Emotional and Functional Coping

Posted by in Musings




While in a recent biopyschosocial class, the lecturer discussed some very interesting concepts.  The majority of the lecture was focused on the full range of patient centric care, but there was one component that he brought up that resonated with me: functional and emotional coping.  The two, non-mutally exclusive, forms of coping are important aspects when holistically treating patients, and recognizing how to fulfill both is of the utmost importance to deal with any problem.  So first things first…time to define our terms.

The first of the two is functional coping.  Functional coping is when “there is a problem, what are the things I need to solve the problem?”  Our lecturer used to example that studying for a test helps to functional cope with the anxiety of the test.  By studying, you are taking proactive steps to solving the problem.

Emotional coping is less focused on dealing with the problem itself, but more how that person is personally, mentally or emotionally dealing with the problem.  Now the when “there is a problem, what can I do to deal with the problem in terms of my mental health?”  Back to the studying for a test example, instead a person may take a much needed break and go on a run, just to relieve some stress.  Or even go on Facebook, play video games, or talk to some friends on the phone.  It’s entirely different way of addressing the problem, but equally effective.

Since first hearing about these forms of coping, I’ve contemplated a lot about them.  Superficially, I was rather shocked to think that ‘face booking’ was a form of emotional coping.  I always just considered it a means for distraction, disregarding that by taking a break from work and/or studying was providing actual value to my emotional health.  Taking a reprieve from whatever I may be doing helps me stay sane.  Almost makes me feel justified to play video games even when I KNOW i should be studying.

When delving into it further, I mulled over many other thoughts.  I wonder, are there differences in which form is favored based on a person’s age?  Do children cope with issues differently than an adult?  What about the elderly?  And there is an added layer of complexity when one person is helping another of a different age group cope with their problems.

What about gender differences?  Do men and women prefer one form over the other?

And of course, what about individual differences?  Well, it’s a no brainer that this is obviously the case, but what are the characteristic traits that are typically biased towards one end of the spectrum?  Take the Meyers-Briggs psychological profiles for example; can we see any correlations when comparing ones profile to style of coping?

I realize that each of these conceptual questions could lead into an intense debate with many different opinions and perspectives, but just recognizing the existence of differences is intriguing in itself.  It’s especially important to consider the third idea–individual preference.  Not everyone is the same, therefore the strategies one may use to help others should, and will, differ.

As a future doctor, this last take home is constantly inundated throughout our curriculum.  Additionally, a classmate reminded me that these two forms of coping “are not mutually exclusive but are often seen as different approaches” and that “the emotional aspect, I believe is often as important and will influence your ability as a physician to recognize and address the functional problem.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  These forms represent two methods toward a similar goal, and therefore should be employed together for effective coping.  To go further, each person requires varying degrees of each form.  Speaking personally, I’m a 90% functional coper, so the vast majority of my coping efforts are focused on finding the cause of the problem and attempting to solve it.  Others may see it differently.

It’s important to determine how you cope.  Fundamentally each person copes with things differently, so by understanding how you deal with problems can better help you find others who differ from you to better help you cope.  The emotional coper may fail to address the problem at hand, and it’ll never get fix.  The functional coper may solve the underlying problem, but never address that emotional damage it may have caused, and be perpetually plagued by the issue.  Thus each needs the opposite to help provide perspective.

For the rest of our lives, we’ll have to cope with new challenges.  So learn what kind of coper you are, because awareness of what you need is the first step to deal with any issue.