[Content Warning: Mention of suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse. If you or anyone you know is experiencing an immediate mental health emergency or danger, please refer to the list at the bottom of this page.]
Coping mechanisms are strategies people often use in the face of stress and trauma to help them to manage painful and difficult emotions.
This is often brought about by changes in lifestyle (e.g., the Pandemic) and can be stressful to us. Consequentially, we must be aware of the strategies we use to cope with the changes.
Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them to maintain their emotional well-being. However, there are also several coping mechanisms that help us to deal with the situations temporarily but end up causing more stress in the long run.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms or strategies tend to feel good in the moment but have long-term negative consequences. A maladaptive coping mechanism may include avoiding a person or a situation that causes you stress (isolating yourself), becoming defensive (anger and denial), or harming yourself in one way or another way. Non-exhaustive examples include use or increase in use of cigarette and alcohol, banging your head against a hard surface, cutting yourself, thoughts of suicide.
Adverse Coping Mechanisms
Social isolation’s adverse health consequences range from sleeplessness to reduced immune function. Loneliness is associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates.
The long-term physical effects of uncontrolled anger include increased anxiety, high blood pressure, and headache.
Some people smoke as ‘self-medication’ to ease feelings of stress. Nicotine creates an immediate sense of relaxation, so people smoke in the belief that it reduces stress and anxiety. However, research has shown the exact opposite: that smoking actually increases anxiety and tension.
Alcohol functions by slowing down the central nervous system and creating feelings of relaxation. It also reduces inhibition, judgment, and memory. Because of these qualities, alcohol becomes a way to distance from stressors or challenges an individual may be facing.
Catastrophizing is when someone assumes that the worst will happen. Often, it involves believing that you’re in a worse situation than you really are or exaggerating the difficulties you face.
Disassociation is the ability of the mind to separate and compartmentalize thoughts, memories, and emotions. This is often associated with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Sensitization is when a person seeks to learn about, rehearse, and/or anticipate fearful events in a protective effort to prevent these events from occurring in the first place.
Safety behaviors are demonstrated when individuals with anxiety disorders come to rely on something, or someone, as a means of coping with their excessive anxiety.
Rationalization is the practice of attempting to use reasoning to minimize the severity of an incident or avoid approaching it in ways that could cause psychological trauma or stress. It most commonly manifests in the form of making excuses for the behavior of the person engaging in the rationalization, or others involved in the situation the person is attempting to rationalize.
However, it is also important to remember that there are healthier methods of coping as well. These may not provide instant gratification, but they lead to long-lasting positive outcomes.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Few examples include:
Exercise can lead to sharper memory and help us focus and think clearly. The same endorphins that make us feel better also help us concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Research has also shown that exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.
Journaling helps control our symptoms and improve our mood by helping us prioritize our problems, fears, and concerns; track any symptoms daily so that we can recognize triggers and learn ways to better control them; and provide opportunities for positive self-talk and identifying negative thoughts.
A creative act such as drawing, crafts, and even crocheting can help us focus the mind. This has even been compared to meditation because of its calming effects on the brain and body. Even just gardening or sewing releases dopamine, a natural anti-depressant. Creativity reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and it can also help us process trauma.
Learning new things
This helps us with our brain health and memory. Neurologists tell us that learning a new skill changes the physical structures of the brain. Similarly, in the process of learning new things, we end up fostering connection with others, thereby keeping our social skills sharp and fighting loneliness.
Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history with increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior.
In 2011, Sara Lazar and her team at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation can actually change the structure of the brain. Eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was found to increase cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory.
To sum up,
Coping mechanisms are the various ways in which an individual deals with stressors. Understanding our coping styles is important to support our coping efforts.
If you experience stress, trauma and do not know how to cope, you can also seek support from a counselor or other mental health professional who are there to help you develop and improve your coping skills. Counselors are professionally educated and trained to provide you with help and information on coping mechanisms and the sessions with them are safe and non-judgmental environments where your wellbeing is the first thing that matters.
We can start small with, for example, lowering our expectations from ourselves and others; reaching out for help or assistance in time of need; learning to take responsibility; and trying to maintain emotionally supportive relationships and emotional composure (or, alternatively, expressing distressing emotions in the company of people one loves or trusts). These can help us significantly along the road to wellbeing.
Being aware of the varying ways in which we cope with situations, learning the appropriate skills that do not cause us harm in both short and long run, and seeking information and support in times of need can have significant positive impact on our states of health.