Coping Strategies for When Bad Things Happen

Challenges can lead us toward meaningful thought and action if we know how to cope
By Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton
October 30, 2019 Updated: January 31, 2020

If you can’t control a difficult situation, how do you cope with it? Coping involves applying your mental and emotional energy to manage the strain associated with challenges.

Psychologists have identified three coping strategies people commonly rely on. But before we get to those, consider the order in which humans normally make things happen.

  1. We self-motivate through thinking in an attempt to achieve our best performance.
  2. This thought creates the emotional energy we need to move ahead and stay the course.
  3. We take action in response to how we made ourselves feel and repeat steps 1 and 2 as necessary.

Problems arise when you get out of order; when you act without thinking first or allow the wrong emotions to get in your way. In either case, you’ll later regret not thinking first to create the most appropriate emotion to help you.

And that emotion needn’t be a potent passion. A calm and clear heart can be the most powerful starting point for any meaningful action.

So, now to the three was of coping

Meaning-Focused Coping

This is the most reliable strategy. It’s based on the premise that thoughts, not circumstances, create emotions. Whatever happens to you is meaningless until you assign it meaning and react. Scientists (and ancient sages) believe you may never need the second or third strategies if you make the best use of your thoughts.

You cope by thinking first to assign better meanings to your circumstances. The purpose of this is to intentionally create emotional ease or a self-empowering emotion to help you cope well. In many cultures, this means broadening your mind to consider the wider implications of an event, or to align your thoughts about it with deeper values, like kindness and faith. Psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to this as meta-motivating to self-transcend your circumstances. You rise above your circumstances.

  • Recognize what’s most important and then assign a better meaning to the situation.
  • Avoid being judgmental.
  • Think in a non-negative manner (realistic + optimistic).
  • Look for the agreeable middle ground between what is and what’s ideal.

People who use this strategy might appear from the outside as if they’re aloof or unaffected by challenges. But on the inside, they’re caring for themselves by relying on the emotions of joy, optimism, enthusiasm, gratitude, confidence, and contentment. We admire these people for their calm resilience.

Emotion-Focused Coping

People who rely on this strategy first typically have no knowledge of meaning-focused coping. It involves changing or ignoring how you feel when a difficult situation occurs. It’s like numbing yourself to the evolving world around you.

When this strategy was popular, people wrongly assumed their unwanted emotions were caused by their circumstances.

This led to largely ineffective approaches, like denial (ignoring the situation or avoiding reality), procrastinating, distraction (TV, drugs, etc), and wishful thinking.

After coping in this manner, some slowly find the will to accept their situation and start dealing with it. But by the time this happens, the problem may have worsened. This is not the ideal way of coping, but it works temporarily when nothing else might.

People who cope in this manner are comfortable with ignoring or minimizing the seriousness of their problems. They may appear beat or hopeless and don’t realize their actions are being unintentionally motivated by fear, worry, envy, doubt, and anger. We sometimes feel sorry for these people.

Problem-Focused Coping 

Similar to the previous strategy, this one is based on the false idea that your circumstances cause emotions. Coping involves taking action first to resolve the problem before an unwanted emotion occurs.

This strategy can potentially work. But if you can’t resolve the problem, you become discouraged and give up too soon. You lack the motivation to persevere because you didn’t first think in order to create the most appropriate emotion to help you. This approach is all about actions and usually involves some seemingly rational steps.

  • Plan how you will address the situation.
  • Problem-solve to identify the best approach.
  • Seek help from others who have experience in dealing with your situation.
  • Assert your opinions about what you would rather see in this situation.
  • Establish boundaries so the same situation does not occur again.

When you take action first, you may end up with the wrong solution, solving the wrong problem, or wasting your emotional energy on what you might later realize was not a serious issue.

People who cope in this manner have good intentions and are more optimistic in their problem-solving abilities than they should be. So when things don’t go their way they become impatient and frustrated. We might cheer these people on for their enthusiasm in the face of adversities.

Hands down, the most efficient coping strategy is meaning-focused. Think first to energize your motivation to cope using the most helpful emotions. Not only does this improve how well you feel, but it also enhances your problem-solving abilities.

It’s like this Keanu Reeves quote: “You don’t struggle with depression, you struggle with the reality we live in.” The meanings we assign create what we think is real, and that’s how we can avoid depression—by first changing how we think.

Jeff Garton is a Milwaukee-based author, certified career coach, and former HR executive and training provider. He holds a master’s degree in organizational communication and public personnel administration. He is the originator of the concept and instruction of career contentment.

Jeff Garton
Jeff Garton