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Stress is an inevitable part of existence, so having good coping mechanisms to handle stress is necessary for everyone. Yet, especially in the last couple of years, the average persons stress level has been higher than ever. Of course, we could blame current events such as Covid or political stress on that, but perhaps the reason for higher stress is more personal. If we’re having an even harder time coping with the stress of current events, could that mean that our coping strategies were not that effective to begin with?
In this article, we’re going to discuss what good coping mechanisms and bad coping mechanisms look like, as well as how you can cultivate more beneficial coping strategies in your life.
We all deserve the ability to handle whatever life throws at us well. Having the tools to do so will make that happen.
What Are Coping Mechanisms?
Coping is defined as the thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations. Many of these coping mechanisms can be unconsciously done, such as taking deep breaths when you’re overwhelmed. While other coping mechanisms are done with more intention to ease stress.
There are two styles of coping, as defined by this study published by the American Psychological Association.
- Reactive Coping – When you respond to the stress as it is happening
- Proactive Coping – The things you do to potentially prevent future stress from happening
Among those two coping styles, there are also four distinct categories that coping mechanisms can fall into (which I have pulled from this study)
- Problem-Focused Coping Skills- which addresses the problem causing the distress: Examples of this style include active coping, planning, restraint coping, and suppression of competing activities.
- Emotion-Focused Coping Skills- which aims to reduce the negative emotions associated with the problem: Examples of this style include positive reframing, acceptance, turning to religion, and humor.
- Meaning-Focused Coping Skills- Meaning-focused, in which an individual uses cognitive strategies to derive and manage the meaning of the situation
- Social Coping/Support Seeking- in which an individual reduces stress by seeking emotional or instrumental support from their community.
Not all defense mechanisms are created equal. Though there’s many things we can do to cope with stress, some of them may feel good in the moment but hurt us later. Typically, the coping mechanisms we should be using won’t always have an immediate reaction, but the results in the long run make them worth it.
Why Do I Even Need Good Coping Mechanisms?
According to The American Institute of Stress:
- About 33 percent of people report feeling extreme stress
- 77 percent of people experience stress that affects their physical health
- 73 percent of people have stress that impacts their mental health
- 48 percent of people have trouble sleeping because of stress
Excessive stress causes people to miss work, events, and even die. So literally, stress is killing you! Many of our modern health problems exist because of high stress levels. Learning how to manage stress in a healthy way will literally help you live longer!
Meanwhile, many unhealthy coping mechanisms are sometimes more dangerous than the stress itself. For example, excessive drinking or drug use can easily lead to substance use disorder, which is definitely deadly. Same with overeating, reactive and aggressive behavior, etc.
As a mom, I also notice how my stress levels effect my family. How I react to stressful events dictates how my children react to them. If I am having a hard time reacting to difficult situations in a healthy way, then it can have dangerous effects on my family. As parents, our ability to handle difficult emotions make a difference in how our children handle them too. Even if we’re still in the process of learning good coping skills, our growth will bring a positive change to our family.
How To Spot A Bad Coping Mechanism
Yes, there is such thing as bad coping methods. Many times, unless we’ve been actively educated or shown good examples in our life, our default coping strategies can be less than optimal. Spotting a bad coping mechanism is the first step in making healthy coping mechanisms a regular part of our life.
Just as there are healthy coping mechanism categories, as stated above, there are also bad categories of coping. Here’s 3 of them (which come from this site)
- Disengagement – detaching yourself from the unpleasant experience. This could look like walking away from an argument suddenly, or getting defensive.
- Avoidance – staying away from the situation completely. This could look like avoiding conversations, skipping out on events, changing the subject, etc.
- Emotional Suppression – Blocking out the stress or dissociating from it. This could look like trying to “suck it up,” or using external things to cover up emotions.
Here’s just a few examples of maladaptive coping mechanisms, or poor coping skills that inevitably may lead to further problems in life:
- Drinking alcohol/taking substances excessively in an attempt to escape
- stonewalling/avoiding the situation
- Excessive sleeping or avoiding sleep
- Impulsive spending
- Overeating (or undereating in some cases)
- Reactive/aggressive behavior
- Talking down to yourself, or self-deprecating behavior
- ruminating on the worst case scenario, or going through a doom spiral
- Dissociating, or participating in activities that promote dissociating, such as excessive technology use
There are many forms of unhealthy coping mechanisms. This article by Eucalyptus Psychology has a really great synopsis of other types of unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Of course, there could be a huge amount of examples I could list. In the next section, we’ll discuss how you can spot good coping mechanism, as well as how you can vet the current coping mechanisms you have.
What Are Good Coping Mechanisms?
Even if you have defaulted to poor coping strategies, you are capable of developing better ones now! Now that you know what a bad coping mechanism may look like, ask yourself these questions when examining your current coping strategies:
- Will this be an effective way for me to process or deal with what’s happened and what I’m feeling?
- Will this activity still allow me to come back and deal with this situation, or is it a way of avoiding the situation?
- Will this avoid creating stress for myself and for others?
- Will this put me or others at risk?
- Can I afford this activity in terms of its financial and time cost?
