What is coping?

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen we use the word ‘coping’, what do we mean?

Recently, I’ve been reviewing the whole concept of coping in chronic pain.  I’m trying to establish how people with chronic pain view this term, and what they include in their repertoire of ways to cope.  My research is looking at the ways that people who cope well with their pain, and never need input from a chronic pain management team, do so.  And in doing this research, I’m hitting some conceptual snags.

The thing is, coping as a concept isn’t defined all that well.  Some definitions refer to the outcome of coping: “he coped well with that” meaning “he managed that stressor in a positive way and the outcome was good”; some definitions refer to the process of coping and don’t consider the outcome at all: “she is coping with a lot of concerns at the moment” meaning “she is going through a process of managing a large number of stressors” – but make no reference to what happened as a result of that process.

Coping can mean “anything that’s done in response to a threat”.  When it’s used in this sense about pain, it can include both automatic responses like physiological arousal and flinching, as well as intentional responses like resting, stretching or going to a doctor.

Coping can also be more narrowly defined and mean “intentional responses to a stressor”, in other words, things that need effort and are thought about.  This latter definition was developed by Lazarus and Folkman (1984), and introduced some helpful theoretical concepts that informed research on the ways people adapt to stressors.

The way that Lazarus and Folkman conceptualise ‘coping’ has influenced the research into ways people manage the effect of chronic pain – this model describes ‘cognitive appraisals’, or the ways in which people view the stressor as being either a challenge, or a threat.  If someone sees pain as a threat, it magnifies the view of pain as a potential for harm or loss and produces a negative emotional response, which is closely related to vulnerability and has been shown to lead to ’emotion-focused coping’, whereas if someone sees pain as a challenge, it can lead to ‘problem-focused’ coping (Dysvik, Natvig, Eikeland & Linstrom, 2005).

There are other ways to explore the idea of coping – here’s a few:

Some research has identified a distinction between ‘active’ coping and ‘passive’ coping.  Active coping refers to ways of coping that focus on trying to control pain or to function despite pain, while passive ways of coping refers to withdrawing and surrendering control over pain.  Active coping strategies can include things like distraction or activity management (pacing), while passive coping can include things like rest or avoidance (Brown and Nicassio, 1987).

Another distinction may be drawn between ‘approach’ and ‘avoidance’.  Approach coping means engaging with the pain and its causes (such as trying to work out the triggers for flare-ups or seeking treatment), while avoidance coping involves strategies of engaging efforts away from pain (such as ignoring the pain, or attempting to avoid increasing pain) (Reid, Golbert & McGrath, 1998).

I have some trouble with what I’ve read so far about coping. Some of the difficulties I see with distinctions like the ones above is that they don’t consider the context or the purpose (function) of certain strategies.  For example, there are times when it’s OK to push beyond ‘usual’ functional limits to achieve certain goals instead of pacing, or spreading activities out over a day (it’s really hard to stop in the middle of baking a sponge cake to ‘pace’!), and it’s quite common for people to be prepared to persevere at a sporting activity even though it increases pain because of the benefits experienced in terms of mood or experiences of achievement.

It’s also not clear whether people use the same strategies for the same reasons as they progress through the lifetime of their pain problem.  It might make sense to use medications in the earlier stages of a pain problem, but to choose not to continue with these later on.  Selective use of rest may be appropriate during the early stages of coping with rheumatoid arthritis but less sense as time goes on.

And to add fuel to my doubts about coping strategies, I’m not sure that what we teach to people who want help with pain management is what people who don’t seek help actually use.  We may be trying to teach people things that don’t integrate well with everyday life.  Certainly there’s evidence that 12 months after completing a programme, these coping strategies are often not used – but reduced disability and distress achieved soon after a programme is maintained despite  this finding (Curran, Williams & Potts, 2009).

My final muttering about coping strategies is that some of them don’t work – or at least, don’t work in the way that they’re intended to.  For example, it’s not really possible to control pain – there are many times when, despite the best efforts of people to follow activity management principles and to manage stressors and to think in helpful ways, pain fluctuates.  By focusing on efforts to change the pain, we can encourage people to constantly analyse what they’ve ‘done wrong’ to flare their pain up.  By focusing on trying to change thinking, we can lead people to judge themselves harshly for having the same sort of thoughts that we all do – these thoughts still occur, it’s really more important to work out how much attention to pay to thoughts, and how to learn to let them go in order to focus on what the person wants to do.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t help people develop a wider range of coping strategies – but I am suggesting that we now need to do some more work to understand the function of various types of strategy, when they might be helpful or useful (and when they might not be), and I think simplistic dichotomous classification of strategies need to go.  We might consider studying people who cope well with pain – and identifying the strategies that these people use (and when).  We might think about helping people recognise the short-term and longer-term consequences of various strategies.

