"It's been a bit of a rollercoaster"

Australian women share their coping strategies

The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health (ALSWH) is the largest, longest-running project of its kind ever conducted in Australia. The population-based survey explores the factors contributing to the health and wellbeing of over 57,000 Australian women in four cohorts; women born in 1921-26, 1946-51, 1973-78 and 1989-95. Their data provides invaluable information about the health of women across the lifespan.

We talked to women from the 1973-78 cohort about the difficulties they had faced in their lives, and how they had coped with these difficulties. Although our conversations took place before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, knowing about the coping strategies that have helped others in the past can help us cope with the new challenges we face today.

One way of thinking about coping is summarised by the dual-process model of developmental regulation. This model proposes three types of coping processes: assimilative (where you try to make changes to cope with a situation), accommodative (where you change your own expectations to match a situation), and defensive (which usually involves ignoring the problem).

We interviewed 36 women from the 1973-78 cohort about their aspirations, choices and wellbeing. We particularly wanted to know about how the women felt their life compared with their younger selves’ aspirations for their career, their relationships and whether to have children. We asked women to talk about what had influenced their lives, impacted their choices, and made things difficult or easy for them. Most importantly, we asked them to talk about the coping strategies that had helped them get through their difficulties.

We used thematic analysis to understand the different topics that women talked about in their interviews. We expected that women would mostly discuss their assimilative and accommodative strategies. We didn’t expect women to talk about their defensive strategies (because if you’re ignoring a problem, you probably won’t think to mention it in an interview).

Women's coping strategies

Women talked about difficulties relating to health issues, including pregnancy and birth experiences, relationship problems, financial problems, and work or study problems. They used four types of coping strategies, including using their money or other resources to get help, getting help and support from others, using lifestyle strategies like exercise or hobbies, and using cognitive strategies.

1. Using resources

Nicole* discussed the benefits of being able to afford to access services and other activities to help her cope: “I am lucky enough that I can financially afford to go to a psychologist, psychiatrist, all the other mental health related activities that naturally go hand in hand with management of that kind of trauma basically …”

2. Support from others

Rachel* talked about the importance of family support at a difficult time: “It made me realise how important family is too because my mum and my dad and my sister were amazing. They just stepped up and they just helped me pack everything up and helped me find a place to live, they helped me move, they helped me get the other house ready and paint it and sell it and all that.”

3. Lifestyle strategies

Women mentioned several lifestyle strategies including hobbies, exercise, diet, and other healthy living strategies. Jessica* talked about her hobbies: “I’m very much active outside of work, I do a lot of crafts. I have chickens and I do what’s called urban farming. I’ve got my gardens that are all set up with food crops. I tend to derive all of my achievement from the stuff that I do outside of work.”

4. Cognitive strategies

There were many cognitive strategies mentioned by women including stress management techniques, reframing the situation, focusing on enjoyment and positivity, resolving to follow their own path, and just “getting on with it”. Michelle* said: “I’ve learnt techniques like mindfulness to control anxiety. I’ve developed strategies of slowing down, mindfulness and protective mechanisms and I’ve been able to learn to put boundaries in place for people and also take time out.”

Some of these coping strategies were assimilative, meaning that the women made changes to be able to meet their goals and aspirations despite the difficulties they faced. On the other hand, accommodative strategies, often used in times of crisis, involved revising expectations and compromising for a while until difficulties resolved or new opportunities emerged.

* Not her real name

This research helps us understand how we might better cope with periods of rapid change and high stress, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding how other women use a range of different coping strategies can help us work out how best to cope with our own situation. Everyone must cope with challenges at different times in their lives, and it’s important to know that there are different strategies that can be helpful.

It’s important that you remember that there are many different coping strategies you can use, and we may find it helpful to rely on other strategies that we don’t normally use or a mix of strategies, especially during the pandemic when you may not be able to actively change your situation and may not be able to draw on your usual resources.

If this article has raised any issues please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

Citation: Jayne Lucke & Melissa Johnstone (2020) “It’s Been a Bit of a Rollercoaster”: Australian Women’s Difficulties and Coping Strategies, Issues in Mental Health Nursing. DOI: 10.1080/01612840.2020.1770386

Contact: Professor Jayne Lucke