Coping Mechanisms: The Positive and The Negative
Coping mechanisms are tools we use to deal with challenging or unpleasant things. People may develop a coping mechanism to manage stress, deal with pain, or address the symptoms and challenges related to trauma or another struggle. Unfortunately, unhealthy (harmful, adverse, or negative) coping mechanisms are used more frequently than positive ones. It is important to point out that harmful coping mechanisms are, more often than not, little more than a way to avoid the problems we face.
What are Coping Mechanisms?
People talk about coping, coping strategies, or coping mechanisms frequently. Many do not mention that there are different types of coping mechanisms: positive and negative. Everyone needs to use some form of coping mechanism now and then. We will inevitably experience a situation or event that we cannot manage easily. The list of possible things is long, but a few quick examples may be the death of a loved one, an illness, a failed relationship, or losing a job. Each of these things and more can lead us to use coping mechanisms to reduce the severity and complexities of the emotions and feelings that we experience.
Some coping mechanisms are positive. This means they are beneficial, constructive, and helpful. When used, a positive coping mechanism produces a positive outcome. However, not all coping mechanisms fall into this category. Some are negative. These damaging or unhealthy coping mechanisms can create harmful and potentially dangerous outcomes that impact your physical, psychological, and spiritual health. Depending on the severity of the harmful coping mechanism, they can also lead to legal consequences and death.
Positive coping mechanisms are a great way to overcome stress, however. They are often not as straightforward or as quick. Therefore, many people choose negative coping mechanisms because they offer a perceived benefit that occurs much faster. Although most negative coping mechanisms do not provide a long-term solution to the problem by hand, they do often produce immediate effects (for example, drinking alcohol will quickly dull many painful emotions) that can reduce stress for the near future. In time, however, harmful coping mechanisms can cause new or worsening problems that are far greater than the stressors that exist in the here and now.
What are Positive Coping Mechanisms?
Positive coping mechanisms, also called adaptive coping mechanisms, are a healthy and beneficial way to manage challenging situations. Positive coping mechanisms are tools and strategies that can be used to reduce high levels of stress. The way you react to a particular situation defines the “type” of coping mechanism. It is considered a positive response if you respond to stressful situations healthily and maturely. Positive 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 off during rush hour traffic, a positive coping mechanism would be to turn on the radio and find something to listen to. Instead of saying “I quit” and storming out of the office after a dispute with your boss, a positive coping mechanism might involve journaling about your thoughts and feelings or meditating on them to reduce their significance. By redirecting negative thoughts or even stopping them completely, you’re creating a peaceful outcome to the negative situation.
Examples of Positive Coping Mechanisms
There are various things you can do to manage stress and other challenges in healthy, positive ways. A few examples include:
Learn about and incorporate mindfulness into your routine
Mindfulness skills such as mindfulness meditation and yoga have been used for centuries to help people improve relaxation and focus. Mindfulness techniques are a safe and healthy way to reduce stressful feelings while focusing your mind on the present. Mindfulness helps take your mind off of the outside circumstances that lead to ongoing stressors. Incorporating these practices into your daily routine is a great way to improve health, flexibility and incorporate low-impact exercise into your daily practice.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet and focus on your sleep
Diet and proper rest are vital to maintaining your health, both emotional and physical. When you suffer from chronic fatigue, your body and mind cannot function as it needs to. It will struggle to carry out vital functions without adequate energy. The same applies to your diet. When your diet lacks essential nutrients, your body cannot perform at optimal levels because it lacks the vital building blocks it needs to do so. Feeling exhausted and worn out makes it easier for stressful emotions to cloud your thoughts. You can cope with stress by maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and choosing healthy foods.
Avoid known stressors
If you are aware of particular circumstances (including people, places, or events) that often trigger a stress response, it is important to reduce your exposure to them when possible. This may be easier said than done, as some of these stressors may be parts of your daily life, such as a toxic co-worker or a frustrating morning commute. However, it is essential to remember that if something causes stress, actively engaging with it will only increase your stress in the long term. If you can, try to avoid these situations but if you must engage in them, do so when your mind and body are in a healthy space.
What are Negative Coping Mechanisms
Negative coping mechanisms act in the opposite way as positive coping mechanisms. When someone chooses a negative, harmful, or maladaptive coping mechanism to react to a stressful situation, it can lead to worsening mental health and even physical health conditions. Because most negative coping mechanisms involve substances, objects, or even people, using harmful coping mechanisms frequently can make you reliant on situations that can only worsen the struggles you currently face. Although negative coping mechanisms can help you feel comfortable and even safe from insecurity in the short term, they can lead to significantly worsening problems in the long term.
Examples of Negative Coping Mechanisms
Unfortunately, negative coping mechanisms are often the first place people turn when faced with adverse situations. Because most negative coping mechanisms produce immediate results, they are often the more favorable option to something that takes work, effort, or time. Examples of some common harmful coping mechanisms include:
Self-medication is the term for using drugs or alcohol to manage stress. People can also use self-medication to manage pain, pre-existing mental health conditions, or other adverse situations that impact their day-to-day life. Drugs and alcohol are effective in immediately reducing the intensity and severity of many symptoms, whether it be trauma, depression, stress, or chronic pain. However, drinking excessively or turning to drugs will inevitably lead to harmful and potentially fatal health impacts down the road. Additionally, what begins as a small dose or one drink negatively evolves into dependency and addiction (commonly referred to as a substance use disorder). Even though substance use may seem like a beneficial and effective way to manage your symptoms, the effects of the substance you use will wear off, and the symptoms you were trying to avoid will inevitably return.
Maintaining a healthy diet is vital to your body’s overall health. Every organ in the human body requires specific vitamins and nutrients to perform adequately. Without a proper diet, long-term physical and emotional health effects can occur. Unfortunately, a common negative coping mechanism is to use food to help reduce the impact of a current stressor. For some, this can be overeating (sometimes called stress eating), and for others, it takes the form of significant calorie restriction. It is not uncommon for people experiencing significant amounts of stress to feel “not hungry.” Either way, whether overeating or undereating, this form of coping can lead to disordered eating, which can have severe and potentially fatal medical impacts.
Engaging in Dangerous or Harmful Behaviors
Sometimes people use potentially harmful or dangerous behaviors as a way to cope. This can include smoking, excessive spending, gambling, promiscuous activity, and many other examples. Again, many of these behaviors or actions provide a sense of immediate relief that helps to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Sometimes, shopping, gambling, smoking, and other forms of maladaptive coping can help take your mind off the current situation. However, like other harmful coping mechanisms, there are potentially dangerous, legal, and medical complications that can arise from these behaviors.
Choosing a positive coping mechanism is not always easy. Negative coping mechanisms often seem to work better and faster. Although some harmful coping mechanisms are indeed quicker to take effect, their harmful impacts can be detrimental to your long-term health and wellness. Suppose you are a loved one is struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction, or another medical or mental health issue that causes challenges in your day-to-day routine. In that case, it might be beneficial to seek help at a treatment center like The Meadowglade.
At our rehab center, a team of caring and compassionate treatment professionals will work with you to help address the root causes of the concerns that lead to negative coping mechanisms. If you struggle with addiction, we can help you progress through detox and begin your journey towards recovery. If the root cause of harmful coping lies in trauma history or another mental health diagnosis, we can work with you to develop a therapeutic plan that can help you learn more about your mental health and how to safely and effectively manage symptoms in the future. Perhaps most importantly, seeking help ensures you have the opportunity to learn, practice, and reinforce positive coping mechanisms that can help you heal and maintain lasting recovery. To learn more about our programs, contact us at The Meadowglade today.