Most importantly, I think we need to learn to work with people to identify whether the coping strategies they already know and use are helping them live out the values they prefer.  This approach isn’t my own invention, btw, it’s a basic tenet of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy where the main question to ask is ‘how well is this working for you?’

Maybe, as I suspect, we don’t need to focus as much on helping people learn new coping strategies, but instead focus on how to help people identify what is important to them, and how they can get there.

Brown GK, Nicassio PM. (1987) Development of a questionnaire for the assessment of active and passive coping strategies in chronic pain patients. Pain. 31:53–64.

Curran, C., Williams, A. C. d. C., & Potts, H. W. W. (2009). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for persistent pain: Does adherence after treatment affect outcome? European Journal of Pain, 13(2), 178-188.

Lazarus RS, Folkman S. (1984) Stress, appraisal and coping. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Reid GJ, Golbert CA, McGrath PJ. (1998) The pain coping questionnaire: preliminary validation. Pain. 76:83–96.

Van Damme, S., Crombez, G., & Eccleston, C. (2008). Coping with pain: A motivational perspective Pain, 139 (1), 1-4 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2008.07.022


  1. I think this is an excellent post! Having the dichotomies you describe, especially the “active”/”passive”, which to many people implies a value judgment, can really confuse things. I have met a number of health professionals that had ideas like “you should only ever use active strategies, passive is bad”, or “you should only use approach coping” (well, they didn’t use the word “approach”, but essentially listed the strategies you listed), or even “you should never use approach coping”.

    I have always felt, like you said, that context and function matters. I can and will persevere through pain with certain physical activities I enjoy (at one point against the advice of my then pain management doctor!), because they bring major benefits to me. I will use pacing, medication and/or rest at other times to decrease pain if my overall pain levels are too high and are interfering with getting my job done. It really is a matter of figuring out what works under which circumstances.

    People being what they are, if there is a categorization, they will often assign labels like “good” and “bad” to various categories, this just seems human nature. So doing more research on context and understanding how different strategies fit, as you suggest, seems to me an extremely important bit of research.

    1. Seems like I’ve struck a chord there Mary! Like you, I struggle with the idea of ‘active’ and ‘passive’ because of that temptation to then think of them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I might be more inclined to consider these classifications if only they agreed with each other – and they simply don’t. I’ll write more about a contextual/motivational approach to coping later, because I think this might help to put the various strategies into a more helpful framework, and the whole aim of classification is IMHO to help people with pain choose what helps them achieve what’s important (ie, what’s aligned with values). It’s useful for each of us as health professionals to question our assumptions about various strategies at various times, but more importantly, for us to help people with pain make their own choices about what helps in the long run (rather than the short term).

  2. Great points! I think the best way for realization and expansion of knowledge is sharing of experience and viewpoints. Hopefully, there would be someone who knows this lack of information, and would pursue a more comprehensive research on coping and all its facets.

  3. Great article. Coping, either passive or active, is all that patients can do to minimize or manage pain symptoms. What other choices do we have but to cope with them one way or the other. I believe that by sharing our coping strategies with our online communities, support groups or other friends or family who also deal with chronic pain helps us learn new ways of coping as well as new areas to implement coping mechanisms. It is sometimes by sharing what has been successful, or not, with those around us that we can better learn to utilize the tools at our disposal.


    1. Thanks Rod, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I can’t quite agree completely with you that coping is ‘all that patients can do to minimise or manage pain symptoms’. At least, in the literature it’s quite mixed – coping can focus on reducing pain intensity, or carry on with being involved in daily activities (things that are important to the individual), and coping can be the process or the strategies or even the outcome! My focus has been, for a long time now, on engaging in activities (ie life!) and almost-but-not-quite forgetting about pain. A patient recently said she doesn’t give pain any notice now. And that’s the aim, because pain is not something that can be controlled, in many instances – or at least, it can’t be controlled without losing contact with the things that make life good such as spontaneity, or working, or being with kids, or having fun. Learning how to cope with both higher levels of pain AND periods when pain is low – and still being “in the moment” is something I’m still learning for myself.

    2. Yes, in one sense there is no alternative but to cope in the sense of carrying on living, or otherwise committing suicide. That’s why it’s always a bit funny when people say how wonderful or brave or adaptive someone living with pain has been: there is little else to do, and they would most likely do the same.

  4. I am so glad I found this post. I am coping! Since I have yet to achieve living like normal again, or working full-time… since my idea of a major accomplishment is getting through church no matter how bad I feel (I am the pianist – takes some pre-planning for the potty breaks!) or getting part of the house clean, I thought that I wasn’t doing a good job.

