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What is coping: A look at the theoretical development of coping as a phenomenon and its development to concepts of infant resilience

A look at the theoretical development of coping as a phenomenon and its development to concepts of infant resilience, by Diana Skibniewski-Woods.

Author: Diana Skibniewski-Woods, SCPHN health visitor, currently undertaking a research PhD in health science at Swansea University.

Research summary

  • Coping is a complex psychological phenomenon that involves the ability to overcome challenges and setbacks.
  • Thriving despite adversity is linked to dispositional optimism, with characteristics such as curiosity, imagination, emotional responsiveness and openness to experience.
  • The depletion of coping resources can lead to a need to replenish and recover.
  • Young children rely predominantly on their parents for emotional regulation and gradually increase their use of cognitive strategies to become more independent within their coping abilities.
  • Coping can be viewed as a characteristic of human adaptation.
  • Coping effectiveness can be improved by combining emotion-focused and problem-focused approaches.  
  • Coping mechanisms can be maladaptive if based on experiences that are misinterpreted or false.


The aim of this paper is to explore the development of coping theory and its extension into attachment theory. A general background review of the literature on coping and resilience, and coping and attachment was carried out, which has highlighted the multidimensional understanding of coping and resilience theory developed over many years. 

Coping can be viewed from different perspectives and can be stratified in many ways, such as emotion-focused coping; problem-focused coping; conscious coping; automatic coping; and personality-related coping. Maternal-infant attachment can be considered an evolutionary force, which can contribute to coping abilities and resilience – this is an area for further study.

Study aim

This review is part of a wider research study into the coping mechanisms of mothers who have experienced mental health difficulties. A broad background review of the literature was undertaken in order to understand the historical development of coping theory, which may serve to inform and contextualise the study, and this paper is a discussion of the findings. A specific integrative literature review into coping as a phenomenon with reference to mothering with a mental illness was also completed and written up separately (Skibniewski-Woods, 2022 – Community Practitioner, July-August issue).


This background review of the literature is written using a narrative style; there is an inclusion of opinion as well as theoretical and conceptual ideas in order to allow a broad understanding of the subject. Broad search terms – for example ‘motherhood’, ‘maternal mental illness’, ‘postnatal depression’, ‘resilience’, ‘attachment’ and ‘coping’ – were used. The process involved reading as widely as possible and following concepts through to explore, for example, specific coping strategies and understandings, including both adaptive and maladaptive coping responses.



Coping is a complex psychological phenomenon, defined as ‘managing or dealing with something successfully’ (Dooner et al, 2011: 133). During the 1960s the term ‘coping’ began to be used within social and medical sciences to describe the appraisal of an event as stressful and interwoven with coping abilities (Snyder and Dinoff, 1999). Salovey et al (1999) primarily interpret coping as a response to emotions. However, the concept of coping has developed within mental healthcare provision to involve a set of cognitive and affective responses to stress and adversity (Linehan, 2015). 

Lazarus (1999: 160) describes coping as an individual’s attempt to restore ‘integrity’ or self-mastery and ‘verve’ or energy, thereby regaining a sense of wholeness and internal consistency, and very much links the three concepts of stress, emotion and coping as three parts of a whole relationship. Coping may not be able to terminate stress, but rather can often manage it by tolerating it or accepting the distress (Lazarus, 1999). Coping potential arises from a person’s conviction that they are able or not able to act in a way that can ameliorate or eliminate a harm or threat, or bring about a benefit or meet a challenge (Lazarus, 1999: 93). 

Jana et al (2016) differentiate problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, adaptive coping and maladaptive coping. Adaptive coping can be seen as forward-looking, flexible, largely conscious and attentive to reality. Maladaptive coping, on the other hand, tends to be rigid in operation, unconscious, distorting of reality and largely attending to issues in the past (Snyder and Dinoff, 1999). Coping may be considered to include responses that would not necessarily be envisaged in the understanding of resilience. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) argue that there is a need to be open-minded to the possibility that coping can work well or not according to the individual, the context or the occasion. 

Emotion-focused coping centres on the individual controlling emotional responses to prevent being overwhelmed by emotion, either through seeking emotional support, placing the problem in context or putting a more positive outlook onto the problem (Snyder and Dinoff, 1999). Problem-focused coping seeks to find a solution to a particular difficulty, controlling or changing the source of the stress by learning new skills, removing barriers or generating alternative solutions (Snyder, 1999). 

