Most of us like to feel in control of our lives. Many psychology researchers have also demonstrated just how essential a sense of control is for both our physical and mental wellbeing. Interestingly, having a sense of control is so important that even when we don’t have it, we can pretend that we do!

When we do have some ability to influence or control a situation, then generally active coping or problem-solving strategies are best. However, this approach of taking charge is much less effective when we are managing in circumstances beyond our control. When we attempt to use problem-solving to cope with these challenges, it may be more harmful than helpful. In these situations, research shows that a style of coping called “acceptance coping” results in significantly less distress. In particular, this style may be useful in workplace environments where employees have low autonomy (control) over their work.

Research from scientific studies indicates that it’s best if we can pick and choose our coping strategies from a range of options and apply them in specific situations.  Let’s review some of the best ones:

Problem-solving or active coping

As we mentioned, for this style to be effective, we are assuming the situation gives you some ability to take action that may modify or solve the problem.

In this active approach, you can follow these steps:

  1. What exactly is the problem (or the challenge)? See if you can be specific.
  2. Brainstorm all the options and possible solutions – you can ask someone you like and trust to help you.
  3. Ask yourself – what are the pros, cons and consequences of each one?
  4. Make a decision to try one out (if you can’t make a decision, just pick one).
  5. Do it, then review it – are there any refining actions you can take to improve the situation?

For example, if you hit a busy period at work where your workload increases, you might problem-solve by talking to your line manager about priorities, identifying ways to work more efficiently, such as turning off electronic distractions, or you might plan to come in to work half an hour earlier each day until you get through this busy period. These are all examples of active strategies that may help you to manage the situation. However, in some situations, we do not have control or even influence over the challenges in our lives.

Acceptance coping

This style of coping is exactly what it sounds like – finding a way to accept the situation as it is. It means getting OK with the reality that we cannot change this situation as much as we may like to. Importantly, acceptance isn’t a passive process, it’s not simply giving up. Rather, it’s reminding ourselves, “This is how this is right now.” Psychologists call this helpful, active acceptance, versus resigning acceptance.

To practise active acceptance coping, we need to:

  1. Recognise and allow our thoughts and feelings about a situation, even if they may be difficult. “I’m seriously mad about this, I would like to shout and stamp my feet.”
  2. Focus on what is important to us as we face this situation. “Maintaining my professionalism is important to me, I’m going to let this situation go today and I’ll raise it in our next team meeting about how we can do things differently next time.”

A good example of acceptance is where you have had to work with a challenging person on an ongoing basis. Was your energy better spent trying to figure out how you could change this difficult person, or was it better spent accepting that you had to work with this person, no matter how challenging you found them, allowing you to focus on working together as effectively as you could? This is a prime example of acceptance coping in action. This coping doesn’t mean we don’t feel frustrated or wish the circumstances were different. However, instead of exhausting our energy trying to change something we cannot, we can use that energy toward acceptance, ultimately resulting in feeling less stressed or frustrated.

Combining the two strategies: In many situations, we need a bit of both active and acceptance coping.Let’s take the example of not getting a promotion I applied for. This is probably a situation in which I have limited control or ability to change the outcome. In terms of active problem-solving, I may be able to seek some feedback and take steps to improve my likelihood of getting the next promotion. However, I also need to accept the reality that no matter how disappointed I may feel and how much I think that they made the wrong decision, I didn’t get the job. Fighting against that reality will make me feel worse. To help me to accept the situation, I may want to focus on what is important to me in my job, or how I can demonstrate the skills they want to see to set myself up for the next promotion.

On a practical level, differentiating between situations in which we have control and those in which we do not will streamline our selection of helpful coping strategies and help us to spend our “coping capital” where it is most effective. The best way to improve is to become your own scientist – test and try out different strategies, review which ones work best for you, and add them to your tool kit. Then repeat!