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When Coping Well Is Costly

Ongoing efforts to cope well in difficult circumstances can take a toll.

Key points

  • "John Henryism" is a type of effortful coping with enduring stressors that can be adaptive but can also take a physical or psychological toll.
  • Acknowledging that coping well can be costly can minimize the negative effects of John Henryism and promote genuine self-care.
  • Self-compassion is one strategy for dealing with long-term stress.
mightydoggie/morguefile
Sometimes coping well looks good on the outside but hurts on the inside.
Source: mightydoggie/morguefile

In my practice, I often see people who are dealing with extremely difficult situations that go on for months or years. To the outside world, they look amazingly capable, but privately they feel depleted by the enduring strain of having to cope well.

John Henryism

There’s a folktale about John Henry, who may or may not have lived in the late 1800s. He was known as a “steel-driving man” because he was so strong and fast at laying railroad. The story goes that he competed against a steam-powered drill to prove no machine could out-work him. (In some versions of the story, he did it to try to protect the jobs of the men who would likely be replaced by the machine. In other versions the effort was driven by pride in his strength.) John Henry won the contest against the machine. But then he dropped dead of exhaustion.

Drawing from this story, as well as his research with economically disadvantaged Black men in the rural South, Sherman James (1983, 1994) coined the term “John Henryism” to refer to a type of effortful coping with enduring stressors. Specifically, he defined John Henryism as having three core features:

  • Efficacious mental and physical vigor
  • A strong commitment to hard work
  • Single-minded determination to succeed

These characteristics are positive and adaptive, but James hypothesized that prolonged, high-effort coping, especially under circumstances involving limited resources and opportunities, could create enduring physical strain that negatively impacts health.

James developed a 12-item questionnaire to measure John Henryism which included items such as “When things don’t go the way I want, that just makes me work even harder,” and “It’s not always easy, but I usually find a way to do the things I really need to get done.”

Many studies have found that John Henryism is linked to “skin-deep” resilience: On the outside, people in enduring, difficult situations who score high on John Henryism show exemplary functioning; on the inside, there’s a physical and sometimes psychological toll.

For example, Brody et al. (2013) did a prospective, longitudinal study involving 489 Black adolescents from working poor families in the rural South. They identified 11- to 13-year-olds who were facing high economic stress and also had high teacher ratings of academic performance and social competence. When they followed up with these kids at age 19, compared to peers, they showed lower adjustment problems but higher wear-and-tear on their bodies (allostatic load) in terms of stress hormones, blood pressure, and body mass index.

Researchers have examined John Henryism in different populations and even different nationalities (e.g., Felix et al., 2019; Gupta, Bélanger, & Phillips, 2019; Mujahid, et al., 2017; Vargas et al. 2020). This has yielded various findings about when and how the effects occur, but it is clearly not limited to rural, poor, Black adults in the U.S.

James and others emphasize that the answer to John Henryism among disadvantaged groups involves addressing economic inequality and promoting social justice. Better access to good education, jobs, food, and housing lifts everyone and reduces stressful disadvantages.

When the stress is personal

Sometimes the difficult situations that involve enduring, potentially high-cost coping are personal rather than systemic. Think of a single mother with an autistic child, or someone stuck in a stressful job with long hours and an unreasonable boss, or someone dealing with chronic illness or a family member struggling with addiction.

If you find yourself in these or other situations that require prolonged, effortful coping, there are no simple answers. But acknowledging that coping well can be costly can be an important step toward minimizing the negative effects of John Henryism. Here are some further steps that might help:

1. Tell someone who cares

Keeping up an “everything’s fine” façade is draining for you and prevents people from offering comfort or concrete help. It can be scary to open up, but letting others see your vulnerability can lead to genuine closeness. Sometimes it helps to seek out others in the same situation, such as in a support group. If you’re very distressed, you may want to speak with a therapist. Even if the situation can’t change, it can feel good to have someone understand what you’re going through.

2. Treat yourself with compassion

Too often, we speak harshly to ourselves, criticizing our attempts, berating ourselves for our mistakes, and demanding that we do even more. This isn’t kind or helpful. What would you say to a friend in your situation? Try to speak to yourself with the same kindness.

3. Find ways to take a break

If you’re dealing with a long-term problem, it’s essential that you find ways to recharge. Sometimes this means delegating some responsibilities or letting someone else manage things temporarily. Other people probably won’t do things exactly the way you would but giving up a bit of control could be worth it to get some breathing room. Sometimes recharging involves creating opportunities for small pleasures. Little things like calling a friend, eating lunch outside, going for a walk, using the nice shampoo… these won’t change your situation, but they can lift your spirits.

References

Brody, G. H., Yu, T., Chen, E., Miller, G. E., Kogan, S. M., & Beach, S. R. (2013). Is resilience only skin deep? Rural African Americans’ socioe- conomic status–related risk and competence in preadolescence and psychological adjustment and allostatic load at age 19. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1285–1293.

Felix, A. S., Shisler, R., Nolan, T. S., Warren, B. J., Rhoades, J., Barnett, K. S., & Williams, K. P. (2019). High-effort coping and cardiovascular disease among women: A systematic review of the John Henryism Hypothesis. Journal of Urban Health, 96(1), 12-22.

Gupta, S., Bélanger, E., & Phillips, S. P. (2019). Low socioeconomic status but resilient: Panacea or double trouble? John Henryism in the international IMIAS study of older adults. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, 34(1), 15-24.

James, S. A., Hartnett, S. A., & Kalsbeek, W. D. (1983). John Henryism and blood Pressure differences among Black men. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 6, 259–278.

James S. A. (1994). John Henryism and the health of African-Americans. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry; 18:163–182.

Mujahid, M. S., James, S. A., Kaplan, G. A., & Salonen, J. T. (2017). Socioeconomic position, John Henryism, and incidence of acute myocardial infarction in Finnish men. Social science & medicine, 173, 54-62.

Vargas, E. A., Li, Y., Mahalingham, R., Hui, P., Liu, G., Lapedis, M., & Liu, J. R. (2020). The double edge sword of John Henryism: Impact on patients’ health in the People’s Republic of China. Journal of health psychology, 25(13-14), 2374-2387.

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