Coping strategies and defense mechanisms

Since the concepts of coping strategies and personality defense mechanisms have developed within the framework of different psychological traditions, the question of their relationship and differences is of no small importance.

As already mentioned, if copings are defined as voluntary and conscious actions, the criterion for distinguishing them from defense mechanisms is awareness. In the case of broader definitions, the differences are not so clear [Compas, 1998].

P. Cramer [Cramer, 1998] identifies two main criteria that distinguish coping strategies and defense mechanisms: (1) conscious / unconscious nature and (2) voluntary / involuntary nature of processes. Subsequently, another criterion was proposed: the focus on distortion / revision of the state [Miceli, Castelfranchi, 2001]. Distortion implies a change in attitudes, caused by an unconscious desire to reject them and subject to the goal of avoiding negative emotions. Revision of the state – a change in attitudes, caused by a conscious desire to reject them and subject to the goal of “epistemic accuracy”, in other words, the goal of the most accurate reflection of reality. Using coping strategies, a person rejects or distorts a particular representation (eg, “I’m a loser”) if and only if a review of the available evidence convinces the person that the representation is wrong or at least unconvincing. In other cases, he will try to accept it.

Of course, in the case of coping strategies, a person may make mistakes, but his actions are controlled by the goal of approaching reality. In this case, there is always a recognition of the problem as a problem, whether solvable or not. With defense mechanisms, a person does not “check” reality, but changes his state regardless of it in order to reduce negative emotions. According to this point of view, emotionally-oriented coping is a heterogeneous concept. On the one hand, they include a number of phenomena associated with the avoidance or minimization of the problem – the reduction of negative emotions. Then they include classical defense mechanisms – denial, suppression, rationalization, etc. On the other hand, they include the actual coping strategies aimed at accepting the problem and the emotions associated with it. A more differentiated, although methodologically similar, approach is proposed in the work of I.R. Abitov [Abitov, 2007], where such comparison parameters are distinguished as the features of the goal (adaptation – comfort of the state), the nature of the adaptation (active – passive), the degree of awareness (conscious situation change – unconscious response to a threat), the possibility of correction (learning – awareness).

A fundamentally different point of view on the problem of the relationship between defense mechanisms and coping strategies was proposed by J. Vaillant [Vaillant, 2000]. From his point of view, it is advisable to single out three classes of coping strategies in their broadest sense. The first group includes strategies related to obtaining help and support from other people – the search for social support. The second group includes conscious cognitive strategies that people use in difficult situations – and this includes coping strategies in their traditional sense of R. Lazarus and S. Folkman. The third group consists of involuntary mental mechanisms that change our perception of internal or external reality in order to reduce stress. At the same time, J. Vaillant singles out among these “mental mechanisms” the level of highly adaptive defenses, which includes anticipation (anticipation), altruism, humor, sublimation and suppression. These adaptive mechanisms, firstly, are the most effective in terms of human satisfaction and, secondly, imply the possibility of awareness of one’s feelings, ideas and their consequences.

Although in most cases the coping strategies of the first two groups have the main influence on the result, coping strategies of the third group have three main advantages: they do not depend on education and social status, they allow you to regulate situations that cannot be changed, and they can cause changes in the real world. (“turn steel into gold”, as the author writes). According to his research, the use of adaptive mechanisms predicts better subjective health (up to 30 years after the first assessment of the state of health), but is not associated with a deterioration in objective health, that is, it does not worsen the real situation.

“Productive” coping strategies

The idea of “productive” and “unproductive” copings was developed in the course of empirical studies within the framework of the transactional model of stress, which showed that problem-oriented coping strategies correlate positively with adaptation and health and negatively with the level of experienced stress. It was believed that emotionally oriented, on the contrary, play a negative role and increase stress, because they do not resolve the situation itself. Subsequently, data were obtained that such a relationship is ambiguous.

In general, problem-oriented copings are associated with greater performance and are subjectively assessed as more effective than emotionally-oriented copings [Lazarus, Folkman, 1984]. In a 21-day longitudinal study of student stressful events, problem-based coping was found to be subjectively more effective than social support seeking, and support seeking was, in turn, more effective than emotion-based coping [Ptacek et al. ., 1992]. At the same time, in general, men assessed their actions as more effective than women, and more often perceived what was happening as a challenge to their competence, and not as a threat. Women more often than men resorted to social support.

