General Interest

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Stressful and unpleasant events can happen anytime to anyone, the only thing in your power is the way you cope with them. Whether you’ve had a tough day at work or you’ve been struggling with uncomfortable feelings, having healthy coping skills can help you adapt to changes and restore your emotional well-being.

What is a coping mechanism?

A coping mechanism is a strategy that a person uses to cope with stress and other difficult emotions. These strategies are consciously used by individuals. Usually, coping occurs in the context of negative life changes, but even positive changes require a sort of adaptation and therefore coping skills.

Generally, there are 3 types of coping strategies.

Emotion-focused coping aims to reduce those negative emotions that appear as a result of exposure to a stressful situation. Humor, distraction, seeking social support are some of the emotion-focused coping techniques.

Problem- focused coping includes strategies that help a person to find solutions for the problems considered to be the source of stress.

Meaning-focused coping emphasizes the interpretation of the difficult experience in order to find the positive behind it. The two most commonly used meaning-focused techniques are benefit finding and reordering priorities.

Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms should help a person efficiently adapt to an uncomfortable situation, but some of them only make things worse in the long term. Maladaptive coping is known for relieving symptoms temporarily, but it has negative consequences for your future well-being. Maladaptive mechanisms are unhealthy coping mechanisms, because they can lead to developing anxiety and other psychological problems in the long run.

Adaptive coping strategies are those healthy and effective ways of coping with difficult emotions and life events. A healthy approach significantly decreases the unpleasant emotions and has long lasting benefits for the mental health.

Unhealthy coping techniques are more about avoiding the problem, than actually adapting and learning something from the negative experience.

Even though people may realize that some coping techniques serve only as a distraction from their feelings, they still use them to make themselves feel better for at least a short amount of time.

The problem is that using unhealthy coping for a quick, but temporary relief, creates different kinds of addictions and obsessions like smoking or drinking alcohol.

Those who use unhealthy coping mechanisms refuse to deal with their emotions, thus prevent themselves from personal growth and self-awareness.

Types Of Coping Mechanisms

Healthy (adaptive) coping mechanisms:

Journaling – it is one of the most commonly used emotion-focused coping technique. Setting aside a few minutes every day to write down about how you feel can really help you explore your feelings and get them out of your head. By writing down your thoughts you can get to the root of your emotions and observe them from a different perspective.

Physical activity – exercise has a lot of health benefits, but most importantly, it is a great coping mechanism for stress. During physical activity, your brain produces chemicals that act as natural painkillers, reducing stress related symptoms.

Support – spending time with your friends and family is a better way to cope with stress than isolating yourself and having to deal with negative effects on your own. Also, seeking support from a mental health expert is always a solution for those who are ready to embark on the journey of self-discovery.

Benefit finding – seeking the benefits that come out of stressful events is a meaning-focused mechanism that allows you to perceive the negative situation less stressful.

Relaxation – relaxation techniques improve overall well-being and efficiently decrease stress levels.

Unhealthy (maladaptive) coping mechanisms:

Isolating – keeping things to yourself may sound like the perfect option for someone who is afraid of criticism or doesn’t like sharing their thoughts. But the truth is that talking to someone can help you get insight into your own thoughts and feelings.

Smoking, alcohol consumption and overeating – these unhealthy coping mechanisms help you numb your feelings and bring an immediate relief, but these effects don’t last long. Behaviors like these quickly turn into addictions and start sabotaging your mental and physical health.

Avoiding anything that triggers unpleasant emotions – while it may work for a short time, avoiding triggers your whole life is not only impossible, but also unhealthy. An emotionally mature person will adopt a neutral perspective on those things that cause them

Unhealthy coping mechanisms should not be confused with defense mechanisms, which are considered to be unconscious and primitive strategies for coping with negative feelings. As defense mechanisms are primitive, impulsivity-based strategies, they are likely to be used by those who are emotionally immature and unable to accept the reality as it is.

Some examples of defense mechanisms are projection, denial and passive-aggression.

We are all human and most likely we’ve all used healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through tough times. It may take time to focus on using only healthy coping mechanisms, but little by little you can become more self-aware and conscious of your behavior.

Pay attention to how you behave when you feel unpleasant emotions or face difficult situations. Your reactions to triggering situations can be modified, the key is to focus on your behavior in this sort of situations.

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