If you're living with a chronic illness, you're in the right place.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Emotion Focused Coping

5:17 AM Posted by Tiffany Taft , , , , ,
A couple weeks ago I wrote about To Treat or Not to Treat...a question that many people living with a chronic illness face when the effects of the treatment begin to outweigh its benefits.  In that post I mentioned something called Emotion-Focused Coping, which is one of many psychobabbly terms floating around in my brain.  So what the heck is that?

I think it's best to start with a different concept that I talk about a lot with my clients, something we all do every day of our lives:  problem solving.
Actual Church on Chicago's West Side.  Sadly, it closed.
Some problems are incredibly simple to find a solution for.  I had the problem of what type of K-cup to make for my coffee this morning: the Donut House regular or the Green Mountain English Toffee.  It (thankfully?) didn't take much mental energy or time for me to solve that problem.  Some problems are incredibly complex, with many sub-parts/problems, and several possible solutions.  Deciding where to move, buying a house, picking a college, handling an overly-demanding boss, removing friends from our lives who turn out to be toxic, etc.

Back to the psychobabble.

There are 3 main types of coping strategies that everyone uses:  Problem-focused coping, Emotion-focused coping, and Meaning-focused coping.  Today I'll talk about the first 2.

Problem-focused coping involves trying to take control of the situation (i.e. problem) and attempting to find a viable solution.  This type of coping involves gathering information, brainstorming possible solutions, evaluating your options, implementing your decision, and evaluating the results once you've done it.  The ultimate goal of problem-focused coping is to remove or change what is causing us stress.

Climbing the Bavarian Alps with a small child on his back and still looking good.
Applied to the chronic illness world, most people use problem-focused coping when they first get sick.  Here's a simple example:

  • Problem:  I wake up feeling like the Tin Man from Oz most mornings and my joints really hurt.
  • Gather information:  Check reputable online sources. Talk to friends, family.  
  • Possible solutions:  Ignore it.  Take some OTC pain killers. Try hot yoga. Call the doctor. Get a massage.
  • Pick one:  Call the doctor.
  • Implement:  Actually go to the doctor
  • Evaluate:  He gave me some orders for some tests to see what's going on.  At least I'll get some answers.
So what happens when a problem, or part of a problem, doesn't have a solution?  For many of us, it often feels like there has to be a solution, somewhere.  If I just keep trying, eventually I'm going to fix this problem.  Unfortunately that isn't always the case, and trying to solve problems without solutions only leads to more stress, frustration, anxiety, and depression.

Also known to cause frustration and depression.
Once we decide that a problem isn't solvable, we then turn to Emotion-Focused Coping.  This involves acceptance, seeking support from our friends and loved ones, seeing a therapist, using spirituality if that suits you, or using distraction techniques to put the source of your stress out of your mind.  The goal of this type of coping is to try to reduce negative feelings like anger, fear, worry, sadness, or embarrassment. 

Emotion-focused coping is generally thought of as being the less desirable coping strategy because it can look a lot like denial or that the person is just throwing in the towel.  

Be a thinker, not a stinker.
That's not the point at all, and the acceptance of a problem as being beyond our control to change can be quite freeing.  When used appropriately, emotion-focused coping can relieve the stress that problem-focused coping applied to an unsolvable problem can cause.

Back to applying this to the chronic illness world and the treatment issue.

A person living with Parkinson's disease has sought out all of the possible treatments available and continues to have symptoms, albeit less severe than before starting treatment. Some of the treatments she tried had horrible side effects which she couldn't handle, even though her symptoms were better than they are now.  She has received more than 1 opinion that there really aren't any other treatments available and this is the best she's going to feel.  To cope, she reaches out to her close friend who has been there for her the whole time to vent her frustrations, decides to take a vacation with her family, and devote her energy to raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  With all of this, she begins to accept that she cannot change her situation and acknowledges that she's done everything she can to get better.  She vows to enjoy her good days and take it easy during her not so good days.  I'll stop there as I'm getting into Meaning-focused coping territory.

To summarize, remember the 5 As of Emotion-Focused Coping:
  1. Acknowledge that the problem is not solvable
  2. Accept that you've done all you can
  3. Assess your feelings about the situation
  4. Ask others for emotional support
  5. Avert your attention from the problem to other outlets

Dr. T