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Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Reading Time: 3 Minutes

Coping mechanisms are thoughts or behaviors that help with internalized and externalized stressful situations and unpleasant emotions. Coping mechanisms are conscious and voluntary acts that differ from defense mechanisms, as defense mechanisms are subconscious or unconscious acts. However, both coping and defense mechanisms aim at preventing or reducing unwanted stress.  

Coping mechanisms come in all shapes and sizes 

Coping mechanisms come in different shapes and sizes, meaning unhealthy and healthy coping mechanisms exist. In general, there are two types of coping mechanisms; reactive coping and preventative coping. Reactive coping refers to coping mechanisms after an emotion or behavior occurs. For example, if an individual is going through a divorce and is using coping strategies to overcome negative feelings associated with the breakup, this can be seen as reactive coping. An example of preventative coping is when an individual uses coping mechanisms to prevent entering into a maladaptive relationship with a partner.  

Coping styles include problem-focused and emotion-focused coping styles. An example of a problem-focused coping style is when you frequently fight with your romantic partner, and it is becoming toxic; you have a couple of ways to cope, including setting boundaries, seeking therapy, or ending the relationship. An example of emotion-focused coping is when you feel stressed or anxious about being around a large group of people; a couple of coping mechanisms include deep breathing, pre-planned topics of conversation, and bringing a friend who can support you.  

What are unhealthy coping mechanisms? 

Unhealthy coping mechanisms can lead to maladaptive patterns and behaviors that can result in negative emotions, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. Unhealthy coping mechanisms include using drugs or alcohol, denying or avoiding the situation, angry outbursts, binge eating or purging, toxic positivity, excessive exercise, self-harm behaviors, isolating yourself, and negative thoughts. Substance use disorder often results from a pattern of unhealthy coping mechanisms (misusing alcohol or drugs). For example, maybe an individual experienced a past trauma or a misfortunate life event that left him feeling empty inside. This empty void is sometimes filled with unhealthy coping mechanisms that may feel good over the short term but may result in dangerous or unhealthy long-term consequences such as developing an alcohol use disorder.  

Signs of unhealthy coping mechanisms 

  • – Your coping mechanisms make you feel good in “the now” but feel worse in the long run. For example, avoiding a situation that is an unhealthy coping mechanism by spending all of your time at work may seem like a good idea at first. However, over time the situation is still present, and by avoiding it, you haven’t done anything to address it. Likewise, by avoiding the situation at home, you may feel guilt, anxiety, and emptiness over time.
  • – If your coping skills worsen the initial problem, you may be practicing unhealthy coping skills. For example, if you have a glass of wine to help settle your anxiety about a work project, but that glass of wine turns into a bottle of wine, and you wake up too hungover to be productive at work, alcohol in this manner could be making your initial problem worse. Individuals who are stressed are less productive, and therefore it is important to find coping mechanisms that reduce your stress to increase and improve your productivity.
  • – If your coping skills are harmful to your physical or mental health 
  • – If your coping skills are negatively impacting your personal or professional relationships.

How to adopt healthy coping skills 

Healthy coping skills can sometimes be difficult to adopt, requiring time, energy, and routines. For example, surrounding yourself with a positive support network may take time, as meeting healthy, happy people can be challenging. Talking with a therapist about adopting positive coping skills that may be best suited for your life can be the initial step in adopting healthy coping skills. To adopt and practice healthy coping skills, we often must identify our underlying triggers, and therapy can help us do just that. Some positive coping skills include: 

  • – Finding new hobbies and passions 
  • – Exercising (but not over-exercising) 
  • – Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises 
  • – Spending time with a trusted friend 
  • – Journaling
  • – Listening to music 
  • – Therapy 
  • – Challenging and reframing your negative thoughts into neutral or positive thoughts

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