What Is Problem-Focused Coping for Stressors in Life?

Medically reviewed by: Erica Munro, MSc
Thursday, September 28

Many people deal with stress on a day-to-day basis. Although stress is common, having chronic stress or high levels of stress can affect your physical and mental health and well-being. 

In fact, roughly three-quarters of adults in the U.S. have had health impacts from stress, according to a 2022 report from the American Psychological Association (APA). 

What can you do to deal with stress more effectively? Coping strategies, such as problem-focused coping, offer different ways to tackle stress. Problem-focused coping can provide an effective way to handle the root causes of stress in your life. 

Find out more about this coping strategy, including how it works, how it helps, and how to use it. 

What is problem-focused coping?

Problem-focused coping is a strategy for managing stress in a direct and active manner. It involves identifying what’s causing you stress and figuring out how to handle it. This coping strategy works best when you have a stressor you can change rather than one that’s beyond your control. 

The goal is to come up with actions that eliminate stressors — or at least lessen their impact on your life. For example, you might brainstorm solutions and then carry them out. In other cases, you might directly confront something causing you stress. 

Problem-focused coping vs. emotion-focused coping 

Emotion-focused coping strategies are another way to manage stress. With this strategy, you focus on your emotional response to stressors. The idea is to identify and change negative emotional reactions to stressors in your life. 

Problem-focused coping takes a different approach that involves addressing stressors directly. 

Imagine being constantly stressed at work. Problem-focused coping might involve talking to your supervisor about specific issues causing this stress. An emotional approach might involve doing deep breathing exercises to calm your mind and counter negative emotions on the job. 

Are problem-focused coping strategies healthy? 

This really depends on the stressors in question. Problem-focused coping strategies can be healthy when you control a situation — or can change it. 

In some cases, problem-focused methods of coping might not be the right approach to take. For example, this strategy won’t be effective when factors are out of your control, such as losing a loved one. 

The benefits of problem-focused coping 

When used in the right situation, problem-focused coping may offer several advantages. This coping strategy can help you grow as an individual and make your relationships stronger and healthier. It can also give your physical and mental well-being a boost. 

The following are some of the main benefits that problem-focused coping offers. 

Addressing the issue directly 

Problem-focused coping strategies allow you to get right to the heart of what’s bothering you. Instead of dealing with problems indirectly, you can tackle them head-on. 

Taking this active approach can provide you with both immediate and long-term relief. When you don’t handle stressors directly, they can be a source of chronic stress in your life. Addressing stressors directly means you can eliminate them once and for all. 

Greater sense of control 

Using problem-focused coping can help you feel empowered, especially in challenging situations. Taking direct action to deal with stressors gives you more agency and a better sense of control. 

When you use this coping strategy, you can break down problems into a few or more actionable steps. This can make highly stressful situations or problems much more manageable. Research backs up this claim with a 2016 study finding that problem-focused coping techniques help ease the burden on caregivers. 

Enhanced personal growth 

Problem-focused coping gives you a chance to face problems head-on. While this might seem intimidating, having the confidence to deal with stressors can lead to personal growth.

If you tend to avoid problems, using problem-focused coping can help you learn to take a healthier approach. Keep in mind that using these coping techniques successfully can get easier with practice. As you experience personal growth, you’ll develop the maturity to handle problems directly and effectively. 

Important skill development 

Working on using problem-focused coping doesn’t just help with maturity. You can also develop practical skills to use in other areas of your life. The skills you build through this coping approach vary, depending on the stressors you’re dealing with. For example, you can develop conflict resolution skills if your stressor involves confronting someone else. 

Other skills you can build include time management, problem-solving, and decision-making. The more you practice these skills while using problem-focused coping, the stronger they’ll become. 

Less stress (and improved well-being)

Handling stressors directly can be good for your physical health and mental well-being. Getting to the root cause can help reduce chronic stress, which can be associated with chronic health issues, headaches, anxiety, or mental health concerns. Research finds that this coping strategy is linked to decreased depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms. 

Improved relationships 

Practicing conflict resolution and directly communicating with others can help strengthen your personal connections. 

When you use problem-focused coping techniques, you can improve your communication and interpersonal skills. You’ll learn how to effectively handle disagreements and conflicts with others. You’ll also learn how to be direct with others, which helps lower the risk of misunderstandings and miscommunications. 

When to use problem-solving coping: Scenarios and coping examples 

With all of the benefits that problem-focused coping offers, keep in mind that it’s not the right choice for all life events or stressors. The following are some examples of scenarios involving different stressors where this approach is appropriate to try in your daily life. 

Academic stress

Problem: Imagine a group working on a research project where two members have different opinions on how to approach the assignment. One wants to focus on data analysis, while the other prefers conducting surveys. 

Problem-focused coping solution: Conflict resolution would involve these students respectfully discussing their ideas, understanding the merits of each approach, and eventually deciding to incorporate both methods for a more comprehensive research project. This will appease both parties while still achieving the goal — finishing the project on time and with good quality.

Work concerns 

Problem: An employee is stressed about working on a major presentation to show an important client. They’re struggling to get started or focus on the project due to stress. 

Problem-focused coping solution: The employee can ask for help working on the presentation if they’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed. They might also break up the presentation into several smaller steps, which can help direct their focus. 

Financial stress 

Problem: An individual is stressed about owing more income taxes than expected. They’re struggling to figure out how to cover this cost and avoid additional costs due to penalties. 

Problem-focused coping solution: The individual can call the IRS and make sure the amount owed is accurate. If so, they can look into using savings or an installment plan to pay it off. They might set more money aside in savings in case this happens again or adjust their withholdings to reduce this risk.

Disagreements or conflicts 

Problem: Imagine a scenario where two parents have very different parenting styles, which results in arguments, strains the relationship between them, and creates tension within the home.

Problem-focused coping solution: Successful conflict resolution in this scenario might involve parents sitting down to discuss their differing approaches, seeking advice from a family therapist, and developing a unified parenting plan that incorporates the best aspects of both styles for the benefit of the children.  

Health worries 

Problem: An individual has been having frequent headaches. They’re stressed about this, since they don’t know what’s causing these symptoms. They worry that it might be a serious health problem. 

Problem-focused coping solution: The individual can make an appointment with their doctor to discuss their health concerns. In the meantime, they can avoid looking up their symptoms online, since this can lead to more stress. They can also take good care of themselves, such as getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and drinking plenty of water. 

Home care concerns 

Problem: A homeowner finds a mouse in their house and worries that they have an infestation. They’re stressed about the potential damage that mice can do to their home. They’re also worried about the cost of having pest control done. 

Problem-focused coping solution: The homeowner can look and listen for other signs of mice, such as scratching in the walls or droppings. They can look for pest control companies that offer a free initial inspection and compare quotes. They can also take steps to prevent mice, such as sweeping up crumbs. 

How to practice and apply problem-solving coping techniques 

Problem-solving coping mechanisms might not come naturally to you, which is fine. In fact, they might take time and practice to get used to. When you consciously adopt this coping style in the right situations, you’ll get better at using it. 

As you practice problem-focused coping more and more, you can expect to gain confidence about using it. This can help you manage many types of stress more effectively, resulting in a happier and healthier day-to-day life. These steps can help you get started on applying this coping style in your personal or professional life. 

Recognize the stressor 

To use problem-solving coping effectively, you’ll need to identify the stressful event or situation. Knowing what the stressor is helps you determine what to focus on. 

You might have a vague or more definite sense of unease or anxiety. It’s important to find out what’s making you feel this way. Think about when you tend to feel stressed, where you are, and who is around you at the time. This can help you discover the root cause of your stress. Once you identify the stressor, you can come up with actionable steps to deal with it. 

Develop a plan (or seek support)

Creating a strategy to deal with a stressor helps you focus and have more control over the situation for more effective coping. 

Developing a plan can help you anticipate any potential hurdles or problems you might face along the way. You’ll also have a better sense of which kinds of resources to look for to help you handle the stressor. 

If you’re unsure how to address the source of stress, seek support. Mental health professionals, family, friends, or other trusted people can help you. 

Take action 

Coming up with a plan is a great start. However, you’ll also need to jump into action and carry out your plan. Doing this is a major part of dealing with a stressor using problem-focused coping. Once you take action, you’ll be on your way to managing stress. 

Find better ways to cope with SonderMind 

If you have chronic stress due to a situation you can control or change, consider using problem-focused coping techniques. The benefits that this coping style offers can improve your life in several ways and help you manage stress more effectively. 

If you need help understanding when and how to use problem-focused coping, SonderMind can assist you. At SonderMind, we connect you with a mental health professional who can help you develop coping skills to reduce stress, whether you plan to use problem-focused coping or emotion-focused coping techniques. 

Get started with SonderMind today to find a therapist who’s right for you.

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