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What an Unhealthy Coping Mechanism Looks Like


min read


Most people develop habits which then act as a way of coping with stress. Unfortunately, many of those habits are negative ones. These are called coping mechanisms, and they help us to get through difficult situations in which we find ourselves. However, by its nature, a coping mechanism is simply avoiding the issue in hand, and we all know that ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away.

Some people view a coping mechanism as a form of addiction. Coping mechanisms, like the majority of habits, have addictive qualities. We experience a compulsion towards them and often find it hard to resist them. Coping mechanisms are used as distractions, and a crutch to rely on to avoid stress. Therefore, a coping mechanism isn’t really a true choice that you make, it is an unconscious habit which can be harmful to your well-being.

What Is A Coping Mechanism?

Most people have experienced stressful situations from time to time when we feel that we’re unable to cope. Whether those situations involved something as serious as a loved one dying or something as simple as breaking up with a partner, they can trigger us to use a coping mechanism to get over the feelings and emotions that we are experiencing.

Some coping mechanisms are positive ones. They are beneficial, useful and constructive, producing a positive outcome. However, other coping mechanisms are negative, with damaging, unhealthy and harmful mechanisms which produce a negative outcome.

Although a positive coping mechanism is a good way of overcoming a problem, many people choose negative coping mechanisms instead. This is because, while they don’t offer long-term solutions to problems, negative coping mechanisms do produce an immediate effect, one that reduces your stress in the short term.

Sadly, using a negative coping mechanism only masks the stress and difficult emotions for a short period of time. They actually cause the dysfunction to increase over time by maintaining and strengthening it.

Maladaptive And Adaptive Coping Mechanisms

When we use the word “coping”, we’re usually referring to an adaptive coping mechanism – a strategy which helps us to reduce our stress level. However, many strategies increase stress levels instead. These are known as maladaptive coping mechanisms.

If you imagine the following stressful situation, we can see how maladaptive and adaptive coping mechanisms are very different.

Imagine you’ve had a challenging day in the workplace and now you’ve returned home to find your home in a mess and the kids running riot. You’re ready to break down with stress.

An adaptive way of handling the situation would be to get out of the house and take a walk in the fresh air until you’ve calmed down. A maladaptive way to handle the situation would be to go to a bar and consume huge amounts of alcohol to forget about your problems.

An adaptive coping mechanism may include getting some help from those who can offer support like a friend or counselor. It may include journaling, taking some exercise or meditating. A maladaptive coping mechanism may include avoiding a person or a situation which causes you stress, becoming defensive or harming yourself in some way.

While adaptive coping mechanisms are healthy and positive, maladaptive ones are negative and could harm your health in the long run.

If you react to a stressful situation in a maladaptive way, you can develop anxiety disorders and become too reliant on people or objects. This leads to dysfunctional behavior patterns. While the maladaptive coping mechanism helps you to feel safe and secure, stopping your anxiety in the short term, in the long term, it only creates more problems. The more you avoid a stressful situation, for example, the more isolated you’ll become. The more you lash out at others as a coping mechanism, the more other people will ignore and avoid you. It goes without saying that the more you harm yourself to reduce your anxiety in the short term, the more physical and mental health problems that will cause in the long run.

Conversely, reacting to stressful situations in a healthy and mature way is a positive response. Adaptive coping mechanisms enable you to use your internal strength and knowledge to adjust to negative situations and avoid over-reactions or incorrect reactions. Rather than screaming, yelling and getting irate if somebody cuts you up in the rush hour traffic, an adaptive coping mechanism would be to switch on the radio and sing along to a tune that makes you feel happy. Instead of handing in your resignation after a dispute with your manager at work, a positive coping mechanism might see you jotting down your feelings and thoughts in your diary. By redirecting negative thoughts or even stopping them completely, you’re creating a peaceful outcome to the negative situation.

What Is A Positive Coping Mechanism?

There are many kinds of positive coping mechanism which you can turn to in a challenging situation. Many people find that prayer or meditation gives them the essential time to refocus on the important things and self-reflection. Finding a way of stopping negative thoughts is important, and by carrying out meditation every day, you can eventually retrain the brain to eliminate negative self-talk.

Finding ways to distract yourself is a positive coping mechanism. Going out for a walk or drive, participating in an activity that you enjoy such as playing an instrument or knitting, or working out at the gym, can all be adaptive strategies for coping.

The best way to develop positive coping strategies is to see a counselor. Counselors can help you to change the way that you feel and think about certain situations so that you can cope with them in more positive ways.

Is A Coping Mechanism An Addiction?

Addictions take numerous forms. Some are obvious, both others are much more subtle. Of course, some are obviously harmful. Relying on drugs, alcohol, dysfunctional eating patterns or gambling are just a few of the most obvious forms. However, virtually anything can turn into an addiction over time, even simple things like exercise, work or watching the TV. Subtle addictions may not seem to be particularly destructive. However, if they start to take up all your attention and time and stop you from enjoying a full life, they begin to move into dangerous territory. When you develop an obsession with anything which needs to constantly be satisfied, your coping mechanism is beginning to take over your life. It is, therefore, becoming an addiction.

