What Are Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms And How To Develop Healthy Habits

Over time, we develop habits that get us through tough times and help us deal with unusual amounts of stress. Stress can stem from pressure at work to perform better, difficulties at home, relationship troubles, etc.

These troublesome times can make us look for an outlet to relieve ourselves of intense feelings or emotions that they cause, such as indulging in a fancy dinner or going out and having a good time with friends.

These outlets, or ways to “cope,” are otherwise known as coping mechanisms. We can utilize unhealthy coping mechanisms or healthy coping mechanisms.

Why do we use coping mechanisms?

Coping mechanisms are usually a strategy or technique that helps us regulate our stress levels. Without them, we run the risk of being in a high-anxiety, tightly-wound state of mind constantly.

Coping mechanisms help us feel better and redirect the stress by refocusing our thoughts on something else.

However, there are both positive and negative coping mechanisms. Experts sometimes refer to these as adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies.

Positive coping strategies are ways to cope that attempt to solve the stress long-term. Negative, unhealthy coping mechanisms include harmful strategies to reduce the stress that are often short-lived and do not tackle the real issue at hand.

Using different methods of coping rather than facing a situation head-on can become addictive. Because we look for a sort of quick release for our feelings, we often turn to remedies that can further harm our mental health.

Anything that becomes habitual can become an addiction, so it’s important to turn to healthier coping mechanisms when we need an escape.

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Examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms

Unhealthy coping strategies can be destructive. Although they may seem like the better option because they provide quicker relief, i.e., going to the bar and drinking a beer or taking shots reduces anxiety faster and are more common than practicing mindful activities like journaling and meditation. 

Below is a list of destructive coping strategies in nature and they are problematic for those who turn to them when dealing with anxiety or stressful situations.

1. Avoiding the issue

One of the easiest ways to deal with stress is to avoid it altogether. Confronting our issues can sometimes make us feel afraid because we’re not sure of the outcome.

Therefore, running away or acting as if the issue doesn’t exist can give us a slight feeling of relief. But this phenomenon is also known as ‘avoidance behavior’ and can be an unhealthy coping mechanism because it teaches us to avoid anything that inconveniences us and our mood.

Coping with pain, stress, discomfort, and unfamiliar situations are all a part of the human experience, so it’s best not to rely on avoidance as a way to deal with these challenges.

2. Excessive drinking or smoking

Drinking alcohol can reduce stress because it numbs our feelings. Alcohol is mostly a depressant, which means it slows down bodily functions.

Drinking excessively can cause relaxation since the body is not functioning at normal levels, therefore putting us in a drowsy or sedated state as it decreases the heart rate and blood pressure.

Alcohol abuse can lead to various health problems if excessively used long-term, which is why it is not seen as a healthy option to use when attempting to cope.

Nicotine is another addictive substance. It releases the chemical dopamine within the brain, which sends out pleasure signals within the body. Because of this, nicotine is a common coping mechanism because it makes the body “happy.”

However, nicotine addiction can be harmful to the cardiovascular system and lead to illnesses such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), heart disease, stroke, and even death.

3. Drug abuse

Like nicotine and excessive drinking, substance abuse is another negative coping mechanism that can have long-term health effects if used in continuous reliance.

Self-medicating is harmful because it causes us to rely on drugs for anxiety relief and that relief is normally over with quickly, leading us to need it more and more.

Over time, if we continue to resort to these substances, it can lead to drug abuse and substance addiction.

4. Compulsive spending

A well-known way to make ourselves feel better, especially with women, is to go shopping. A new outfit, pair of shoes, or an electronic device that we have been eyeing for a while may seem more tempting when we are looking for a bit of relief from a stressful situation.

However, constantly buying things for ourselves when dealing with stress or anxiety can make it an unhealthy coping mechanism to lean on.

Compulsive spending can also be seen in those who gamble. When it becomes excessive or the amount of money lost during the activity increases, it can turn a healthy activity into an unhealthy one.

