What You Didn’t Know: How Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms Develop

Learn to develop healthy coping mechanisms

Everyday, we’re surrounded by people who are making a number of choices about how they want to “deal” with their anger, stress and sadness. Oftentimes, we begin seeing different coping mechanisms as a young child – and as we get older, we begin applying what we’ve seen around us to our own lives, because those coping mechanisms – whether healthy or unhealthy – seem to be normal. It’s not uncommon for many to find themselves battling with unhealthy, unproductive, downright harmful coping mechanisms well into adulthood – because coping isn’t something that’s talked about often.

What are Coping Mechanisms?

GoodTherapy.org, a website that pairs individuals with online therapists, define coping mechanisms as,

“…The strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions.”

There are a number of events that can cause us to utilize coping mechanisms, such as divorce, moving, getting married, having a child, buying a new home, losing a loved one and more. While some of these events may feel quite positive, they can still bring about lots of stress; and, if not handled appropriately, that stress can extend into something greater – such as a mental illnessor or even an addiction, especially if a person relies on a substance for too long. There are two types of coping mechanisms people tend to use:

Positive Coping Mechanisms

  • Support – relying on friends, family or coworkers to help a person feel confident about moving forward or to help navigate difficult situations
  • Relaxation – practicing healthy self-care activities, such as taking a hot shower, getting a massage, laying down and reading a book, etc.
  • Problem-solving – becoming an investigator of the problems a person is faced with – and focusing more intently on finding a solution rather than sinking in the problem
  • Humor – making efforts to laugh in the midst of stress as to gain some perspective and release some tension
  • Exercise – going to the gym to release cortisol, the stress hormone; working out has been physically proven to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and other discomforting sensations
  • And more

Negative Coping Mechanisms

  • Escape – becoming socially isolated or withdrawing from friends and family; if escape is used as a coping mechanism, a person may allow themselves to become entrenched in reading a book, watching T.V. or spending time online
  • Unhealthy self-soothing – certain behaviors can become unhealthy if done in excess; for instance, food, alcohol, sex, video games and gambling can become unhealthy coping mechanisms if done often to soothe certain discomforting feelings
  • Numbing – some individuals may pursue behaviors such as alcohol or drugs, eating an excessive amount of food and more to “disconnect” from how they’re feeling; oftentimes, they’re aware of what they’re doing but they desperately want to get away from what’s going on inside
  • Compulsions – theft, reckless driving, physical abuse, gambling and more can become not only physically and mentally damaging, but can also bring about criminal implications as well
  • And more

How They Develop & How to Fix It

The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior explains that those who struggle with addiction often struggle with maladaptive coping strategies; it could stem from denial, blame, guilt, trauma, abuse and much more. Thankfully, a person who grew up learning unhealthy coping mechanisms isn’t “stuck” in employing these strategies for the rest of their lives – in fact, addiction treatment includes exploring this area of a person’s life and helping them to identify and employ some of the healthier coping strategies when difficult thoughts, emotions or situations arise.

There are a few helpful behavioral therapy approaches that therapists can use to help a person transition from unhealthy to healthy coping mechanisms. These approaches may include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

An evidence-based practice, CBT helps clients identify unhealthy, unproductive thought patterns so they can explore how those thought patterns affect their behavior; over time, clients work closely with their therapist and through completing “at-home” assignments to begin choosing thoughts that are more rational, positive and productive for their lives.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

Similar to CBT, DBT helps those in addiction recovery to come to grips with the “grey” areas of life; for some, life is viewed as black or white, but that leaves little room for all the nuances that occur from day to day. As Very Well Mind indicates, DBT is meant to help others live in the present moment while by learning about mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness and emotion regulation.

Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)

For clients who are “on the fence” about whether or not to seek treatment, therapists can utilize MET to guide a client through the costs and benefits of seeking help.

12-Step support groups

Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) give those in recovery the opportunity to follow a path that leads them to greater spiritual wellbeing; for many people this positive reinforcement emphasizes healthy coping mechanisms for them to use over time.

Cumberland Heights is a nonprofit alcohol and drug-addiction treatment center located on the banks of the Cumberland river in Nashville, Tennessee. On a sprawling 177-acre campus, we are made up of 2 12-Step immersion campuses, 12 outpatient recovery centers and 4 sober living homes. We believe that each person has a unique story to tell – and that’s why we always put the patient first.