What are unhealthy coping mechanisms?

Healthy VS unhealthy coping mechanisms

When people experience stress, they resort to coping strategies. These are actions that we take consciously or unconsciously to deal with problems or uncomfortable emotions. Healthy coping strategies may not provide instant gratification but they lead to long-lasting positive outcomes. They can help individuals process their emotions, increase situational awareness, and move from a negative experience to a positive one. They are exercising, talking about your problem, using relaxation techniques, seeking professional help, journaling, using social support, and problem-solving techniques. Unhealthy coping strategies typically feel good in the moment, but have long-term negative consequences. They often can be harmful and include binge eating, drug or alcohol use, smoking cigarettes,  procrastination, sleeping too much or too little, agressions, and avoidance.

Healthy coping mechanisms help to feel better and give an opportunity for reflection, acceptance, and kindness towards yourself, whereas unhealthy coping mechanisms just distract you, promote problem avoidance and help you feel better only temporarily. We all engage in both negative and positive coping strategies so our goal should be to increase the awareness of our behaviors and notice our urges. Paying attention to your cravings and feelings after using a certain coping mechanism is important to choose more positive ways of dealing with stress.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms for stress

The list of unhealthy coping mechanisms involves:

Escape. If escape is used as a coping strategy, one becomes socially isolated or withdrawn from family members and friends. People who tend to it may become entrenched in reading, watching TV, or spending time online. 

Unhealthy self-soothing. If one resorts to some soothing behaviors excessively, they get unhealthy. For instance, one may use food, alcohol, video games, gambling, or sex to soothe distressing feelings. 

Compulsions. Compulsive behaviors may be represented in various forms. They can include gambling, theft, physical abuse, reckless driving, and so on. Actions of this kind are not only physically and mentally damaging, but can bring criminal implications as well. 

Numbing. In order to ‘disconnect’ from negative feelings, some people may use alcohol, drugs, or binge eating. Sometimes, they are even aware of their actions but they desperately try to stop feeling what’s going on inside.

Typical unhealthy coping mechanisms for depression

Booze. People view boozing as one of the easiest ways to relieve emotional pain. Alcohol can be found in most social settings, so individuals find it a helpful mean to release stress. Unfortunately, this behavior strategy can cause alcohol abuse and lead to dependence. 

Drug abuse. Using drugs to cope with depression is not only ineffective but also can trigger more depression symptoms. After the effects of the substance are worn off, one still experiences deep sadness, irritability, or lack of pleasure. Moreover, drug abuse provokes guilt and shame that make one’s condition even worse.

Overeating. Some individuals try to deal with depression with the help of food. It’s not only unhealthy for your body but literally feeds your depression. 

Shopping. They call it “retail therapy” because it provides some individuals with temporary depression relief. This coping strategy can get yourself in debt and even make things worse. 

Promiscuity. According to some studies, risky sex is associated with depression. Although it can provide short-term relief, this strategy might make a negative long-term impact on emotional and physical health. 

Sleeping. Depression often causes severe changes in sleeping habits. The desire to stay in bed the whole day and not to face your life can be a symptom of depression. Excessive sleep can be used as a refuge from problems. 

Self-manipulation. Causing yourself physical pain can be a way to ease emotional pain. Self-harm is used by nearly 1 percent of people as a coping strategy in depression. 

Suicidal thoughts. Depressed people may view suicide as the best way out of the dark world of depression. Suicide ideation or planning your own death is a sign that one needs urgent treatment. 

What doesn't kill you gives you unhealthy coping mechanisms. How to fix it?

To transit from unhealthy coping strategies to positive coping mechanisms, one can use the following approaches:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It helps people to identify destructive thoughts and explore unproductive patterns that affect unhealthy behaviors. Through completing ‘at-home’ assignments and working with a therapist, individuals start choosing more rational and positive coping strategies.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). This approach also helps people to come to grips with the “grey” areas of life by learning mindfulness techniques, increasing distress tolerance, boosting interpersonal effectiveness, and improving emotion regulation.

12-Step support groups. Such programs help people to follow a path that leads them to greater spiritual wellbeing. They also provide positive reinforcement that emphasizes healthy coping mechanisms. 

Anton Kurapov

Anton Kurapov

PhD, a professor assistant at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. Fascinated by the role of psychology in lives of people and simply astonished by the complexity of the brain and its functions.

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