    There might be room for improvement, but I feel like I am not as big of a failure as I thought I might be. Thank you for that.

  5. Hi Bronwyn,

    Great post on an important topic. “I have some trouble with what I’ve read so far about coping.” Me, too. We should also question the necessity of understanding coping (or indeed pain or pain phenomena) based on theoretical definition alone. You hinted at an alternate approach to this: “but instead focus on how to help people identify what is important to them…”. That is, begin with questions posed to personal (or phenomenal) experience rather than theories. Just as experimental participants can be trained to overcome personal biases or preconceptions (e.g., in Neurophenomenology), it is not binding that research must begin with theory or definition. For example, participants in a qualitative phenomenological study can be invited to describe personal experiences of coping with pain. We might find considerable consensus about the common meanings of a coping state only after engaging several participants, which means that understanding coping and pain phenomena may have to begin with qualitative-experiential studies that produce testable hypotheses and predictions. Theories would eventually result from studies that assess competing hypotheses but would include testing those generated in qualitative-experiential studies.


    1. Hi Simon, I have taken this further in my thesis. I think coping is what we do every day – flexibly persisting with what’s important to us, changing priorities on a moment-by-moment basis, with an eye to living as a fluid, continuous and ongoing narrative. I don’t think that people deal with only one constraint: their health. We all deal with limited energy, time, and multiple demands both internal and external, plus our own drive to “go forth and conquer”. These are normal daily decisions for everyone. The difference with people who have a health problem, and particularly chronic pain, is that old ways of making decisions need to be re-evaluated and a new self-concept formed as things that can’t be handled to the satisfaction of the “ideal self” are discarded, and new ones put in place. This process is painful and I think psychological flexibility (as defined by ACT) makes the process easier. Participants in my research didn’t describe themselves as “coping”, and in fact they loathed that term. They said they were simply “living well”. Maybe that’s the consensus of coping from the perspective of people with chronic pain, at least by those who have emerged from the other side of “limbo land” where the process of dealing with chronic pain has been handled. Maybe. Certainly it seems that the term “coping” is an artificial label applied by onlookers rather than actors in the process.

      1. Thanks, and very interesting. “Certainly it seems that the term “coping” is an artificial label applied by onlookers rather than actors in the process.” A similar error happens in academic philosophy when philosophers ask “What is x?” (e.g., consciousness, volition) and begin philosophizing by intuiting what they think “everyone would say x is.” Except it isn’t necessarily transparent to armchair intuition what people would say something is. Personal conviction is often a poor guide to reality! I guess too the meanings within re-evaluating “old ways of making decisions” aren’t necessarily transparent to pain patients, and people differ in their ability as observers and reporters of their own experiences. But I can see that receiving training through a phenomenological method can help to increase patient sensitivity to personal experiences and dispositions. It would be interesting to investigate how changes in patient sensitivity to observing and reporting personal experiences relate to changes in “psychological flexibility.” I am now reading your excellent thesis. Back to you soon.

  6. Certainly seems like an interesting and worthwhile research subject. And those coping dichotomies don’t make sense to me either. I think how people cope with pain often relates to their overall life views and constitution. People who were positive, enthusiastic and optimistic before pain are more likely, I’d expect, to continue in a similar vein when they develop pain. And those who view life as hard and wearisome before pain are likely to view it as even more so when pain comes along. Pain management techniques can only really go so far in affecting people’s overall view and experience of life. I suppose the logical outcome of this is that psychological treatments should perhaps be seen as a crucial element in assisting someone who is struggling with pain (as you have argued in other posts). At the moment, that isn’t the case, not in the UK anyway.

    On a more personal note, thinking about what helps me cope with pain, these come to mind:
    – knowing that others are going through the same struggles (from a group-based pain management course and online articles and groups)
    – following the advice in Toni Bernhard’s book, ‘How to be Sick’ (self-compassion practices, blame avoidance, acknowledging impermanence of pain, accepting what cannot be changed) – avoiding boom and bust by limiting activities and spreading out activities over the week
    – adapting activities (e.g. vacuuming sitting down, taking the contents of a suitcase upstairs in bits if I can’t manage the whole suitcase, listening to podcasts instead of watching films to reduce headaches etc etc: I think that this is often little explored by practitioners, but should be a much bigger focus)
    – using aids e.g. wheelchair, car, mobility scooter to enable me to do things I enjoy or need to do without extreme amounts of pain
    – medication
    – an appreciation practice
    – learning to let go

    Despite all that, I sometimes feel I’m not coping with pain (my personal interpretation of ‘coping’ is managing life both in a practical and an emotional sense, as opposed to having a feeling of chaos, overwhelm or despair).

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