Abstract: Applying Stress and Coping Theory to Intimate Partner Violence Survivors' Coping and Help-Seeking Experiences (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Applying Stress and Coping Theory to Intimate Partner Violence Survivors' Coping and Help-Seeking Experiences

Saturday, January 19, 2019: 9:45 AM
Union Square 22 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Cynthia Rizo, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Background and Purpose: Coping refers to a range of strategies used to address the demands of a stressful or threatening situation (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Stress and coping theory (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984) proposes the coping process – including help-seeking – is composed of several key elements: (b) primary appraisal, (c) secondary appraisal, (d) emotions, and (e) coping responses. When presented with a potentially stressful event, primary appraisals determine whether the event is irrelevant, benign-positive, or stressful. Depending on the primary appraisal made, an emotional response is elicited and the process of secondary appraisal is activated. Secondary appraisal focuses on what can be done about the situation perceived as stressful and involves evaluating coping alternatives, likely outcomes, resources, and constraints. Situations perceived as amendable to change tend to evoke problem-focused coping efforts such as help-seeking, whereas emotion-focused coping is used in response to situations perceived as unchangeable. This qualitative study explores the perceptions of intimate partner violence (IPV) survivors and providers to determine whether stress and coping theory applicable to understanding and explaining IPV-specific coping and help-seeking efforts.

Methods: Multiple strategies were used to recruit IPV survivors (n=25) with diverse coping experiences to participate in an individual interview (e.g., having service providers share study information with clients, posting fliers around the community, and posting advertisements in a local newspaper). Providers were selected and recruited using expert sampling (n=6). All interviews were facilitated using a semi-structured guide, audiotaped, and transcribed verbatim. Data analysis was conducted using Straussian grounded theory techniques and an open coding approach.

Results: Participants shared that survivors’ primary appraisals of their relationship and IPV victimization vary. Appraisals of the relationship included viewing the relationship as positive (e.g., “things have been going well”) and negative (e.g., defining the relationship as abusive). Secondary appraisals focused on the availability or lack of key coping resources, including informational and instrumental support, transportation, finances, employment, and personal well-being (e.g., health and self-esteem). The majority of participants discussed negative emotions in response to survivors’ primary and secondary appraisals of their abusive relationship (e.g., fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, hopelessness, guilt, shame, and embarrassment). However, several participants shared positive emotions such as happiness and love for their partner. Participants’ appraisals and emotional responses were discussed in relation to certain coping responses. In particular, help-seeking was dependent on coping resources and constraints (e.g., access to therapy and a support system) as well as emotions. In particular, participants shared a reluctance to engage in help-seeking efforts when dealing with emotions such as fear, shame, and embarrassment.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest that stress and coping theory offers a useful lens for understanding and explaining the coping and help-seeking efforts of IPV survivors. The findings also highlight important resources, constraints, and emotions that survivors and providers perceive as important to engaging in help-seeking. In addition to educating family and friends on how best to support loved ones experiencing IPV, outreach is needed to increase awareness of existing resources and address survivors potential feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment.