Coping with Life’s Lemons

There are many different situations in life that require coping, such as breaking up after dating for several years, getting into a car accident without having insurance, your father developing dementia and needing constant care, the death of a pet, increasing demands at work, being diagnosed with cancer, and many other instances. Coping is what we do to lessen the stress, hurt, or grief that comes from an event we perceive as negative or unwanted.

Right after a stressful event, you might find that it is hard to focus, you feel depressed or fearful, and may have trouble with sleeping or eating well. These are normal and common responses to challenging situations. Depending upon your coping strategies during a stressful event, there are three possible outcomes after the event has passed: survival, recovery, and thriving. Survival happens when a person has a stressful event and manages the stressful event, but loses a lot of hope for their future and their happiness and may never regain their original level of happiness and functioning. Recovery is when a person suffers after a trauma, but returns to their original state after some time. Thriving is similar to recovery, but the person does not return to their original state, they go above it and have higher levels of happiness and hope.

Loss and tragedy are things we never want or welcome, but the way we cope with these can determine our future happiness and well-being. The higher you aim with your coping goals, the more you are likely to achieve. The following are descriptions of various ways to cope with a stressful or challenging event in your life to help improve your well-being and get through the difficult time.

Problem-Focused and Emotion-Focused Coping

There are two main types of coping: problem-focused and emotion-focused. They are pretty straightforward in their meanings. If you use problem-focused coping, you typically like to focus on how to solve a problem and ask yourself, “What can I do to make this situation better or less stressful?” You will generate solutions, weigh the pros and cons of each solution, choose one, and then act on it. People who use emotion-focused coping will try to reduce their negative emotions or the intensity of their emotions around an event.

Both types are equally useful for coping. Problem-focused coping is helpful for reducing the stress of the event or making a problem go away, but not every situation can be solved. In these cases, being able to use emotion-focused coping will benefit you more than problem-focused coping. You may find that you naturally prefer one type of coping over the other, but it is helpful to be able to use both.

Strategies for problem-focused coping:

  • Create a plan for action
  • Seek advice from someone who can help
    • For example, ask a friend or coworker who has had a similar experience or problem as you. Or ask a professional in the field you need help from, like reaching out to an accountant to help you plan a new budget.
  • Focus on this problem only and perhaps put other issues aside until it has passed or been resolved
  • Do what needs to be done, one step at a time, one day at a time

Strategies for emotion-focused coping:

  • Do an activity that makes your feel better or is enjoyable to you
    • Go to the movies, garden, hang out with friends
  • Work out or go for a walk (exercise helps to lift mood)
  • Try to look for something good in what you are going through
  • Learn to accept the emotions that come from the stressful event as this is a part of healing and decide how to channel these emotions in a positive way.
  • It’s okay to feel sad on your daily walks after your dog has died. You can join or start a walking group in your neighborhood to help with these feelings and continue a healthy behavior (rather than stopping your walks).
  • Turn to spiritual beliefs, religion, or meditation
  • Talk to a friend, partner, or family member about what you are feeling and going through
    • Social support is one of the most powerful coping tools if it is high quality support.

Finding Meaning in a Negative Life Event

It may seem almost impossible to find the good in something bad that has happened to us, but doing so can help us overcome the event and have better lives afterwards. Some good things that can come out of bad events are that our relationships can become stronger and deeper. We may even discover who our true friends are. You may find a new level of strength, courage, or maturity within yourself. Or, a new sense of gratefulness for your life and the people in it.

One helpful strategy for finding meaning in something that has happened to you is by writing about it. Try writing about what has happened to you or something that has hurt you in the past for 15 minutes each day for the next four days. Write honestly and really explore your thoughts and feelings regarding the event. Feel free to write about the same topics each day or write about your new state of mind regarding the event.

If you prefer a more guided approach for writing, consider following these steps:

  1. Acknowledge what has happened and the feelings that you have from it (pain, anger, frustration, confusion, etc.)
  2. Ask yourself: What have I done in response to this that I am proud of?
  3. How have I changed and grown as a result?
  4. How has this changed my relationships for the better?
  5. What are other positive things that have come out of this?

Try out some of these strategies as you are dealing with stressful or challenging situations to improve your coping and hopefully thrive after.

Additional Resources:



Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). Managing stress. In, The how of happiness: A new approach to getting the life you want (pp. 150-179). New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Comments are closed.