The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping

I admit to becoming a little jaded by the steady supply of relatively lightweight ‘professional’ books in counselling and psychology. Here’s a remedy. The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping is a heavyweight. This volume is exceptional in both its breadth and its depth.

Rating: 5

The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping

Edited by , 2011. ISBN 9780195375343. Oxford University Press. 496 pages.

If you’re a counsellor, psychotherapist or psychologist focusing on the day-to-day practice of delivering services designed in part to help people with stress and coping, would it surprise you to know that as of 2007, there were nearly a quarter of a million studies of stress and coping?1 If it does surprise you, you’re not alone: it’s entirely possible to complete training in counselling or psychotherapy, undergraduate training in psychology, even graduate or postgraduate studies in psychology, without becoming aware of much more than a tiny slice of this enormous field.

How can a practitioner possibly gain entrée into such a vast body of research? Oxford University Press will be glad you asked. The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping is one of the most authoritative and complete places you could start. Whether it’s past research, current research, or well argued and non-obvious suggestions for future research, this book has it. Of course it doesn’t cover everything — in a single volume, I wouldn’t expect it to — but it covers a great deal exceptionally well. The publishers also have plans to release all of the Oxford Library of Psychology, of which this Handbook is a part, online, enabling both regular updates and new ways of interacting with the text that are not possible with the printed page.

Having said all that, I’d be the first to acknowledge that this book is not for everyone. I appreciate that many practitioners value explicit interpretation of research results into specific and actionable recommendations for improving practice, and — with a couple of notable exceptions — there is little of that kind of interpretation on offer here. The volume requires some work to move from tentative conclusions reached under research conditions to daily practice at the sharp end of service delivery, and not everyone has either the time or the inclination for that. In fact, time itself will be an issue for many: although it weighs in at under 500 pages, this is a weighty batch of fewer than 500 pages, densely set and devoid of filler. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say that it is the equivalent of perhaps 1500 or 2000 pages of some of the lighter ‘professional’ books which would nominally be included in this field. You might expect to spend some weeks of reading only in spare time just getting through the book. But if you have the time, and if you welcome being largely left on your own to make practical sense out of research results, you are missing out if this book is not on your shelf.

Like others in the Library, this book begins and ends with chapters by its editor, Susan Folkman. Together with Richard Lazarus, Folkman was responsible for the research on stress and coping at the University of California, Berkeley which led to their Stress, Appraisal, and Coping in 1984. Nearly three decades on, the Handbook is in effect a follow-up to that landmark volume. Folkman’s first chapter provides a very brief overview of the field itself as well as a map of the remainder of the book. Her final chapter summarizes the intervening articles in light of the theory and framework first set out in the 1984 volume. She is dispassionate in identifying gaps in the earlier model, although I was a little disappointed that Folkman did not make more of the opportunity to synthesize, pull together, and re-paint the big picture of stress and coping research, especially in view of the sea change that occurred in the 1990s with what she characterized in her first chapter as a dramatic increase of interest in resilience and coping (as distinct from the originally dominant theme of stress and its effects on mental and physical health). It’s also in Folkman’s closing comments that readers are reminded of many of the things that are largely or entirely missing from the book; for example, she alludes to the importance of multidisciplinary approaches to stress and coping research and mentions psychoneuroendocrinology as a relevant speciality for inclusion. To me, this is a rather striking understatement, given the rich body of research into stress, mood, and the HPA axis, to name just one example. (Elsevier’s Handbook of Stress and the Brain could make a great complement to this volume, incidentally, filling in some of the multidisciplinary blanks.)

Between Folkman’s opening and closing articles are 20 more chapters covering Developmental Perspectives on Stress and Coping; Social Aspects of Stress and Coping; Models of Stress, Coping and Positive and Negative Outcomes (the largest section, at 6 chapters); Coping Processes and Positive and Negative Outcomes; Assessing Coping: New Technologies and Concepts; and Coping Interventions. The sheer density of the contributions in a volume like this precludes any sort of serious critical engagement in a review of this size, but I would like to mention just two of my favourites from the collection, two which I think may be particularly of interest for practitioners. As it happens, these two are also perhaps the best counterexamples to my observation above that the book includes little in the way of explicit interpretation from research to daily practice.

First in the list is Sonja Lyubomirsky’s chapter on “Hedonic Adaptation to Positive and Negative Experiences”, which sets out some of the ways in which we generally adapt more quickly to positive experiences than negative ones and offers specific suggestions for behavioural and cognitive interventions which people may employ themselves to slow their rate of adaptation to positive experiences and increase their rate of adaptation to negative ones. Lyubomirsky’s list of ways to moderate adaptation, each of which she explores in detail and with reference to both the positive and the negative, includes gratitude, savouring and positive thinking; refraining from attempting to make sense of positive experiences; investing in relationships and engaging in kindness; and pursuing important and intrinsic personal goals. Lyubomirsky’s summary of refraining from trying to make sense of positive experiences is one of my favourite little nuggets in the book. She cites Wilson and Gilbert’s suggestion that “attempts to understand and make sense of positive experiences facilitate hedonic adaptation by transforming such experiences from something novel, attention-grabbing, emotion-eliciting, and extraordinary to something pallid, predictable, and ordinary” (p. 215). By contrast, she notes that “it is actually valuable to systematically analyze and come to terms with stresses, traumas and hurt feelings” (p. 216).

Second is Judith Tedlie Moskowitz’s chapter “Coping Interventions and the Regulation of Positive Affect”, which focuses on interventions specifically intended to increase positive affect, as distinct from reducing negative affect. The chapter is specifically “intended to be a resource for investigators wishing to design positive affect interventions for samples experiencing serious life stress” (p. 409). In that context, she reviews gratitude, savouring positive events, acts of kindness, positive reappraisal, setting attainable goals, self-affirmation and focusing on one’s personal strengths, meditation, physical activity such as exercise and yoga, laughter and humour, creative art activities, and forgiveness. In each case, the author points to specific studies, methods and outcomes; this is not a mere hand-waving bullet list of things that might help people be happier. In many cases, specific and important nuances are revealed that make the difference between interventions that really appear to work and those for which there is no evidence yet of effectiveness.

As I said at the outset, there’s a great deal to this field, and there’s a great deal to this book — certainly far more than I’ve been able to touch on here. If you have even the slightest interest in stress and coping, positive psychology, or related areas, this book deserves a close look.

1 The specific figures cited by Carolyn Aldwin, author of “Stress and Coping Across the Lifespan”, Chapter 2 of this volume, are 186,000 studies of stress and 36,000 studies of coping.

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