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5 Coping Styles: How They Help and Hinder Your Health.

Discover Your Personal Coping Style

When I woke up this morning, my left arm was tingling. Not again. This was the third time in a week it had happened. A zing of panic. And then I said to myself, “Katharine, Get up! You have a lot to do today. You probably slept on it wrong. Not to worry.”

That is quintessential me — and my coping style. I am a stoic. I usually dismiss worries that arise and get myself back on task. I go on with my schedule despite aches and pains. I learned this as a child from my dad who didn’t go to the doctor for thirty years. I must have been fifty before I heard about self-care. And only recently did I come came to see that maybe, just maybe, my style has a few problems.

Elder woman with achy joints walking with a cane.
Image by © Satjawat from AdobeStock

Health in the 70+ generation varies dramatically. Some people have few or no issues and take no medications. Others have four or five chronic conditions and their health care is a full-time job. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle and find ourselves busy with the proverbial “patch, patch, patch.” In terms of our health, we all know that we should eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. We also know we should not smoke or drink too much.

Coping style determines your ability to cope

But many of us do not know that how we cope with our health issues is also critically important. Many of us have not even taken time to consider what is our coping style and to consider how it impacts our well-being. We assume our way is the right way. And maybe we think, “And in any case, I am too old to change my habits.”

During my 30 years as a psychotherapist, reinforced by my research and interviews for the book Eightysomethings, I have come to see that people fall into one of five coping styles in terms of their health. I have coined these personality types as:

Deniers, Complainers, Stoics, Worriers, and Realists. Each of these styles has upsides and downsides. Being unaware of our biases and blind spots can be harmful.

Graphics of 5 different coping types.
Image by © Good Studio from AdobeStock

Deniers stick their head in the sand. They tend to ignore their pain and avoid dealing with their health problems even when they are obvious to those around them. Foolishly oblivious, they ignore symptoms and often refuse to go to the doctor.

Upside: Deniers are free from worry.

Downside: Deniers ignore their symptoms and put themselves at risk. It usually takes a calamity to get a Denier the medical care they need. And it may be too late.

Complainers tell everyone who crosses their path about their aches and pains. They go on and on about their acid reflux, sciatica, recent diarrhea, etc.

Upside: Complainers get some relief in telling their story over and over.

Downside: Complainers are annoying and turn others off. People tend to ignore complainers and may even shun them. So they may not get the care they need.

Stoics are aware of their pain and symptoms but choose to ignore them. They stick to their plans.

Upsides: Stoics get a lot done because they minimize problems and don’t let small ailments derail them.

Downside: Stoics don’t get the care they need soon enough and this can be a serious problem. They are often somewhat disconnected from their feelings.

Worriers are flooded with anxiety about their health. Pessimists by nature, they can go from noticing a small symptom to assuming the worst-case scenario.

Upside: Worriers are aware of all their health issues. Since they plan and take precautions, they avoid many problems.

Downside: Many Worriers call their doctor’s too soon and too often. Some Worriers just do the worrying part and don’t seek help or care soon enough. Worriers have trouble relaxing and enjoying themselves.

Realists: These wise people acknowledge their health conditions and accurately judge their seriousness. They don’t dwell on their pain but they notice if it is bad and seek medical help.

Upside: Realists pay attention to their bodies and take appropriate action. They go to the doctor and the dentist regularly. Others do not have to second guess a Realist.

Downside: Realists feel all the sadness there is when they get a bad diagnosis or have a loss of some important capacity. This is hard – but such a wise way to handle losses.

Man in pain with high blood pressure.
Image by © lesterman from AdobeStock

Q. What does this suggest to all of us?

A. The next time you feel a pain or a new symptom, pause. This is a moment of possibility. A moment of openness where you can choose to change. Over time you can modify your style to enhance your well-being.


Tips for helping others

Identifying the coping style of your spouse and other family members is also useful.

When dealing with a Denier continue to bring their unacknowledged health issues to their attention - even though they may not like it. Persist.

When dealing with a Complainer listen carefully. Learn to set a limit of, say, 10 to 15 minutes, and then change the subject or end the conversation.

With Stoics, encourage them to check in with their doctor. Remind them of their usual pattern of waiting too long. Encourage them to notice how they are feeling.

For Worriers, remind them that they are usually overly pessimistic about their condition. And then remind them again. Do not tell them to relax or argue with them.

With a Realist, tell them how much you appreciate their good judgment. And how lucky you are to have such a wise family member.

Athletes providing support to help an injured athlete walk.
Image by © from AdobeStock

For everyone, teach them about the concept of self-care and how absolutely critical it is for all of us.

Let me know which coping style you have, and how it impacts your health.

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