qualified mental health professional can help you develop these adaptive coping skills more effectively. SonderMind’s providers have a range of specializations, so it’s easy to find one who meets your unique needs and preferences.

Connect with the right therapist at SonderMind today. 

Get guidance throughout your mental health journey.

Stay connected and supported with the latest tips and information from SonderMind.