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Choosing the Right Coping Strategy

Written by Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; 
Courage to change the things I can; 
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

The words of the serenity prayer may be familiar to you from religious teachings, self-help groups, or pop culture. The central idea in this adage is that no one strategy is the right approach to every situation– some situations require external change and others require a shift in our internal perceptions. New research provides evidence that living by the serenity prayer is good for mental health and identifies one dimension we can use to choose the best strategy for coping with a given stressor.

Researchers followed 74 people over the course of a week, having them report 10 times each day on their situation and whether they were using a particular cognitive strategy for cultivating that elusive serenity and acceptance. The researchers were interested in the use of cognitive reappraisal- reinterpreting a situation in a less negative way. For example, let’s say you have a couple of difficult weeks ahead at work. You could think to yourself “This is the worst! I can already tell that I’m going to have to pull lots of long nights in the office and my boss is so cranky that she’ll never appreciate how hard I’m working.” That kind of thinking is likely to cultivate negative emotions, like anger and despair. Alternatively, you could reappraise the situation to have a more neutral thought like “There will be some long days in the next few weeks, but probably some days I can leave on time, and it’ll be over once that deadline has passed.” You might even have a positive reappraisal like “This is a great chance for me to prove how valuable I am to the company, and when it’s over, I’m treating myself to a massage!”, which might create feelings of determination and hopefulness. Being able to generate neutral or positive thoughts in response to stressful situations is a good skill to have, and teaching cognitive reappraisal is one of the major components of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 

But it turns out that even a good skill isn’t useful for all of our emotional challenges, just like a hammer isn’t a great tool for making toast. What the researchers found when they followed the participants for a week was that people with the highest levels of well-being used cognitive reappraisal mostly in situations that were out of their control; it wasn’t a top-choice strategy when the situation might be better dealt with by direct change. In contrast, using more cognitive reappraisal in situations that are controllable was associated with depression and stress.

The findings of this study suggest that the best coping strategy depends on the situation- -and that changing your thinking is a good way to cope when the problems you’re facing are beyond your control. 

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