Life is always going to present challenges in one form or another, no matter who you are. Even when you believe you have your life together, something stressful can come along and shake you up. How you deal with stress and challenge your sense of well-being is very important to consider.
Some of life’s challenges are small, some are big, and some are extremely difficult. When life gets tough, we help ourselves get through the situation by engaging in coping behaviors.
Coping behaviors help us overcome or make sense of challenging situations. The American Psychological Association defines coping behaviors as:
A characteristic and often automatic action or set of actions taken in dealing with stressful or threatening situations. Coping behaviors can be both positive (i.e., adaptive). For example, taking time to meditate, pray or exercise in the middle of a hectic day. Or negative (i.e., maladaptive, avoidant). For instance, not consulting a doctor when symptoms of a severe illness appear or continue to persist.
As outlined in the APA definition of coping, coping behaviors can be positive or negative, or healthy or unhealthy. Healthy coping mechanisms allow us to process our difficulties and overcome our challenges effectively. Unhealthy coping mechanisms deter our problems in the short term but can cause further harm in the long run.
In this article, we’ll explore some healthy coping mechanisms and how you can apply them to any situation that challenges you. First, let’s understand what makes a coping mechanism unhealthy.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms
If we feel unable to deal with a stressor, we might feel helpless or powerless, damaging our self-esteem. Without healthy coping skills, we might use unhealthy methods of coping with our problems.
Unhealthy coping behaviors typically manifest in the form of emotional defense mechanisms. They offer immediate relief from the stress of a situation but fail to solve the problem effectively and eventually exacerbate it.
Defense mechanisms alter our feelings or interpretation of a situation. They don’t tackle the reality of the problem but instead shift our focus away from it, so that we don’t have to deal with distressing or uncomfortable emotions.
Below we have outlined some of the most common unhealthy coping mechanisms people use when faced with complex and overwhelming challenges and emotions.
Examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms
Projection is a common but extremely unhealthy coping strategy. When we project, we deal with emotions that we deem ‘unacceptable’ by painting them onto another person.
For example, suppose we fear being unfaithful to our partner because we are attracted to someone else. In that case, we might deal with it by accusing our partner of cheating or being interested in another person.
We are not always aware that we are projecting, but doing so can damage our romantic, familial, and professional relationships, so it’s important to be mindful of our coping mechanisms.
Self-medication is a common but extremely dangerous coping mechanism. ‘Self-medication’ refers to the use of substances to cope.
Drugs and alcohol may help us find relief from our stress in the short term but pose a severe health risk in the long term.
Any relief gained from substance use is temporary. Soon after we take a drink or swallow a tablet, the substance peaks, but it doesn’t take long for its effects to wear off. When we eventually come down, we find that we’re left with the same problems as before.
Using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress can lead to physical and mental health issues. Prolonged misuse of substances can lead to dependence, whereby a person feels that they need drugs or alcohol to regulate themselves and will struggle without them.
Dependence leads to addiction, a chronic and progressive health condition. A person is driven to use a substance on a neurochemical level and can’t stop using despite clearly negative consequences.
Addiction can cause or exacerbate other underlying health issues, such as depression, anxiety, cancer, cardiovascular problems, and insomnia.
Denial is an unhealthy coping mechanism through which we ignore a problem by convincing ourselves it doesn’t exist. If we struggle to deal with our emotions, or we become overwhelmed by bad or distressing news, we might enter a state of denial to help ourselves cope.
Facing or accepting reality head-on may overwhelm our ability to manage, so we aim to preserve our psychological well-being by denying it. Like substance misuse, denial can offer emotional relief in the short term but is ultimately maladaptive.
For example, if you have a drinking problem, you might deny that the problem exists when someone confronts you about it. You would make up several excuses for drinking or suggest that your drinking habits are not causing problems when that is clearly untrue.
Dissociation is a coping mechanism that involves moving uncomfortable feelings and emotions out of our awareness. Dissociation is a type of survival response.
Over our evolution as a species, we developed several survival responses to help us deal with threats to our life or well-being. Fight or flight is a well-known survival response in all animals and is also something that we do as humans.
It is characterized by an aroused nervous system, a rapid heartbeat, a state of ‘readiness to fight a threat we believe we can defeat or flee from an undefeatable danger.
If fighting and fleeing are not viable options, a third survival response kicks in – freeze. In most mammals, the freeze response looks like paying dead, which gives the animal enough time to pause and then escape at a better opportunity.
As humans, however, we don’t play dead when we’re overwhelmed. Instead, we tend to dissociate. We convince ourselves that an event is not happening and may even enter a fantasy world where we feel safe. Dissociation may serve a survival purpose, but if we repeatedly dissociate, we never learn to deal with reality as it is.
