Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a relationship between people's emotional maturity and the sort of coping methods they prefer. Less emotionally mature people tend to prefer rather primitive and often inefficient coping methods , while more mature folks lean towards more sophisticated and more useful methods. The less mature methods also tend to have in common that their use is not premeditated or conscious in nature, but rather fairly reactive, not well thought out, and unconscious. As coping methods increase in maturity and sophistication, they become correspondingly more deliberate and conscious in nature, and also tend to be used more proactively, rather than simply reactively.
The study of coping methods has a long history. The topic was originally described by psychodynamic psychotherapists (including Dr. Freud) who called them defense mechanisms. The defense mechanism literature was largely focused on mental illness and the ways that various primitive mechanisms served largely to maintain serious illness rather than help reduce it. Later, more cognitively oriented researchers began a separate study of coping that focused more on mental health, and ways that mature coping methods could be taught to enhance health. Though some authors suggest that the term defense mechanisms should be reserved for describing primitive, immature coping strategies, and the term "coping methods" for more mature, useful coping efforts, it doesn't really matter what label is used to describe the different coping methods from our perspective; they are all just people's attempts at coping.
The most primitive of the defense mechanisms are considered to be primitive because they fundamentally rely on blatant misrepresentation or outright ignoring of reality in order to function. These mechanisms flourish in situations (and minds) where emotion trumps reason and impulsivity rules the day. Children use them naturally and normally, but then again, children are by definition emotionally immature and not held to a higher standard as are adults. When adults use these methods on a regular basis, it is an indication that their emotional development is at some level delayed.
- Denial; an outright refusal or inability to accept some aspect of reality that is troubling. For example: "this thing has not happened" when it actually has.
- Intellectualization; Overwhelming feelings or thoughts about an event are handled by isolating their meaning from the feelings accompanying the meaning, and focusing on the meaning in isolation. For example, you cope with the recent death of a parent by reading about the grieving process.
Coping strategies refer to the specific efforts, both behavioral and psychological, that people employ to master, tolerate, reduce, or minimize stressful events. Two general coping strategies have been distinguished: problem-solving strategies are efforts to do something active to alleviate stressful circumstances, whereas emotion-focused coping strategies involve efforts to regulate the emotional consequences of stressful or potentially stressful events. Research indicates that people use both types of strategies to combat most stressful events (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). The predominance of one type of strategy over another is determined, in part, by personal style (e.g., some people cope more actively than others) and also by the type of stressful event; for example, people typically employ problem-focused coping to deal with potential controllable problems such as work-related problems and family-related problems, whereas stressors perceived as less controllable, such as certain kinds of physical health problems, prompt more emotion-focused coping.
An additional distinction that is often made in the coping literature is between active and avoidant coping strategies. Active coping strategies are either behavioral or psychological responses designed to change the nature of the stressor itself or how one thinks about it, whereas avoidant coping strategies lead people into activities (such as alcohol use) or mental states (such as withdrawal) that keep them from directly addressing stressful events. Generally speaking, active coping strategies, whether behavioral or emotional, are thought to be better ways to deal with stressful events, and avoidant coping strategies appear to be a psychological risk factor or marker for adverse responses to stressful life events (Holahan & Moos, 1987).