Coping/Defence Strategies used by Adult Survivors
Defence mechanisms/coping strategies adopted during childhood are often used in adulthood e.g. the tendency to dissociate. The use of ‘childhood’ coping strategies can impair the development of more adaptive social, cognitive, and emotional coping mechanisms for adult life as well as the sense of self required for the successful negotiation of life difficulties (Briere, 2002). Adult survivors often continue to use their childhood avoidant coping strategies (van Loon & Kralik, 2005c). The adult survivor becomes the fighter, the accommodator, the escape artist, the victim, the denier, the over-achiever, and the ‘pleaser’ (van Loon & Kralik, 2005c).
A study by Ward (1988) into the different ‘defence mechanisms’ used by adolescent victims of sexual abuse identified the following core defences:
- emotional insulations (discussion of victimisation in a detached manner and/or emotional withdrawal from painful or potentially painful relationships)
- rationalisation (providing reasons and/or justifications for the abuse) and intellectualisation (managing the stressful situation as an abstract problem requiring analysis)
Research consistently shows that less adaptive coping responses (eg. avoidant coping) contribute to poorer outcomes (Futa, Nash, Hansen, & Garbin, 2003).
Morrow and Smith (1995) suggested that strategies used by survivors of childhood abuse can be conceptualised as:
- Keeping the survivor from being overwhelmed by threatening and dangerous feelings
- managing helplessness, powerless and lack of control
Strategies used to keep from being overwhelmed by threatening and dangerous feelings:
- Reducing the intensity of troubling feelings
- Avoiding or escaping the feelings
- Exchanging the overwhelming feelings for other, less threatening ones
- Discharging or releasing feelings
- Not knowing or remembering experiences that generated threatening feelings
- Dividing overwhelming feelings into manageable parts
Strategies used to manage helplessness, powerlessness and lack of control:
- Creating resistance strategies
- Reframing abuse to create an illusion of control or power (e.g. rationalising, minimising)
- Attempting to master the trauma
- Attempting to control other areas of life besides the trauma
- Seeking confirmation or evidence from others
- Rejecting power/authority [and intimacy and trust]
People who use ‘mature’ coping mechanisms are happier, enjoy better mental health, and more gratifying personal relationships (Mounier & Andujo, 2003). Even though the childhood coping strategies used by many adult survivors succeed in keeping them from feeling overwhelmed and/or help manage helplessness, powerlessness or lack of control, they have a cost. For example, the strategies to help manage helplessness and powerlessness can control the survivor (Morrow & Smith, 1995).
2. Adaptive versus maladaptive coping strategies
The manner in which individuals react to or cope with stressful situations influences the long-term impact of those stressors, and differences in coping are important contributors to psychological adjustment (Min, Farkas, Minnes, & Singer, 2007).
The identification of adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies following traumatic events has been the subject of much scientific enquiry (Littleton, Horsey, John, & Nelson, 2007). Two primary conceptualisations of adaptive and maladaptive coping have emerged in the literature:
- a) problem-focused or emotion-focused
- b) approach-focused or avoidance-focused (Littleton et al., 2007).
Problem-focused or emotion-focused coping:
Problem-focused coping strategies are those that directly address the problem and include seeking information about the stressor, making a plan of action, and concentrating on the next step to manage or resolve the stressor (Littleton et al., 2007).
Emotion-focused strategies concentrate on managing the emotional distress associated with the stressor and include disengagement from emotions related to the stressor, seeking emotional support and venting emotions.
It is argued that problem-focused strategies are more adaptive in controllable situations; whereas emotion-focused strategies are more adaptive in uncontrollable situations (Littleton et al., 2007).
Approach versus avoidance coping:
Approach strategies focus on the stressor itself or one’s reaction to the stressor. Examples include: seeking emotional support, planning to resolve the stressor, and seeking information about the stressor (Littleton et al., 2007).
Avoidant coping refers to techniques which deny, minimise, and delay dealing with stressors. Avoidance strategies are focused on avoiding the stressor or one’s reaction to it; for example, withdrawing from others, denying the stressor exists, and disengaging from one’s thoughts and feelings regarding the stressor (Littleton et al., 2007). Avoidant coping strategies are typically ineffective for eliciting social support or engaging in problem solving activities (Min et al., 2007).
Approach strategies are generally regarded as more adaptive than avoidant coping strategies. Although avoidance strategies may reduce distress in the short term, they are regarded as maladaptive if an individual continues to rely on them (Littleton et al., 2007).
The concept of avoidant coping styles has been used to explain the relationship between childhood trauma and adult problems (Min et al., 2007). Studies have identified that avoidant coping is a good predictor of poor psychological health and PTSD (Futa et al., 2003; Min et al., 2007; Ullman, Filipas, Townsend & Starzynski, 2007) and is a particularly problematic approach to dealing with the aftermath of trauma (Krause, Kaltman, Goodman, & Dutton, 2008).
Research has demonstrated that an increase in daily stress is associated with a decline in health (discussed in Cromer & Sachs-Ericsson, 2006). Research shows that stress experienced by adult survivors of childhood trauma and abuse has a greater impact on their health than stress experienced by the general population (Cromer & Sachs-Ericsson, 2006). Furthermore, in the presence of current stressors, rates of health problems increased more for those who had been abused than for those who had not been. Specifically, the study showed that current stressors approximately double the negative impact of abuse on health, which translates into substantially higher rates of serious health problems in the population (Cromer & Sachs-Ericsson, 2006). The use of adaptive versus maladaptive coping strategies may, at least in part, explain this finding. Another explanation may relate to the alteration in the production of cortisol in some survivors of childhood abuse (Joyce et al., 2007).