Coping mechanisms are our actions/reactions in response to difficulties or stress. They can be healthy or unhealthy. These mechanisms are deeply rooted in our behavior and are often based on our past experiences, meaning that we often use them automatically, subconsciously. However, it is important to distinguish between beneficial and harmful mechanisms and to understand how to change those that are worth changing.
Healthy coping mechanisms
- Breath. A powerful self-management tool. The simplest and most famous is diaphragmatic breathing. It is deep breathing that saturates the body with oxygen, promotes relaxation and reduces stress.
- Release of emotions. My favorite Barbara Sher says that emotions are best released immediately. And considering it doesn’t always look socially acceptable, you have to run to toilet or something and have a little wee, growl, cry, shake, twist your face into a grimace of despair, let your body release it in the form of movements it wants to do, etc. Or scream into the pillow. With such a great habit, you won’t have to explode or burn out.
- Mindfulness meditation. Learn to be present and reduce anxiety and put yourself together.
- Grounding practices. For example, choose an object and think about it as much as you can: what is its shape, color, temperature, size, material, etc. Take a piece of ice in your hands and listen to your sensations. Describe what is around. 5-4-3-2-1 Technique: what five things can we hear, what four things can we see, what three things can we touch from where we sit, what two things can we smell, what one thing can we taste.
- Physical activity. It can be both quick-fix and long-term help, which will help reduce stress and improve your mood.
- Cleaning. Besides being a physical activity, cleaning also gives you a sense of control and the satisfaction of accomplishment.
- Journaling. Write about our thoughts and feelings in order to gain clarity and “talk it out”.
- Artistic expression. Art therapy, art, music, writing, dance, etc.
- Positive affirmations. Let’s catch negative attitudes and exchange them for positive ones.
- Social connection. Friends, family, interest clubs. About loneliness and the importance of this connection here.
- Reading. A good book can help you distract yourself, get lost in a fictional world and see a perspective.
- Volunteering. Helping others can provide a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
- Practicing gratitude. It helps us to focus on the good things that we have.
- Walks in nature. Time in nature to relax and reduce stress.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. We tense and then relax different muscle groups to relieve tension.
- Restrictions on social networks. Take breaks or a minimize the usage of social networks, not to tire your brain, not to compare yourself with others, not to be constantly afraid of missing out.
- Setting boundaries. We learn to understand our own values and boundaries and set healthy boundaries in relationships.
- Therapy. Seek professional help to discuss and overcome difficulties. Life is short and it is worth living it well.
- Hobby. We can’t always choose a job to our liking, but we can always add inner balance and joy by devoting time to what we love to do.
- Humor or laughter therapy. Ukrainian classics, an instrument that is always at hand – as our famous poet said – “to not cry i laughed”. If you can’t find the funny in the tragic, you can at least watch some comedy.
- Healthy eating. Balance what you eat for the sake of well-being.
- Sleep hygiene. Establish a consistent sleep mode with a sufficient number of hours.
- Aromatherapy. Essential oils or scented candles can create a calming atmosphere.
- Learning. Gain new knowledge or skills to stimulate your mind.
- Self-compassion. Treat yourselves with kindness and understanding in difficult times. This is a much better strategy than rumination of guilt.
- Mood tracking. Track your mood to identify triggers and implement coping strategies.
- Music therapy. Listen or play music to evoke positive emotions and reduce stress.
- Gentle touch. Hug those you love, or look for contacts with animals.
- Setting goals. Set realistic and achievable goals to create a sense of purpose and meaning.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms
Harmful coping mechanisms often provide quick, temporary relief, but lead to negative consequences in the future.
Such mechanisms include:
- Abuse of psychoactive substances (alcohol, drugs, medicines)
- Self-harm or auto-aggression
- Destructive behavior (actions that harm oneself or others)
- Refusal. Refusal to acknowledge or accept reality as a way to avoid problems.
- Insulation. Withdrawing from others and avoiding social interaction, or completely ending all relationships.
