5 Healthy Coping Mechanisms (and 5 Not-So-Healthy Ones)

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Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
July 21, 2024 at 10:16PM UTC
Life can be hard. Personal and professional issues sometimes come tumbling down on us at once. How we manage the stress, anxiety and other negative emotions during trying times is called coping, and coping mechanisms refer to our management strategies. Because a stressful situation doesn't just disappear overnight, we need healthy, long-term strategies to keep ourselves on as much of an even keel as possible.
Good coping mechanisms, such as having stress-relieving hobbies, curating a positive social network or developing a better awareness of your emotional state, are essential to navigating your way out of unpleasant situations. Just as important, however, is breaking away from any unhealthy coping mechanisms you already have in place. In the long run, unhealthy strategies will only exacerbate your situation.

What does coping mechanism mean?

We all deal with stress and can experience anxiety and depression as a result. No matter how we try to avoid them, bad things still happen to us. Coping mechanisms are the ways we see ourselves through these rough patches, both emotionally and psychologically.
While it's easy to develop some pretty unhealthy strategies for managing stress or even trauma, the good news is, with a little time and effort, you can adopt and adapt to new, healthier coping mechanisms.

What are 3 coping strategies?

There are three general "types" of management strategies. They comprise the internal and external coping mechanisms that, working together, can get you out of your rough patch in one piece.

1. "Thinking"

These mechanisms have to do with how we organize, or re-organize, our thoughts about what's happened or is still going on. It's getting your mind right and finding a more manageable perspective than before.

2. "Feeling"

Feeling mechanisms are all about getting your heart right, so to speak. You acknowledge and process all the feelings triggered by whatever events you're experiencing. By doing so, you can begin to work through them.

3. "Doing"

Maybe you find a new approach to communicating an issue you're having at work, or maybe you decide you need to make some major lifestyle changes at home. "Doing" is exactly that: action-oriented mechanisms with which you begin to resolve your situation.

What are positive coping strategies?

Positive coping mechanisms are active, conscious efforts directed either toward managing the situation and reducing the stress or looking inward in order to self-soothe and enact self-care. Healthy stress-management strategies accept and deal with the situation, rather than avoid it.

Me time. 

Maintaining a healthy balance of time spent at work or in service to others and time spent caring for yourself is a crucial coping mechanism. Just because things are crazy at home, work or both doesn't mean you can afford to let yourself slide on the things you like to do.

Check up from the neck up. 

Cultivating self-awareness helps you check in with yourself and get to the heart of an issue sooner. Otherwise, you may not know you're stressed to the max until you snap at a stockgirl at the grocery store for not knowing where the quinoa is...

Regular physical activity. 

Exercise, even just dancing around the kitchen while you make dinner, does the body and the mind a world of good. There's a ton of science behind this, but you already know how good it feels to break a sweat when you're stressed.

A healthy support system. 

Cultivating a group of positive, well-adapted people to be around and reach out to is so good for you when life starts going sideways. It really does take a village to soothe a panic attack.

Proper self-care. 

Eating well, getting plenty of sleep and exercising all form the basis of healthy habits, which in turn create patterns of self-care that can carry you through times of upheaval. The best coping mechanism is the one through which you're able to take care of yourself simply by default.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms.

These focus on avoiding your issues altogether, either by way of procrastination or falling into habits that mentally and emotionally check you out. Much as someone suffering a bout of depression will sometimes sleep and sleep, unhealthy coping mechanisms are ways of just not dealing, period.

• Drinking. 

Sure, having a glass of wine at the end of a long day or a few drinks at the end of a long week, are both nice ways to relax. But the problem with alcohol is that is can stop being a tool and start being a problem.

• Drugs, prescription or recreational. 

Not only is drug use obviously dangerous to your health and your life, nothing that causes you to simply check out from your difficult situation is going to do anything to help you resolve it.

• Isolating yourself. 

When we're really in our feelings, the idea of talking about them can seem exhausting. But isolation leaves you at the mercy of your thoughts and any negative self-talk.

• Physically dangerous activities. 

You can dive too far into exercise or sports and come out the other side, into the realm of unhealthy and unnecessary risk. Some people do so for the surge of adrenaline, in order to feel up after feeling down, but others are playing a kind of Russian roulette of avoidance. Neither is healthy.

• Poor self-maintenance. 

Uneven sleep patterns, junk-food foraging and couch-potato tendencies all lead to an emotional yoyo-ing. Yeah, that candy bar gives you a rush, and binge-watching an old favorite show can be fun, but at some point, you're going to crash back to reality. And your problems will still be there.

How do you develop healthy coping mechanisms?

As with mental health issues, the first step to adopting healthier modes of thought and action is building your self-awareness. Introspection will give you a clear idea of just how healthy/unhealthy your coping habits currently are.
From there, a therapist can help you un-learn any unhelpful habits. And you can make a point of filling your social circle with people who have healthy habits — people you can rely on and also learn from. Most people with unhealthy coping mechanisms often never had healthy strategies modeled for them as children or young adults. Being around well-balanced and happy individuals is invaluable.
The bedrock of creating your own personal toolbox of coping mechanisms, however, is your attitude. Do you want to handle stress well, and bounce back from upheaval? Are you willing to do the hard work to break old habits and forge new? Feeling good and managing negative emotions begin with the decision to learn how. After that, it's just a matter of time and effort.

Final thought

We all go through hard times. How you cope with them is the difference between surviving and thriving. By consciously cultivating healthy stress-management strategies, you can go from being stressed and falling back on toxic habits to managing that stress with healthy, effective coping mechanisms.

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