Learning to cope

An important way of empowering people affected by crisis is the acknowledgement and reinforcement of positive individual (and where possible collective) coping mechanisms. Coping is the process of adapting to a new life situation – managing difficult circumstances, making an effort to solve problems or seeking to minimise, reduce or tolerate stress or conflict.

In general, coping can be seen as successful and positive if it helps people in the process of:

  • Admitting that something distressing has happened
  • Finding a good balance between feelings and thoughts/knowledge about the incident
  • Expressing feelings and thoughts
  • Seeking support and connecting to (significant) others
  • Finding an appropriate language to think and talk about the events
  • Integrating the experiences into one’s life story
  • Active problem-solving
  • Eventually coming to terms with what has happened and looking to the future.

Individuals and communities may also have negative coping mechanisms. It is important to always acknowledge and respect coping strategies as a way of trying to survive, even when they are negative. In these cases, additional professional help is needed and the role of the psychosocial facilitator is to support individuals to connect to their own strengths and resources and to support the use of other, more positive coping mechanisms.

Examples of negative coping mechanisms include:

  • Aggressive or harmful behaviour towards self and others
  • Taking up smoking, drug use or excessive drinking
  • Isolation or avoidance behaviour (avoidance in this context would mean avoiding doing things or going places that may cause anxiety or be a reminder of an experience)
  • A shattered world view or a belief that “all is lost” and reactions of despair, futility and hopeless resignation.

Recovery takes time. Intense negative feelings are common after someone experiences an extremely distressing event. Loss, distress and negative emotions caused by critical events can sometimes prevent or slow the process of recovery. And coping is mostly about regaining the ability to manage difficult feelings, and gradually being able to control them, not about making them suddenly disappear. Optimism, feelings of confidence, and positive expectations can be highly empowering in the aftermath of crisis and are strong predictors of resilience and successful coping mechanisms.

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