- Escapism. Overindulgence in activities such as video games, series, or other forms of avoidance of interaction with reality.
- Emotional eating. Using food as a way to cope with emotions, leading to unhealthy eating habits.
- Impulsive shopping
- Self-flagellation. Taking on excessive guilt or blame for situations beyond our control.
- Avoidance, procrastination. Ignoring or avoiding problems instead of solving them.
- Impulsive behavior. Spontaneous actions without consideration of consequences and safety.
- Workaholism. Using work as a way to avoid personal problems or escape from emotions.
- Negative internal dialogues. Critical and harmful thoughts about one’s own person.
- Excessive control. Trying to control every aspect of life as a way to cope with anxiety.
- Compulsive behavior. Repeating certain actions that have no meaning/purpose.
- Rumination. Non-constructive repeatative idle thoughts.
- Perfectionism. Setting unrealistically high standards and sadness from the impossibility of achieving them.
- Aggression. Expressing frustration or anger through the aggressive behavior.
- Manipulation. Using deception or manipulation to avoid consequences or unpleasant situations.
- Self-pity. Obsessing over one’s own misfortunes without taking measures to improve the situation.
- Emotional suppression. Avoiding the expression of emotions, which leads to emotional pumping and exploding or exhaustion.
- Victim mentality. Seeing yourself as a victim without responsibility for your own actions.
- Shifting the blame. Avoiding responsibility with shifting the blame onto others.
- Dependence. Overreliance on emotional support from others without developing personal coping skills.
- Dissociation: Detaching from thoughts, feelings, or surroundings to avoid emotional distress.
Coping Mechanism vs Coping Strategy
A coping mechanism is a habitual reactive action in response to stress, while a coping strategy is a long-term conscious plan of action. Strategy is particularly needed when we want to get rid of unhealthy coping mechanisms and gain healthy ones instead. In fact, I would rather classify a considerable number of coping mechanisms as strategies, because they are not so much a quick fix as a cumulative effect. For example, breathing, meditation, physical activity, contact with nature, journaling, gratitude, psychotherapy, socialization, hobbies. And the most important strategy: daily sufficient amount of healthy sleep.
It is impossible to simply take and cancel all the unhealthy mechanisms without giving yourself anything in return, so you need a solution and a strategy. That’s why 12-step programs are so popular and effective: it’s a decision, a strategy, a commitment, consistency, and the power of habit and small steps.
What can help us develop a coping strategy:
- Introspection. What are the current coping mechanisms and the situations that trigger them. Why do we use these mechanisms? Where did we get these ideas and patterns from?
- Professional help. Psychotherapy is automatically a strategy, consistency and great support. The main thing is to allow yourself to be helped. Who knows, maybe you also need chemical help, a psychiatrist. A very good practical and proven effective method of replacing unhealthy patterns in the head – EMDR.
- Developing healthy alternatives. There are no universal recipes, different things suit different people, that is why self-observation is so important. Identify and implement healthy stress coping strategies to replace unhealthy ones. It is important to look at the root and replace unhealthy things with similar in essence, but healthy ones. For example, 50 push-ups instead of beatings. Breathing instead of smoking.
- Patience. Changing behavior takes time and effort. It’s great to keep some kind of journal to mark and celebrate your progress.
- Support system. Supportive people are very important. Whether it’s a family, a therapist or an Alcoholics Anonymous club.
Books that can positively affect the process:
- Charles Duhigg – “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”
- Brené Brown – “The Gifts of Imperfection”
- Dennis Greenberger and Kristene A. Padesky – “Mind Over Mood: Change Your Mind, Change Your Life”
- Matthew McKay, Jeffrey S. Wood, and Jeffrey Brantley – “The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook: Practical Exercises for Learning Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance”
- Edmund J. Bourne – “The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook”
- James Clear – “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones”
- Melody Beattie – “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself”
- Vishen Lakhiani – “The Code of the Extraordinary Mind: Live Your Own Rules”