What is the difference between coping, adapting and self-management?

What is the difference between coping, adapting and self-management?

coping, adapting, and self-management

Are we just coping, adapting or self-managing and what is the difference? A new study looks at what the research literature says about coping, adapting and self-management. 


In a paper shortly to be published, researchers from universities in Sweden and Canada completed a literature review to look at that what the development and latest thinking was for the concepts of:


  1. Coping
  2. Adapting and
  3. Self-management.


Whilst much of the paper has neurological underpinning, the definitions they arrive at are useful in organisations.



Coping or adapting?


The latest thinking about coping, adapting or self-managing


What they found was that:


Coping is seen these days as a set of usually internal cognitive strategies to control one’s thinking, usually using reappraisal of the situation, positive self-statements etc. However other coping strategies include medication. Dysfunctional coping strategies include, drink, drugs, over-eating etc. Coping strategies are usually not focused on removing or dealing with the presenting issue. These strategies are usually informally learned and are usually deployed to ‘get-through’ the situation.

The aim of coping is largely stress reduction and to gain a sense of internal control. The researchers found that between 60-80% of coping strategies are internally focused.



What does it mean to adapt?



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Adapting on the other hand is seen as a result of a series of strategies such as acceptance of the situation, reappraisal, positive orientation and proactive engagement in the situation as it is. Importantly, the paper describes adapting as frequently being a social or a socially referred process, often involving interaction with others to reappraise the situation and developing a positive reorientation. Additionally, it was found that adaption often hinges on previous personal experience of adaption and the need to adapt.






Self-management is a process whereby the individual ‘self-medicates’ in that they make changes to their own thinking and behaviour. This often includes emotion regulation. The researchers found that people usually need support and information and knowledge as well as self-efficacy (belief in one’s ability to succeed) and knowledge of self-management strategies. Self-management actually incorporates coping and adapting but makes people more flexible, particularly in situations of ambiguity or uncertainty. Additionally, self-management involves better and more flexible use of resources, develops better processing and thinking. Additionally, it requires more pro-active involvement in the environment.


The researchers found that coping and adaption tend to focus on meeting certain challenges and demands. However the self-management research tends to be different in that it focuses on situation management together with management of internal processes like thinking and emotion regulation.

The researchers conclude by noticing how complex the interactions are between the three concepts and that they are more usefully seen as a whole. The most resilient people tend to be able to use a judicious mix of all three strategies, which is the most mature response. However in many situations most people only have recourse to one or both of the first two strategies.


Self-management, as noted above, usually requires support, skills and knowledge of strategies for successful self-management.


Use – coping, adapting and self-management


Whilst this research about coping, adapting and self-management may appear to be abstract at first, it is actually quite useful, particularly in terms of development and self-development of resilience, adaptability and flexibility. Firstly, it is useful to be able to identify the nature of the strategy currently being used (coping, adaption or self-management) in any situation. Secondly it gives other alternatives for people who are stuck in one type of strategy. Lastly, it points towards the development of self-management as a goal.


Reference – available to members


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David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page