Emotional and mental patterns which have addictive qualities must be addressed in just the same way as a physical addiction to a substance. Unfortunately, however, they are harder to spot. It is often a doctor, therapist, friend or family member who first notices that you are becoming addicted to a certain way of thinking or feeling as a coping mechanism.

There are a few things you can do yourself to spot whether you have a coping mechanism which is turning into an addiction. Look at the ways in which you’re spending your time. What do you automatically do when you’re feeling uncomfortable or stressed. Does the way in which you’re engaging in those activities have a habitual or addictive pattern? Are you allowing this behavior to control your life?

Examples Of Negative Coping Mechanisms

Unfortunately, all too often when a stressful situation strikes, we turn to negative coping mechanisms rather than positive ones. While it would be great if we could all distract ourselves when a crisis hits, most people instinctively opt for a maladaptive coping mechanism, all of which can be harmful and many of which can have long term implications which can have a severe impact on your own life and the life of those around you.

Of all the negative coping mechanisms out there, these nine are the most common and also, arguably, the worst.

1. Avoiding The Issue Altogether

Anxious avoidance is an extremely common strategy employed to cope with situations that make you feel afraid. It makes sense on the surface to try to stay away from anything that makes you anxious or worried. However, over time, that fear is strengthened and maintained if it isn’t confronted. While avoidance brings immediate relief, learning to confront your worries is the best way forward in the long run.

2. Smoking

Many people turn to smoking as a way of coping if they feel stressed as it brings a sense of immediate relief. It also gives you something to focus on and to keep your hands occupied. While smoking is a form of distraction, it is a negative one and has severe negative financial and health implications for the future.

3. Spending Compulsively

One common way of handling stress is to shop compulsively. While buying a new pair of shoes or a piece of jewelry may make you feel good in the short term, in the long term, it could cause a host of problems. Some people begin to hide purchases from their family, or take out loans or credit cards so they can carry on spending when their bank account runs dry. As a result, the whole family can face a financial burden.

4. Drinking Excessive Caffeine

Just like when you smoke, you get an instant sense of relief whenever you drink coffee. That helps in the short term to cope with the stress, however over the long term, it can cause problems. You can develop a caffeine dependence which, in turn, causes caffeine crashes as well as poor quality sleep.

5. Running Away

It isn’t too surprising that lots of people try to run away from situations that produce anxiety. Being able to escape the immediate circumstances which are triggering the fear brings an immediate feeling of relief. The next time a similar situation arises, you remember that you felt relieved when you escaped the last time, and therefore you try to run away from it again. This is a terrible strategy, however, and can lead to increasing isolation. It can also cause family members to become distressed as they’ll never know where you’re going and when you’re coming back. Also, if you continue avoiding panic-inducing situations, you’ll never be able to make the anxiety go away by itself.

6. Consuming Too Much Alcohol

Depending on alcohol to reduce stress is extremely common since drinking excessively helps you to numb your emotions and feelings. Drinking excessively has many negative health implications, however, and if you continue to drink to excess you could end up with liver damage, cancer or other health issues.

7. Excessive Sleeping

Some people retreat to their beds when they’re going through a stressful time since sleeping represents an effective way of avoiding thinking about a situation. While it may seem that this isn’t too destructive a problem, the human body requires outside stimulation and exercise to stay healthy.

8. Promiscuous Behavior 

Some people find that going out to have meaningless sex is a way of blocking out stressful situations. However, this can be a dangerous practice and can cause a host of problems in your life. You may lose committed relationships and friends due to promiscuous behavior and could end up with sexually transmitted infections.

9. Eating Disorders

One very common negative coping strategy is to use food to forget about your problems. For some people, this takes the form of overeating whereas, for others, it takes the form of severely restricting their calorie intake. Either way, an eating disorder can have serious health ramifications and can be life-threatening.

The Importance Of Developing A Positive Coping Mechanism

Although most of us know that we should be looking for more positive ways to cope with stressful and difficult situations rather than relying on negative behavior patterns, unfortunately as humans we seem to have an instinctive tendency to turn towards maladaptive coping strategies in times of crisis. It’s therefore important to be aware of which coping methods are negative and which are positive, and take proactive action to stop yourself from using negative strategies and focus on positive methods instead.

Whenever you feel stressed or afraid, you should confront your fears and try to stop yourself from running away. By remaining in the situation, you will learn eventually that anxiety abates over time. You should also maintain a positive lifestyle, exercising and eating in a moderate and healthy way. By taking up a productive pastime like knitting, woodwork or baking, you can also learn how to distract yourself from stress in a positive way rather than engaging in negative distraction techniques like compulsive shopping or drinking to excess.

Although a negative coping mechanism may bring you instant relief, over a long time it will only cause more damage. Therefore, seeing a counselor to help point you towards more adaptive mechanisms could be beneficial in helping you to live a happier life and to have happier outcomes whenever you’re faced with a stressful situation.

If you or someone you love are dealing with an unhealthy coping mechanism that negatively affects your life – especially in the case of an eating disorder – get professional help from a facility like The Meadowglade! We’re here to help you get your life back on track!

Fight for yourself, not with yourself.

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