Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are strategies that people use to deal with difficult emotions, often resulting from challenging life circumstances. New behaviors and thought patterns kick in after stressful events or traumatic episodes.  Keep in mind that coping mechanisms are thoughtful and purposeful while defense mechanisms are reactionary and often subconscious.

What Is Coping?

Life doesn’t always go the way you plan. Challenging events, such as divorce, miscarriage, exam stress, and the death of loved ones, inevitably arise, leading to feelings of fear, stress, and anxiety. Even seemingly positive events, such as landing a new job, giving birth, or graduating, can lead to negative emotions.

Coping strategies kick in when you respond in some way to these new circumstances. In some cases, coping is internal, such as repeating a mantra to oneself or trying to reframe the event in a positive light. In others, it is behavioral: you do something different, such as taking your mind off what’s happening or finding ways to numb the feelings. 

Even mundane life events may trigger the need for coping. Receiving a nasty email from your boss or finding out that you’ve put on ten pounds can all cause distress that provokes a response.

How Coping Differs Between People

Psychologists divide coping skills into two categories: instrumental and emotional-focused. You may be more prone to using one or the other, or both.

Instrumental coping is all about problem-solving. Here, you attempt to deal with the negative emotions you are experiencing by changing the situation. For instance, if you are feeling fearful about a new job role, you might begin avidly researching everything entailed by the new position. Likewise, if you are pregnant and worried about birth, you might begin reading books on achieving successful pregnancies. 

Emotion-focused coping strategies are more reactive. These involve changing how your psychology reacts. Instead of trying to do something directly, you change your reactive thought patterns. 

Psychologists also categorize coping strategies as active or avoidant. These overlap slightly with instrumental and emotional-focused responses. In active coping, you attempt to consciously reduce the impact of the negative event or situation on your life. With avoidant coping, you try to minimize the impact of the problem by simply avoiding it or pretending that it isn’t there. 

Are Coping Methods Effective?

By definition, coping mechanisms kick in when life events and circumstances affect us in an emotionally negative way. Unfortunately, not all of them are productive, and some can be outright harmful. 

Psychologists divide positive and negative coping strategies into two categories: adaptive and maladaptive. 

Adaptive coping mechanisms are strategies that deal with emotional distress while supporting your long-run wellbeing. By contrast, maladaptive coping provides immediate relief but generates negative consequences later on.

Examples Of Adaptive Coping

There are plenty of healthy coping skills you can develop and deploy when life throws a curveball at you. 

Here’s a list:

  1. Get active. Physical activity is a powerful natural stress reliever. Running, yoga, jogging, team sports, and dance help you feel positive about your life, even if you are living through challenging circumstances. Exercise makes you feel better by activating certain feel-good mechanisms in the brain, reducing the emotional impact of the situation. 
  2. Add humor. Humor is a stress-reliever with virtually no downsides. If you can make light of a grave situation, then it helps to make it more bearable. 
  3. Solving the problem. Addressing and then eliminating the source of the problem can make you feel significantly better.
  4. Asking for help. Getting support can be a potent way of managing stress. You can almost always find someone who has been through a similar situation to you and ask them how they made it through. Alternatively, speak with a professional therapist.
  5. Relaxation. Relaxation can be a good strategy for people who get stressed out by regular life events. Taking time to calm yourself down helps you feel more peaceful and less worried about the future. 

Examples Of Maladaptive Coping

Of course, there are some coping strategies that are downright dangerous. Here’s a list: 

  1. Numbing behaviors. Many people going through challenging life circumstances will attempt to blot out the pain with certain activities, including drinking, drug taking, and eating junk food. While these might provide immediate relief, they ultimately make the problem worse.
  2. Some self-soothing behaviors. Self-soothing is generally a good thing, but it can go wrong if taken to extremes. Drinking too much or playing video games all day can adversely affect well-being and life success. 
  3. Self-harm. Self-harm is a way to cope with stress and trauma but it comes with the risk of serious injury and death. 
  4. Escapism. Coping may also involve attempting to escape. For some, this means becoming socially isolated from friends and family, withdrawing from social activity, avoiding work, or spending excessive time watching television. 
  5. Taking risks. Lastly, in some cases, stressful situations can cause people to engage in compulsive risk-taking. These could include gambling, practicing unsafe sex, drug experimentation, and reckless driving. 

Coping Skills For Depression

Depression can be traumatic in itself, increasing the need to deploy coping skills. Healthy coping in this context could include: 

  • Meditating: Trying to find a separation between consciousness and the racing thoughts of the mind
  • Physical activity: Exercise rebalances chemicals in the brain and releases feel-good hormones
  • Improving diet: Anti-inflammatory foods may help to fight depression
  • Journaling: A way to externalize the negativity and low mood associated with depression
  • Practicing various affirmations: Examples include “I am more than my emotions and feelings”

Coping Skills For Anxiety

Anxiety can lead to feelings of panic and despair, even in the absence of disrupting life events. Here are some healthy coping skills to manage your next attack:

  • Reduce caffeine intake 
  • Learn about the symptoms of anxiety disorder
  • Reframe the situation
  • Do something active, like dancing or singing
  • Take a vacation or a break from work
  • Ask yourself what you are feeling stressed about and whether it is worth it

Help in the Denver Area

If you are going through stress and don’t know how to cope, we can are here to help. Therapists can provide support and introduce you to effective and healthy coping strategies. 

We invite you to call us at 720-551-4553 for a free 20-minute phone consultation with an anxiety specialist. You can schedule your appointment via phone, and read more on the Anxiety Page on our website.

Self Care Impact Counseling envisions a new age of counseling for adolescents, adults, couples & groups that makes a REAL difference with core values of GROWTH | BALANCE | COMPASSION | INNER HARMONY.