Background and objective Empirical data are scarce regarding the adaptive response to stress for patients with somatoform disorders. Our objective was to identify the preferred coping strategies of patients with abridged somatisation, a common condition in primary care. Because of the functional impairment associated with somatisation, we predicted a preference for less effective, emotion-focused coping strategies over more effective, problem-focused adaptations.Design We conducted a cross-sectional, observational study of physician referred primary care patients who presented with persistent, medically unexplained, physical symptoms. Patients were classified into two abridged somatisation groups by symptom frequency and duration, as determined by the Diagnostic Interview Schedule. The groups were compared with each other and with a non-clinical reference group; outcome variables were eight emotion- and problem-focused strategies, as measured by the Ways of Coping Questionnaire.Results Of the 72 eligible individuals, 48 participated in the study. Median age was 48 years and 75% of patients were women; 26 had somatic syndrome and 22 had a subthreshold somatising level. Patients with abridged somatisation disorders preferred emotion-focused coping strategies - typically detachment and impact minimisation, wishful thinking and problem avoidance.Conclusions Patients with abridged somatising disorder responded to stress with predominantly emotion-focused strategies, which may be associated with a lower level of positive adaptive outcome. Our findings suggest that patients with abridged somatising disorders might benefit from emphasis on problem-focused coping strategies, delivered through primary care, to improve quality of life and decrease healthcare utilisation costs.