All of the above unhealthy coping mechanisms are maladaptive means of achieving emotional regulation. To live a more healthy, happy, and well-regulated life, it’s essential that we identify and address our unhealthy coping strategies and replace them with more positive, growth-oriented, and solution-focused approaches.
Understanding healthy coping mechanisms
Developing healthy, adaptive coping skills is key to living a healthy and happy life. There will always be stressors, difficulties, and challenges, and they’ll often come at unexpected times.
While you can’t take away the natural problems that life will throw at you, you can develop positive, solution-focused skills to help you cope and manage.
Below we will explore different types of healthy strategies for coping, after which we’ll offer some practical advice on how to develop these coping skills and apply them to your life. You can thank us later!
Emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies
There are two distinct types of coping behaviors, both of which focus on different goals. These are known as problem-focused strategies and emotion-focused strategies.
What is a problem-focused coping strategy?
Problem-focused coping strategies focus on the problem at hand. If an issue is causing you stress, you would tackle the issue directly.
For example, if deadlines at work are causing you to feel stressed and overwhelmed, you could tackle the problem by working on time management. You could try to organize your tasks by priority and adhere to a strict, well-thought-out schedule to get things done.
Alternatively, you could focus on tackling the problem at hand by refusing to take on more work than you could reasonably get done.
What is an emotion-focused coping strategy?
Emotion-focused coping strategies focus on the emotional aspect of the problem. For example, if stress at work is overwhelming you, emotion-focused coping strategy would focus on shifting your perspective or changing your feelings so that they don’t exacerbate the situation and change how it’s affecting you.
Emotion-focused methods are instrumental when we are powerless to change our external environment.
Tips for healthy coping
If stress impacts your ability to cope, you don’t need to turn to substances, project your fears and worries onto others, or deny your deepest emotions.
Below you will find some evidence-based, positive coping skills to prevent stress from affecting your health and well-being.
1. Seek support
Seek support from friends, family, or mental health professionals. A therapist can help you identify and address the stressors in your life and provide cognitive and body-based coping skills to apply whenever situations in your life become overwhelming.
Friends and family may be able to offer a compassionate ear to which you can vent or express your concerns. Of course, your friends and family may not be able to fix your problems for you, but having someone to listen and offer any advice is a great way to relieve some of your stress.
2. Use humor
You might feel like you are unable to think of anything but the stressor and how serious it is. The truth is that there are always alternative points of view. A simple perspective shift can offer some much-needed relief when life feels like too much. Try to see the funny side of things if you find yourself taking life too seriously.
Mediation has consistently been proven to reduce stress levels and improve mood. Meditation is an emotion-focused coping mechanism. It involves bringing mindfulness awareness to the breath and learning to detach from our thoughts and beliefs.
Overthinking, especially during times of stress, only exacerbates the issues. Begin a mediation practice to slow down your thoughts and get your mind into a blank state.
Exercise has a profound positive impact on your ability to tolerate stress. Consistent scientific evidence proves that exercise improves mood and increases emotional resilience. It also helps the body exit its stress response when the threat has passed.
Sometimes, when faced with a stressful situation, we enter fight or flight and exhibit hypervigilant or anxious behaviors. Such a response is natural, but often we remain in that state even when the stressor has passed. Regular aerobic exercise helps the body recover faster from stressful events.
5. Cultivate a new skill
Perhaps your stressor is that you feel you don’t have enough experience or knowledge about something. You might have dreams of becoming a filmmaker, but you have no experience, and as each day goes by, you’re not doing anything about your goal because you don’t know where to start. The idea of not achieving one’s dreams is a significant source of stress.
To overcome this stress, do something everyday, or as much as you can, to get yourself closer to your dream. If it requires a specific skill, learn that skill. You don’t have to become a master in one day, but if you’re actively improving your skills, you’ll likely feel more confident, and a lot less stressed.
6. Keep a journal
Keeping a journal is an evidence-based healthy coping skill. Research proves that journaling about your stressors can offer some fresh perspective.
Once you write down a stressor, follow that by writing down your reaction, you take it out of your head and put it in front of you on paper. You can gain an objective perspective on the issue, making it easier to find an effective solution.
The Bottom Line
If you’re struggling to manage your stress levels because life has become overwhelming, try to apply at least one of the healthy coping strategies outlined above and see if it makes a difference. You can use all of the strategies if you like.
When combined, the strategies mentioned above will help you get a handle on your stress and prevent it from harming your physical and mental health and well-being.
Of course, if your stress has a severe impact on your well-being, consider speaking to a therapist. Stress is a natural part of life, it can become a health issue if it persists and you find yourself engaging in unhealthy behaviors to cope.
Whether you do it on your own or use a combination of therapy and self help you can develop some emotion-focused and problem-focused coping strategies to live a much healthier, happier, and relatively stress-free life.