New research suggests that most Americans are coping with many sources of stress as they go about their day-to-day lives. A survey of American adults found that over half experience significant stress in their lives from worrying about things like the future of the nation, violence and crime, personal finance and the economy, mass shootings, social divisiveness, and health care. Nearly three in 10 adults report experiencing too much stress in their everyday life to think about the future. Roughly three-fourths of adults report experiencing recent psychological difficulties due to their stress. Clearly, stress is a familiar experience for most of us.

Understanding how people choose to cope with stress has important implications for their well-being. We wanted to know what strategies people use for coping with negative emotions that result from stress, and when they prefer one type of coping strategy over another. We set out to answer these questions in our research.

A Tale of Two Coping Strategies

Stress can result from feeling unsafe due to threats in the environment. The past few years have produced no shortage of examples, including the COVID-19 pandemic, social injustices, economic calamities, climate-related disasters, and the waging wars in Ukraine and Gaza. How do people cope with the negative emotions that arise from feeling unsafe?

Prior research shows that people generally adopt one of two strategies for coping. On the one hand, people might do things that help address the root cause of their stress. This is known as problem-focused coping. In the case of stress from feeling unsafe, this may lead people to buy home security systems, wear protective equipment such as bike helmets, seatbelts, and masks, or increase their physical fitness through diet and exercise, for example. On the other hand, people might try to deal with the emotional toll of their stress. This is known as emotion-focused coping. In this case, people might indulge in comfort foods like chocolate, pizza, and candy, distract themselves with movies or video games, or immerse themselves in pleasant hobbies, for example.

How We Cope Depends on What's Available to Us

While prior research provides extensive documentation of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping, researchers still know surprisingly little about when people are more likely to favor one strategy over the other. Our research sheds light on this issue. We conducted a series of studies involving more than 2,500 U.S. college students and found that the strategy people prefer depends on whether they can engage in behaviors that can address the source of stress right now or only in the future.

For example, in some studies, we asked participants to imagine feeling unsafe from being in a crime-ridden neighborhood. We then assessed their desire for certain products and varied the products that were made available to them. When products helped address the cause of their safety-related stress immediately (for example, a neighborhood surveillance app), participants rated them as highly desirable. When products only helped address their safety-related stress in the future (for example, healthy food that makes people more physically fit over time), they rated products that helped make them feel better in the here and now (such as comfort food) as more desirable. So, whether people focus on addressing the source of stress or the feelings it creates depends on whether they have options that address the source of the stress now or in the future.

Implications For Psychological Well-being

How might this research help you cope with stress? We think our work offers three main takeaways for handling stress.

First, take stock of your sources of stress and recognize which are inputs that you can control. For instance, if you notice that watching the news too long makes you angry and anxious, set a limit to how much of it you consume.

Second, when faced with a source of stress that's unavoidable, take stock of your options and be aware of the coping strategies available. If you can do something that immediately helps address the root cause of your stress, then by all means, go ahead and do it. However, if you cannot address the root cause of stress, or if there is nothing you can do that will fix the stress in the here and now, then it is okay to do something that will make you feel better. Just be mindful of the behavior and do it in moderation.

Finally, recognize that both coping strategies—whether focused on the causes of stress or its emotional consequences—have a rightful spot in every person's coping toolkit, as both can be beneficial to a person's psychological well-being.

For Further Reading

Salerno, A. S., Janiszewski, C., & Laran, J. (2023) Focus on the need or feeling good? Coping through instrumental action versus prohedonic distraction depends on the temporal efficacy of means Motivation and Emotion, 47, 887–907

Anthony Salerno is an Associate Professor of Marketing in the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. His research investigates how people's emotions and goals affect their decision-making.