A process-oriented approach to the study of coping by disengagement and distraction
This dissertation discusses limitations of the transactional theory of coping (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) and the measurement of coping by checklists that focus on coping efforts and strategies at the expense of an understanding of coping processes. These measures have led to coping by disengagement and distraction being overlooked or confused with avoidance. The dissertation discusses time diaries as a suitable technique for measuring disengagement within ongoing coping processes. The dissertation proposes a definition of coping by distraction as the processes by which people divert their attention from situations that are, or that may become stressful, and toward alternative thoughts or activities in which they may become cognitively or emotionally engaged. Following a preliminary qualitative study that generated research questions, a second study was conducted in which 90 undergraduate students used time diaries to record their activities, stress, and mood during two days before a final examination. The coping process was studied as alternating phases of task-focused exam preparation activities and off-task activities that provided opportunities for disengagement. The relationship among the two phases was studied as sequences of activities in the time diaries, and the distribution of time between activities during the diary days. The analysis of activity sequences showed that difficulties disengaging from stress were more frequent when students gave coping-related reasons to explain their involvement in instrumental or self-maintenance activities rather than leisure and social activities. Difficulties disengaging following exam preparations were associated with higher levels of stress during subsequent exam preparation activities. Devoting more exam preparation time to a target examination on the first diary day was associated with lower levels of stress during off-task activities. Further, devoting more time to leisure and social activities was associated with lower levels of stress during exam preparations. Trait anxiety and motivation to study for the examination were associated with more stress during off-task activities. Trait anxiety, stress, and time devoted to leisure/social activities were each independently related to retrospective ratings of coping by distraction during the diary days. Findings are discussed in terms of the value of more intensive measurement approaches for understanding the dynamic nature of coping processes.