Bad gambling habits can make those who enjoy it exhaust all of the funds from their bank account, so they have to take out loans to cover debt or borrow money from their friends or family members.

5. Overworking

If the stress from our lives stems from problems at work, it’s a common behavioral technique to push ourselves harder to impress our boss or coworkers. We may stay late, pick up more shifts, or do tasks outside of what we are initially assigned.

Overworking can lead to using other unhealthy coping mechanisms to adapt to the added stress it causes, such as smoking, drinking, or drug abuse.

Throwing yourself into your work may seem like a good choice initially, but it can actually make your mental state worse if not approached properly.

6. Excessive sleeping

Sleep can be the perfect stress reliever for anxiety because it allows us to essentially cut off our brains and stop thinking about whatever it is that is bothering us.

Taking a nap when we are stressed is okay, but when we rely on sleep rather than seeking help, or when we turn to supplements to put us to sleep, it quickly becomes an unhealthy behavior.

Our bodies need stimulation and exercise to function properly, so excessive sleeping can negatively affect our health over time.

7. Not eating/overeating

Our appetites are also affected by how we are feeling from time to time. Anxiety can cause you to feel nausea or pain, therefore making it harder to eat in balance. We may find ourselves not eating at all or overeating in order to cope with our feelings.

Long term, these habits can form into unhealthy eating disorders, such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge-eating disorder. These disorders are incredibly harmful to the body and can cause excessive amounts of damage to the stomach and digestive system and the heart and brain.

Developing healthy coping mechanisms

Although distractions from feelings are still considered coping mechanisms, there are ways to strengthen the mind and body rather than harm it.

Positive coping mechanisms rely on redirecting our thoughts in helpful ways that benefit us for much longer than just in the moment.

These mechanisms can be as simple as going for a drive and playing your favorite music or taking a few moments to even out your breathing or meditate to calm yourself down when you are feeling panicked.

However, it’s important to monitor these distractions, so they don’t become another form of addiction. If relied on too heavily, anything can become an unhealthy habit. Such as; exercising excessively, worrying too much about our diet, etc. and can turn a positive response into a negative one.

Take some of these positive coping examples below and try to incorporate them the next time you are feeling overwhelmed.

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1. Take care of your body

Physical exercise is a great coping mechanism because it gets us up and out of our depressed or sedative state and into a state of movement and increases blood circulation to the brain. Exercise also releases endorphins that improve our self-esteem and bodily functions.

By joining a gym or taking a class, exercise can also be seen as a form of social interaction, which is important when attempting to distract ourselves.

Try incorporating a walk a few times a week, or try another aerobic exercise with a friend such as jogging, swimming, or dancing to get yourself moving.

2. Mindful eating

Rather than relying on junk food or sweets, it’s better to develop the habit of eating balanced, healthy meals that fuel our body and mind. This is incredibly important if you are partaking in a new exercise routine such as the ones mentioned above.

Try to eat small meals with recommended amounts of carbs, protein, and fat throughout the day rather than eating all at once or only relying on a single fatty or sugary snack to hold yourself over.

Understand exactly how long it will take to break a habit here.

3. Making time for friends and family

Social activity can benefit our mental health by taking our minds off of things; making time for the people we love can be a positive way to cope because it keeps us from isolating ourselves when we are feeling down.

If you are looking for a healthy distraction, try calling up a friend to get dinner or do an activity you both enjoy together. By spending time with others that are important to us, we can reduce anxiety and depression while improving our self-esteem and cognitive function.

4. Counseling

Positive coping mechanisms are often learned through treatment. Seek professional help if you feel that you cannot connect with a positive coping mechanism by yourself. An affordable and convenient option to find a suitable therapist is Online-Therapy where you can speak with a therapist from the comfort of your own home.

These professionals can help you improve your mental health by helping you replace negative coping mechanisms with positive ones, so don’t be afraid to get help from a professional if you are looking to better yourself and your coping strategies for the future.

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