Just as I provided examples of unhealthy coping skills, here’s a few examples of some positive coping mechanisms:
- Learning your triggers and staying aware of them
- Practicing mindfulness and/or prayer
- Practicing positive self-talk
- Participate in a hobby
- Be a part of a community of like minded people
- Exercise and physical activity
- Being in nature/grounding
- Facing your problem head on
- Getting professional help
- Giving yourself healthy ways to express emotions, such as journaling, art, etc.
If you’re the kind of person like me who tends to question everything, you may be wondering “what makes those strategies healthier than the other ones? I prefer eating a dozen cookies over knitting or journaling!” To that, my response would be yes, eating a dozen cookies in response to a crappy day does feel good, but does it give your mind a chance to actually process and think through the stress or negative thoughts? More than likely not. The point of a healthy coping mechanism is not to make your problems disappear, but to give yourself a healthy outlet to process the stress.
Finding a healthy coping mechanism is a very personal journey. Some people may find solace in a barefoot stroll in the backyard, while others not so much. In the next section, we’ll talk more about how to cultivate healthy coping mechanisms that work for you.
How Can I Develop Healthy Coping Mechanisms?
As I stated before, finding good coping strategies is very personal. What works for someone else may be a total flop for you. For example, I have a friend who loves to go on a run when they are stressed, but for me you will only find me running if I am in imminent danger! Their coping strategy works for them, while I have ones that work for me. Here’s a few tips on finding and developing the coping strategies that work the best for you:
Be aware of potential triggers, and make steps to avoid them.
Of course, not all triggers can be avoided, but some can. For example, I am 100% a morning person, and I thrive when I have a little bit of alone time in the mornings. One of the best things I can do to cope is to guard that morning alone time I have, because if I don’t have it I may end up being triggered.
What are the things that seem to always produce huge amounts of stress? Is it too long of a to-do list? Not feeling prepared for the day? Is it the morning hustle out the door? Whatever that one thing always is that sets you off, make active steps to prevent that from happening.
Just give it a shot!
Just like with finding a new hobby or restaurant, the best way to know if a coping mechanism works for you is to just try it. Make a list of any and all coping mechanisms you can think of and the next time you feel overwhelmed, try one of them out and see how you feel. Sometimes you’ll know right away if something isn’t going to work for you, while other times you may have to try it again. Regardless, the only way you’ll know what works is if you try it.
Write down the healthy coping mechanisms that seem to help you the most and keep them close by.
When giving new coping mechanisms a shot, assess whether it seems to be doing anything for you and keep note of it. You can get as fancy or simple as you want. Whether it’s just a note on your phone, or an envelope of index cards full of coping strategies, having them close at hand can be great for stressful situations.
Have an accountability partner.
Find someone close to you who can help you when you’re struggling to find a healthy coping mechanism. Do you have a spouse, friend, or a support group that can help you sty the course? A good accountability partner will not only be there to listen to you and support you, but they will help you steer clear of potentially dangerous coping mechanisms. Having a community of loved ones is great for a lot of things, but its vital in developing new and healthy coping strategies.
Don’t give up on it just because one time didn’t feel effective
Poor coping mechanisms work so well because the chemical release in your brain is instantaneous. Good coping mechanisms don’t always produce that immediate boost we think we need. Instead, they create a slow boost that lasts longer than a poor coping mechanism. The more you stick to the healthy coping mechanisms, the more you will learn to prefer them over unhealthy ones. Just because it didn’t feel as instantaneous as your previous unhealthy coping strategy doesn’t mean it’s a dud. Understand that good coping mechanisms may not give you that immediate boost, but that’s kind of the point. With time, you’ll learn to prefer the healthy coping mechanisms over the unhealthy ones.
Consider getting professional help
Working with a therapist is an incredible way to learn and develop good coping mechanisms, as well as discover unhealthy ones. Even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health issue or mental health concerns, working with a therapist is good for anyones emotional health. Below I will leave some links to where you can find therapists and other mental health resources.
- Betterhelp – Is an online therapy service that makes therapy accessible and affordable for all people. They have a huge database of therapist with many specialties, and offer many ways to participate in therapy.
- Faithful Counseling – Is very similar to Betterhelp, but is a database of online Christian therapists. If you would prefer to receive therapy from a faith-based perspective, then this could be just for you.
- Brightside – offers online medication and therapy treatments for depression and anxiety. You can get an appointment with an online provider in as little as 48 hours, and each treatment plan is catered to your personal needs.
Resources From The Overcoming Mom
- My Battle With Postpartum Depression.
- Should Christians Go To Therapy?
- How To Help A Loved One With Mental Illness.
- Coppens CM, de Boer SF, Koolhaas JM. Coping styles and behavioural flexibility: towards underlying mechanisms. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2010 Dec 27;365(1560):4021-8. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2010.0217. PMID: 21078654; PMCID: PMC2992750.
- Folkman S, Moskowitz JT. Coping: pitfalls and promise. Annu Rev Psychol. 2004;55:745-74. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141456. PMID: 14744233.
- Matt Blake, “20 Signs Of Unhealthy Emotion-Coping”, Eucalyptus Psychology, Published February 24th, 2021, viewed November 10th, 2022, https://eucalyptuspsychology.com.au/20-signs-of-unhealthy-emotion-coping/