Emotion-focused coping involves managing your emotional response to a situation instead of trying to solve the problem itself.

When you’re going through a stressful or difficult time, how do you cope?

Some people cope by trying to solve whatever problem they’re faced with. For example, if you’re feeling lonely, you could join a local group to try to make new friends. If you’re stressed at work, you might find ways to set stronger work-life boundaries or look for a new job.

This is called problem-focused coping. But not everyone copes with stress and challenges this way.

Other people may change the way they feel about the situation, instead of fixing the issue itself. This is called emotion-focused coping.

For example, instead of trying to meet new people, you might journal when you feel lonely to try to process what you’re feeling. Or you might practice mindfulness to manage your work-related stress rather than looking for a new position.

You might not always do one or the other, either.

Depending on each situation, you could choose emotion-focused or problem-focused coping. How they help you manage depends on many factors, including how the challenge may be affecting you.

Sometimes, you might even choose to approach a situation with both emotion-focused and problem-focused coping techniques.

Any type of coping strategy that involves trying to change your emotional reaction to a stressful event can be considered emotion-focused coping. The concept was first introduced in the 1980s by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman.

If you experience anxiety, sadness, anger, or fear during an event that’s out of your control, emotion-focused coping can help you manage these emotions by reducing their effect on you.

Although there’s not much recent research on emotion-focused coping, some older studies indicate that it can sometimes help people become more prepared for life’s hardships.

In a 2015 study, emotion-focused coping, also called emotional approach coping, was associated with:

  • increased positive thinking
  • stronger personal resources
  • less negative affect (feeling)

The researchers of this study concluded that people who often relied on emotion-focused coping developed more resilience and higher levels of general well-being.

However, not all research supports emotion-focused coping as the best way to deal with stress. In fact, this coping strategy has faced some controversy because, in some studies, it’s linked to negative outcomes.

It’s important to note, though, that some of these studies have focused on maladaptive emotion-focused coping only, like avoidant behaviors. For example, some people cope with a problem by not thinking about it or keeping busy. In general, avoidance isn’t considered an effective coping response.

Other types of emotion-focused coping strategies that may not be effective include:

  • denying the issue
  • suppressing (pushing down) emotions
  • giving up on the situation
  • using substances to deal with painful emotions

Emotion-focused coping strategies aren’t all about avoidance, though. They can also involve confronting, exploring, and understanding your feelings about a situation.

This type of emotional approach to coping can be effective when managing:

Problem-focused coping, on the other hand, seems to be more effective for depression and loneliness, based on findings in a self-reported study from 2013 and a review of scientific literature from 2018, respectively.

Again, though, some of these studies on problem-focused coping compare it to only maladaptive emotion-focused coping strategies, like avoidance and denial, rather than beneficial strategies.

These are a few strategies that may make emotion-focused coping more effective when dealing with life challenges:

1. Journaling

Journaling can be an excellent way to become more aware of and deal with painful emotions.

When done in the correct way, it’s been shown to have mental health benefits for symptoms of:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • trauma

When you’re journaling, you may want to avoid ruminating on negative situations. Instead, you can try to explore and express your emotions and consider identifying actionable steps to change your emotional perspective on the challenge you’re facing.

For example, once you’ve expressed how the challenge or situation makes you feel, you can try to acknowledge those emotions and take judgment away from them. You could write something like, “I am angry this happened to me. Anger is a natural emotion, and I have the right to feel this way.”

2. Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a way to notice your emotions about a stressful event in a nonjudgmental way. It’s been shown to have profound benefits for mental health, including managing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.

It’s best to incorporate mindfulness meditation into your routine instead of trying to use it only when you’re going through a difficult situation.

You can practice mindfulness in many ways. One of the most popular ones is with breathing exercises.

To do this, it’s recommended that you sit quietly and simply notice your breath as it goes in and out. When thoughts or feelings come up, try to simply notice them and then return your attention to your breathing.

3. Forgiveness

When you’re dealing with a broken heart or feel someone hurt or betrayed you, forgiveness may be one of the best emotion-focused coping strategies.

One 2007 research review suggests that practicing forgiveness can improve your overall health and heal your relationships.

Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to tolerate what they’ve done. Instead, you can let go of the hurt they caused you and choose to move on with your life. This may involve a process of internally facing the way this person has made you feel.

Self-forgiveness can also be a great way to cope with emotional pain by focusing on your emotions instead of the challenge itself.

4. Acceptance

Radical acceptance is a concept borrowed from dialectical behavior therapy. It might be especially useful in situations that are out of your control.

For example, if you live with a chronic health condition or if something traumatic happened to you, you may not be able to change the facts of the situation. Practicing radical acceptance means you stop fighting the reality of what’s in front of you.

Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you have to be fine with what happened. Instead, it means that you choose to make peace with the challenge or event, changing your emotional response to it.

A 2017 study including survivors of childhood sexual abuse found that as they practiced more radical acceptance, feelings of shame and guilt decreased.

5. Talking about it

Suppressing emotions can be an example of maladaptive emotion-focused coping. Its opposite may be openly acknowledging and expressing your emotions. You can do this with yourself, by journaling for example, or with a trusted loved one or a mental health professional.

You can see a therapist to explore possible solutions to your problems. This could be an example of problem-focused coping. You can also see a therapist to explore how you really feel and express your feelings openly, which is an example of emotion-focused coping. Both options are valid and can be helpful.

In 2021 study, researchers found that strong social support is a protective factor against the negative effects of stress.

There’s no rule that says that you need to choose between problem-focused or emotion-focused coping strategies.

While you may tend to rely on one more than the other, depending on your circumstances and personality traits, you can also make a conscious decision to use coping strategies from both methods.

For example, let’s say you’re experiencing high levels of stress at work.

You might take a problem-focused coping approach by strengthening boundaries and talking with your manager about your concerns. While you do these things, you can also take an emotion-focused approach to your stress by journaling or practicing mindfulness meditation.

It doesn’t need to be one or the other.

Like any other type of coping, emotion-focused strategies can be either maladaptive or supportive. When done adequately, emotion-focused coping help you deal with situations that are out of your control.

Other situations may call for a more problem-focused approach. You don’t have to choose between focusing on your emotions or on the challenge; you can use whatever coping strategies are most appropriate for your situation.

Journaling and meditating may be two ways to apply emotion-focused coping.

It’s important that you keep yourself in check so you don’t repress or avoid emotions. Instead, consider approaching them directly and exploring and expressing them with honesty.