Older People's Coping Mechanisms for Illness

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  • 0:01 Resilience
  • 1:22 Internal Mechanisms
  • 3:56 External Mechanisms
  • 6:35 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

As people age, illness and other changes can be a major challenge. In this lesson, we'll look at the coping mechanisms that people use to deal with life changes, including the difference between internal and external coping mechanisms.


Billie is 72, and she's having some problems. She's got some pain in her joints and was recently diagnosed with arthritis. Not only that - she has high cholesterol and her doctor is worried about heart disease. It feels like everything is changing and like every time she goes to the doctor, there's a new problem!

Billie is in late adulthood, or the time of life after age 65. This is a time of great changes for many people: they are often retiring from work, seeing their children become adults and starting their own families, and, like Billie, they often face health issues.

Resilience is a person's ability to adapt to and recover from life changes. In terms of people like Billie, this means understanding that late adulthood is often associated with an increase in incidence and seriousness of illness and figuring out how to deal with illnesses that might pop up in their lives.

How can Billie do that? Coping mechanisms are ways to deal with change. They can help people, like Billie, be more resilient. Essentially, resilience is the ability to deal with change, while coping mechanisms are the way that a person becomes resilient.

Let's look closer at two common types of coping mechanisms: internal and external.

Internal Mechanisms

Billie is facing some big changes: she has high cholesterol and arthritis, and sometimes it feels like her health is going down the tubes. She wants to find a way to cope with all the change going on with her health, but she's not sure how.

Internal coping mechanisms are those that happen within a person. They are 'internal' to the person and thus are called 'internal.' The great thing about internal coping mechanisms is that Billie can take charge of them herself.

Among others, some examples of internal coping mechanisms include:

1. Thinking patterns and self-talk. The way that Billie thinks can have a huge impact on her health and well-being. Remember that she sometimes feels like her health is going down the tubes. That's an example of negative thinking patterns. On the other hand, if she focuses on how she's still able to get around and do normal things, that would be a positive thinking pattern that she can focus on.

Self-talk is just what it sounds like: it's the mental discussion we have with ourselves. Billie can offer herself positive self-talk, like saying, 'You're doing really well today! I'm proud that you went for your walk and ate healthy.' Positive self-talk and positive thinking patterns improve a person's outlook and make them more resilient.

2. Stress management techniques. When Billie gets stressed out, she takes a deep breath to calm herself down. Lately, she's also been learning how to meditate to calm her nerves. These and other stress management techniques can help her deal with her stress and make her life better as well as make her more resilient. In addition, since physical health is so impacted by stress, learning to manage it well can have a positive influence on Billie's health.

3. Locus of control. A person's locus of control is whether they perceive that they are in control of a situation or not. For example, if Billie feels like her health is just something that she can't do anything about, she has an external locus of control, meaning that she has a belief that control of the situation is outside of her.

On the other hand, an internal locus of control would mean that she has a belief that control is within her. For example, if she believes that she can help her health by exercising or eating well, she'll have an internal locus of control. Resilient people tend to have internal locus of control.

External Mechanisms

As we've seen, internal coping mechanisms are about what's going on within the person: what Billie's thoughts and feelings are about the situation. But those aren't the only type of coping mechanisms.

External coping mechanisms are those that involve outside forces. Things that are from Billie's environment can help or hinder her ability to be resilient in the face of illness.

Examples of external coping mechanisms include:

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