Coping can be either a conscious process or an automatic response that is outside our awareness (Snyder and Dinoff, 1999). They cite the idea found in Lazarus (1966) of a stressor/coping fulcrum, where stressors are only interpreted as excessive when they exceed existing coping strategies. Both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping can be used in conjunction. However, success depends on the person choosing the right coping response for the specific stressor within an appropriate context. 

A crucial factor in coping is the ability to overcome challenges and setbacks: thriving in the face of adversity is linked to dispositional optimism, with characteristics such as curiosity, imagination, emotional responsiveness and openness to experience helping people meet challenges with a philosophical reorientation and a new direction in life planning (Peterson and Moon, 1999). Recognising the role of our fundamental assumptions and concepts of self in coping as a phenomenon is important, because coping involves negotiating a path between experience and assumptions (Jan Olf-Bulman, 1999). 

Anna Freud (1992, originally published 1936) extended her father Sigmund’s work on a psychodynamic model of coping in which coping mechanisms are termed as defence mechanisms. These include repression, regression, isolation, reaction formation, undoing, introjection, projection reversal, sublimation and turning against self. She also added intellectualisation, ego restriction, identifying with the aggressor and denial. Lazarus and Folkman (1984: 156) find that ‘defence’ involves the ‘maintenance of the integration of the personality and the control of feeling states’. 

Buckley (2019) differentiated between coping and defence mechanisms, finding that there are significant differences. Defence mechanisms occur without conscious effort or awareness; are instinctive; function to change an internal psychological state but may have no effect on external reality; tend to be habitual and rigid in application; and can result in distortions of reality. Coping strategies, meanwhile, require purposeful effort; are carried out with intent; are reality based; can be developed as a skill and can change over time (Buckley, 2019). Importantly, however, Buckley (2019) finds that they can be used simultaneously. Lazarus and Folkman (1984: 128) emphasise the imperative of distinguishing coping from automatised adaptive behaviour, and do not acknowledge that coping is always necessarily constructive.

The complexity and scope of defence mechanisms is reflective of human intelligence and ingenuity combined with the basic survival instincts that have developed throughout human evolution. Darwin’s work on the significance of natural selection (2011, originally published 1859) includes ideas about adaptability that are pivotal to evolutionary theory; in a way our ability to withstand adversity may be viewed as part of this process, just as Bowlby (1971) identifies maternal-infant attachment as a survival-based evolutionary force.

The ‘maintaining proximity’ behaviour and ‘restoring it when it has been impaired’ that Bowlby (1971: 255) discusses continues into adult life, where ‘in conditions of sudden danger or disaster a person will almost certainly seek proximity to another known and trusted person’. Bowlby (1971: 256) disagrees that this is regressive behaviour in its nature and points out that it is a vital behaviour ‘in the life of man from the cradle to the grave’. Whichever way this aspect of evolutionary attachment behaviour is looked at, the similarities to social and emotional coping strategies are striking. Questions surrounding how we learn coping strategies follow on more clearly in that it seems obvious that some coping strategies are learnt. Moreover, it is probably an aim of many parents that they enable their children to cope with adversity, and this in a hermeneutic way brings us back to evolution and the survival of the fittest. 

Vitaliano et al (1985) looked at The Ways of Coping Checklist, which comprised seven scales:

  • Problem-focused – making a plan of action and following it
  • Wishful thinking – wishing you could change the situation
  • Growth – changing or growing as a person in a good way
  • Minimise threat – making light of situation
  • Seek social support – talking to others, accepting support
  • Blamed self – taking responsibility for the situation.
  • Avoidant strategies – not believing in situation.
  • Help seeking strategies – seeking advice.

They found that the scale was a suitable measure of coping strategies (Vitaliano et al, 1985). However, coping as a phenomenon may not be measured as a routine strategy within mental health today. 

Baumeister et al (1999) discuss the consequences of the depletion of coping resources, leading to a need to replenish and recover. The person may only return to normal when they have recovered from the coping process and replenished the resources that were depleted (Rothbaum et al, 1982). Recovery from stress and coping may require that the person finds a way to live that does not make serious demands on the self (Rothbaum et al, 1982). 

Resilience, coping and attachment 

There is an apparent lack of consensus regarding an operational definition of ‘resilience’, despite the concept being significant in diverse disciplines including psychology, sociology, biology, genetics, epigenetics, endocrinology, and neuroscience (Herrman et al, 2011). The term ‘resilience’ is described by Rutter (1999) as an individual’s ability to be resistant to psychosocial risk experiences. He suggests, however, that ‘there is no expectation that protection from stress and adversity should lie in positive experiences’ (Rutter, 1999: 120). It is the experiences of adversity that can prepare us to face other challenges. Variations in our ability to respond to risk and adversity therefore come from our prior experiences (Rutter, 1999). Herbert et al (2013) describe resilience as compromising a complex repertoire of behaviours including patterns of thought, perception, and decision, all of which act together to help withstand threatening or challenging situations. Individuals may respond to challenges with varying degrees of resilience and vulnerability (Herbert et al, 2013).

Schore (2003) explores the formation of resilience in infancy, finding that the capacity of the child and parent to transition from positive affective states to negative, and back to positive again, characterises resilience; the infant learns that negative states can be tolerated. In this way, resilience can be seen as part of attachment relationships and an individual’s pivotal attachment relationship may crucially affect the ability of that person to be resilient. 

Schore (2003) goes further, suggesting that the central adaptive function of attachment is to interactively generate and maintain the optimal levels of positive states for the infant and child. The child internalises these skilled transitions to become able to respond resiliently in the future. The growth of the brain during infancy is sculpted by early experiences, with healthy relationships providing optimal functioning, which in turn allows individuals to think well of themselves, trust others, regulate emotions and maintain positive expectations. Resilience, therefore, is essentially our ability to utilize intellectual and emotional intelligence in real time problem solving (Cozolino, 2006). Aldwin (2011) finds that very young children rely predominantly on their parents for emotional regulation and gradually increase their use of cognitive strategies to become more independent within their coping abilities. 

Unfortunately, when the early experiences of an infant are fearful, it may lead to an individual being on high alert and hypersensitive to stress (Howe, 2011) – the resultant effect is compromising to resilience. Hypervigilant alarm systems flood the brain with neurochemical and hormonal responses which can, over time, impair the functioning of the limbic system and critically affect rationality at times of stress (Karr-Morse and Wiley, 1997). While passive stress may be important for healthy development, resilience is more likely to be attained when an individual can avoid strong, frequent or prolonged stress (Herrman et al, 2011). 

Exposure to threat and danger increases the probability of dysfunctional adaptation (Crittenden and Landini, 2011). Crittenden (2008) introduced the dynamic maturational model (DMM) of attachment, which was developed out of the work by Bowlby (1988; 1980; 1973; 1971) as well as Ainsworth’s work on the theory and models of attachment (Ainsworth et al, 1978). The DMM approach finds that adults develop an array of coping strategies, which are developmentally expanded from attachment schema in infancy to include later developing and more complex strategies (Crittenden and Landini, 2011). The DMM represents a conceptualisation of the self-protective strategies that individuals develop across the lifespan; the greater the level of perceived stress or danger, then potentially the more complex the response will be (Crittenden and Landini, 2011). However, if there is an overreliance on past experience in current contexts, behaviour may be maladaptive; especially when information understood in the past was missing, ambiguous or false (Crittenden and Landini, 2011).  


The development of an infant’s coping abilities within supportive maternal-infant attachment relationships appears to be significant in the development of resilience. Healthy relationships provide optimal functioning and allow individuals to develop the coping skills to deal with adversity. Coping can be viewed as a characteristic of human adaptation (Zautra and Reich, 2011), and coping theory can contribute to our understanding of coping within families. The study of coping development within infant attachment relationships and research into how to promote coping and resilience are important areas for further research. 


Lazarus and Folkman (1984) find that coping effectiveness can be viewed as requiring two factors: the regulation of distress and the functional management of a problem, thereby combining and appropriately matching an emotion-focused approach and a problem-focused approach. The strategies that we develop to ‘cope’ are driven by the self and aimed at reduction of the psychological burden on the self. The concepts that surround coping are relevant to all community practitioners who support families. The development of the infant within the context of loving supportive relationships can support the development of both emotional regulation and problem solving coping abilities, which result in coping capacity in times of stress that emerge as resilience. 


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