Proactive coping theory offers tools for handling challenge before it happens
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Note: The following is an excerpt from Dynamic Interactive Adaptability in a Killer Disease: How shifting your perspective on stress can promote growth, resilience, and wellness by Brent Duncan, Ph.D., available on Amazon. Click here for a summary of the Dynamic Interactive Adaptability framework >
Schwarzer and Taubert (2002) discuss a cognitive-transactional theory of stress that recognizes the reciprocal and continuous interaction between the individual and the environment. In this framework, stress is how people appraise and interpret environmental events that they perceive will tax their resources or threaten their well-being. Lazarus (1991) presented a process of emotion that consists of antecedents, mediating processes, and effects. Antecedents include personal resources and objective demands. Individual resources are factors such as wealth, relationships, skills, values, and beliefs. Objective demands include critical events and situational constraints. Mediating processes are the cognitive appraisals of resources and demands related to coping efforts.
Leveraging goal management to tap the positive experiences of stress
Building on the Lazarus’ cognitive-transactional theory of stress framework, Schwarzer and Taubert (2002) proposed a proactive coping theory, which provides functional strategies that use goal-oriented and long-term behaviors that allow people to anticipate and handle perceptions of stressors positively before the stressors are even faced. A key to functional coping strategy is to shift focus from “mere responses to negative events toward a broader range of risk and goal management that includes the active creation of opportunities and the positive experience of stress” (p. 10). Schwarzer and Taubert emphasize that stressors do not necessarily exist except through the interpretation of the individual. Goals and expectations may create opportunities and risks. Striving for rewards, goals, and benefits can generate unanticipated stress.
Schwarzer and Taubert observe that stress can reflect past and future encounters and that these encounters can be either certain or uncertain. An individual may suffer from distressing events earlier in life, may struggle with current events, and may fear future events. Mourning the past, fearing the present, and dreading the future do not generally combine as a functional coping strategy. Due to the complexity of stress, especially in social contexts, coping cannot be accomplished by merely understanding and managing fight-and-flight and rest-and-relax modes. Functional coping depends on context, perspective, pre-action, and reaction. “One can cope before a stressful event takes place, while it is happening, or afterward” (p. 7).
Proactive coping framework
Schwarzer and Taubert (2002) identify four coping strategies that exist on planes between past harm and future threats, and certain or uncertain: reactive, anticipatory, preventive, and proactive.
Reactive coping refers to how people deal with harm from past and present experience, like a divorce, criticism from a boss, or getting fired. The individual develops strategies for compensating for loss or alleviating harm. Dysfunctional methods of reactive coping include holding grudges, wallowing in misery long after the event passes, and falsely tainting perceptions of current and future experiences. The functional way people reactively cope is to find meaning in the experience, recognize benefits, and adjust goals and life perspectives that will help them to develop resilience.
Anticipatory coping refers to dealing with imminent events that may be threatening or challenging, like a test or a job interview. Anticipatory coping strategies can include engaging in problem-solving, increasing effort, enlisting help, and investing resources. A key to successful anticipatory coping is to develop coping self-efficacy, meaning, the optimistic belief that the individual can meet the challenge.
Preventive coping is a risk management strategy that allows individuals to prepare for critical events that may or may not occur in the distant future; for example, getting fired, robbed, injured, or hit by a natural disaster. Since preventive coping deals with ambiguous uncertainties, it involves a spectrum of coping behaviors designed to minimize the severity of future events by strengthening resilience. For example, saving money, buying insurance, getting out of debt, strengthening relationships, getting another degree, diversifying skills, stocking guns and food supply, learning first aid, making plans “just in case.” Although some can experience anxiety about future uncertain events, preventive coping is generally sparked more by worry than by anxiety. Coping self-efficacy serves as a prerequisite to planning and carrying out the strategies that can strengthen resilience against future uncertainties.
Proactive coping is a goal management strategy that provides an individual with the perception that future risks and threats are demanding situations that offer opportunities for personal growth. Proactive coping provides positive steps toward a constructive path for life improvement that builds resources that ensure progress toward and quality of performance. Proactive coping facilitates better conditions and higher performance levels that foster a more meaningful and purposeful life. Proactive coping allows the individual to tap the productive arousal and vital energy of stress rather than react passively to life events.
Limitations of proactive coping theory
Although proactive coping theory seems to provide a functional strategy for developing resilience to grow from experiences while strengthening adaptability to future events, it is missing at least two critical coping strategies. Most glaring is a category for existential coping, how people interpret and cope with immediate events that can be certain, imagined, or distorted. Similarly, the theory does not seem to consider a category for false memory coping, how people cope with imagined or distorted past events. Imagined events may seem just as real to the individual as certain events. However, recognizing the limitations of subjective memory might help facilitate functional coping strategies more grounded in reality.
Duncan, B. (2017). Dynamic Interactive Adaptability in a killer disease: How shifting your perspective on stress can promote growth, resilience, and wellness. Retrieved from Donnach.com: http://donnach.com/index.php/en/explorations/learning/adult-development/168-how-shifting-your-perspective-on-stress-can-promote-growth-resilience-and-wellness
Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. London: Oxford University Press.
Schwarzer, R., & Taubert, S. (2002). Tenacious goal pursuits and striving toward personal growth: Proactive coping. In E. Frydenberg, Beyond coping: Meeting goals, visions and challenges (pp. 19-35). London, England: Oxford University Press. Retrieved Schwarzer, R., & Taubert, S. (2002).