There’s no doubt a lot is going on in the world, and it’s having an impact on our mental health. Stress levels are high as we face increasing levels of fear, grief, guilt, and frustration. On a global level, we have collectively dealt with new challenges and circumstances in addition to the stresses we all have at home. Our family, work, money, friends, and health can become sources of stress as well those topics making headlines.
When we are stressed, we look for ways to cope. We instinctively want to feel better – even if just for a few moments. This is where coping mechanisms come in. Coping mechanisms are strategies we use when dealing with trauma or stress to help manage or reduce these difficult emotions. These are often conscious, purposeful, and individual for each person.
We all have coping mechanisms. Sometimes they are helpful, and other times they can do more harm than good. Adaptive coping mechanisms are the “good kind”. They are healthy and effective ways to manage life’s challenging situations and can be categorized into five different types:
Seeking support: When you are stressed, do you call up your best friend, confide in your partner or talk it over with a therapist? If so, you are practicing an adaptive coping mechanism known as social coping. This involves seeking out external support rather than internalizing, which helps reduce the adverse effects of a challenging situation.
Humor: Although some may say you have a “dark sense of humor” when you make jokes about stressful events, it can be adaptive when appropriate and in the right setting. A sense of humor can help maintain perspective and prevents you from becoming overwhelmed.
Problem-solving: Focusing on the resolution and actively trying to reduce the source of your stress is considered an adaptive coping mechanism.
Physical activity: Recommended by mental health professionals and physicians, engaging in physical exercise is a great way to deal with stress and cope with trauma.
Just as there are healthy, adaptive coping mechanisms, there are also those not-so-good-for-us mechanisms. We’ve all engaged in these at one point or another. When you were in college and had a big paper due, you may have gone out and partied with friends instead of dealing with it. Or, perhaps you escaped through hours and hours of Netflix. Despite temporarily providing us with some short-term relief, maladaptive coping mechanisms can leave us feeling worse in the long run. These types of coping mechanisms are counterproductive and often come with negative consequences. Some maladaptive coping mechanisms include:
Numbing: This is when you attempt to numb your feelings with a substance or activity. This can be done with unhealthy food, drugs, or alcohol.
Escaping: Watching an episode or two of your favorite TV show is perfectly fine, but when you start skipping precious sleep on your buckwheat pillow to binge-watch hours of television or become socially isolated because you are spending too much time online, it becomes maladaptive.
Self-harm: When some people feel extreme stress or isolation, they may turn to self-harm behaviors
As you go through different life chapters, you may find yourself falling into these maladaptive coping mechanisms – and may not initially realize how they can be hurting you. The first step in developing healthy coping mechanisms is identifying those that don’t serve you. Take a close, objective look at what you do when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed and ask yourself whether you are comforting or numbing.
On the surface, healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms can look similar. A little TV time, fast food, a glass of wine – these can be okay in moderation and when they serve to comfort rather than numb. When the item or activity comforts you, it will make you feel content and relaxed. Ultimately, it will make you feel better, and you easily stop. Alternatively, when we do these activities to numb, we can do them too frequently or without an intention, resolution, or relief.
Coping mechanisms can also be divided into two groups: problem-focused and emotion-focused. Emotion-focused coping skills focus on changing your feelings. Again, this can be done in an adaptive or maladaptive way. Here are some great adaptive, emotion-focused coping mechanisms:
Go for a walk.
Getting outdoors for a change of scenery will help you feel better and get a new perspective. For example, let’s say you are working from home and just got an email from a co-worker that has sent you into an emotional tailspin. Rather than run to the kitchen for junk food, go for a walk. Exercise combined with time outside will give you the mental space and time needed to understand your emotions. By the time you return, you will likely feel calmer and can approach the issue with a level head.
Mindfulness is defined as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” There are a number of ways you can practice mindfulness, such as listening to music, playing with a pet, or meditating. Engaging in a spiritual practice, like meditating with crystals, can ease stress and make you feel better.
Finish a task.
Completing a task can make us feel good. Write down your to-do list (if you haven’t already), and complete one of the items on your list. For example, folding the laundry or cleaning your bathroom and then checking it off your list. This act can help you feel more in control and motivated to do more. If you aren’t up for cleaning, read a chapter in a book, spend 20 minutes gardening or cook one of your favorite dishes.
Creativity sparks joy, even if you don’t feel you are the “creative type.” The outcome of your creativity isn’t important – it’s all about the process. Put on some music and color, paint or draw. Elicit the company of a friend for some added social support.
Learn a new skill.
This can be both problem-focused and emotion-focused, depending on the subject matter. For example, if you are stressed about an upcoming presentation at work, you can study and practice to feel more prepared and knowledgeable about the subject. Alternatively, you can learn a new skill for pleasure. For example, try learning to play an instrument, to knit, or pick up a language? If there is something you have always wanted to learn, dedicate an hour or two each night. As you improve, you will feel a greater sense of joy and accomplishment which will help reduce stress.
Ask for help.
Family, friends, co-workers, and mental health professionals can all be a source of help, support, and guidance. You don’t need to bottle your stress inside. Sharing your concerns and feelings with another person can help you become more clear on your emotions, and talking it out can help you find a solution and other ways of coping.
If speaking to others doesn’t feel right, try writing it out. You can help control emotional over-reactions and dissect stressors by putting your feelings on paper. So start writing, and don’t overthink it; let your emotions pour out onto the paper. You may be surprised what pops up from your subconscious, giving you alternative perspectives and ultimately helping you feel more in control of your situation.
Get enough sleep.
Sometimes, you need a good night's rest on your buckwheat pillow to help you feel better about a situation. When you feel stressed, try not to spend all night awake, obsessing over a solution. Instead, practice some mindfulness and get to bed. When we are well-rested, we are better equipped to handle stress and adversity.
When you consciously work on your coping skills, you will be able to better respond to any future bumps along the road. Research has shown that adaptive coping strategies can help you manage inevitable future obstacles and life changes. For example, a study conducted in 2014 found that those who regularly engaged in proactive coping were better able to handle the changes they encountered after having a stroke.
Healthy coping mechanisms aren’t one-size-fits-all - what works for someone else may not work for you. For example, having a bubble bath may work for you but not for your partner. In some cases, you may also find that each situation requires a different approach. For example, work stress may be relieved by watercolor painting, and home life stress is a better dealt with by hiking at a nearby conservation area. So try a different approach and see what feels best.
Continue to dial in and ask yourself whether you are feeling content and satisfied or if you are numbing, as this will help ensure you practice healthy coping mechanisms.