In a study of sales managers in unsuccessful transactions by S. Brown and colleagues [Brown et al., 2005], it was assumed that in a situation of failure, various copings mediate the impact of negative emotions on performance in different ways. Thus, they assumed that task focus (maintaining concentration on individual steps to solve the problem) and self-control (distracting from negative actions that could worsen the situation) would contribute to work efficiency and reduce the impact of negative emotions, and the release of emotions (expressing negative emotions to others people), on the contrary, will worsen the quality of work. However, the results were much less clear-cut. According to them, focusing on the task improves performance, but does not reduce the impact of negative emotions in a stressful situation. Self-control helps to cope with negative emotions, but reduces the efficiency of work and therefore can be justified only in a situation that causes strong negative emotions. Release reinforces negative emotions, impairing performance. In other words, the effectiveness of coping depends on how strong negative emotions a person experiences in a given situation (on the assessment of the situation).

In addition, there is evidence of the usefulness of emotional coping in uncontrolled situations [Miller, Green, 1985]. Thus, in a study by G. Bowman and M. Stern [Bowman, Stern, 1995], nurses were asked to report two stressful episodes from their practice, one of which was perceived as requiring effort, and the second as threatening competence. It has been shown that the use of problem-based copings correlates positively with the subjective assessment of their effectiveness, but only in controlled situations. Reassessment of the situation positively correlated with the effectiveness of coping in both controlled and uncontrolled situations. Avoidance was rated as ineffective in all cases. In general, avoidance is considered in almost all studies as ineffective coping, leading to a worsening of the situation, and further health problems.

The results of the study by G. Bowman and M. Stern [Bowman, Stern, 1995] allow us to revise the earlier data, according to which the impact of assessing the situation (as a threat, challenge to opportunities or loss) on the effectiveness of the selected copings is insignificant, that is, the effectiveness of copings does not depend on the situation [ McCrae et al., 1986]. Apparently, there is still an influence, although not of the whole situation, but of its individual parameters (controllability, for example). B.Compas [Compas, 1998] defines the effectiveness of coping as the result of the interaction between the type of coping (for example, problem-oriented versus emotionally-oriented) and actual or perceived controllability of the situation. In general, problem-oriented coping is effective in controlled situations, while emotionally-oriented coping is effective in uncontrolled ones.

In addition, the effectiveness of the strategy may change as the situation evolves. For example, a strategy such as denial, which is usually regarded as unproductive or simply useless, can be useful in certain circumstances [Lazarus, 1993].

Based on the extended classification of copings proposed by Ch. Carver et al. [Carver et al., 1989] and E. Frydenberg and E. Lewis [Frydenberg, Lewis, 2000], it can be argued that the most adaptive coping strategies include strategies aimed at directly to problem solving. The next block of coping strategies is not associated with active coping, but can also help a person adapt to a stressful situation. These coping strategies include: “search for emotional social support” – the search for sympathy and understanding from others; “suppression of competitive activity” – reducing activity in relation to other matters and problems and focusing on the source of stress; “containment” – the expectation of more favorable conditions for resolving the situation instead of impulsive actions and “humor” as an attempt to cope with the situation with the help of jokes and laughter about it. Finally, the third group of coping strategies will include strategies that are not adaptive, but in some cases help a person to adapt to a stressful situation and cope with it. These are such ways of overcoming difficult life situations as “focus on emotions and their expression” – emotional response in a problem situation; “denial” – denial of a stressful event; “mental detachment” – psychological distraction (avoidance) from the source of stress through fantasy, dreams, sleep; “behavioral withdrawal” – refusal to actively resolve the situation. (Separately, we can single out such coping strategies as “turning to religion” and “using alcohol and drugs.”)

An important criterion for the effectiveness of copings is the frequency of their use [McCrae et al., 1986] and their diversity [Hardie et al., 2005]. Indeed, research shows that a diverse coping repertoire can help with problem solving and coping with stress. As the results of R. McCray’s research show, the more often people generally use coping strategies in a stressful situation, the more effectively the problem is solved and subjective stress is reduced to a greater extent. (It remains not entirely clear whether this effect is due to the fact that more active people are more likely to find a solution to the problem, or beliefs (for example, with greater severity of positive factors, a person is more active in using coping and more confident in his actions, i.e. evaluates the result as more effective.) The first hypothesis is supported by the results of studies of the relationship between physical activity, coping and well-being.

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