What Are Coping Mechanisms for Stress?
Stress feels different for everyone. Some people are overtaxed by stress, collapsing on their bed at the end of the night in exhaustion. Others run on espresso, ignoring their body’s signs that it is stressed. They continue to go, go, go, and may not even realize that they are overwhelmed until they have already burned out.
Whether you are an overextended business owner, busy college student, or working mom, you’re not alone in facing chronic stress. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, 3 out of 4 Americans reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress in the past month.
Coping mechanisms are behaviors that prevent us from losing the battle to stress. At their best, they increase our resilience and help us remain energized and motivated in the face of anxiety and overwhelm. At their worst, they can lead to lifelong bad habits that fuel anxiety and sustain the cycle of stress.
Healthy coping mechanisms do not come intuitively to everyone. Most of us have at least one “vice” or unhealthy coping mechanism that we continue to use despite knowing that it is bad for us. For you, it might be something small, like binge-watching television or biting your nails, or it could be something big, like substance use or self-harm.
It’s important to know that we are not stuck with our present coping mechanisms for life. Though it takes years of practice, it is possible to unlearn negative coping behaviors and replace them with positive ones. The process of replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms does not happen overnight, but you can make the decision today to start trying — here’s how.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
We may or may not be conscious of the coping mechanisms we use to deal with stress. Many of us have developed unhealthy habits that we do not realize are harming our mental well-being.
As you learn about healthy and unhealthy ways to cope, it’s important to forgive yourself for using unhealthy coping strategies in the past.
We cope in ways that are familiar to us. These unhealthy behaviors may have been taught to us by a caregiver, whether consciously or unconsciously, or we may have learned them in response to childhood trauma.
When recognizing unhealthy coping mechanisms for the first time, you may feel guilty for not choosing better strategies for dealing with stress. But in order to choose better coping mechanisms, we have to know what they are.
Reviewing the following examples of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms may help you identify old habits that are no longer serving you. It will also familiarize you, perhaps for the first time, with new, healthier ways of coping that you can use to displace harmful coping mechanisms in your everyday life.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Substance use. 1 out of 12 Americans suffers from some type of addiction. Addictions to drugs and alcohol often start as coping mechanisms before turning into physical dependence.
Overeating. Many of us associate food with emotions. We may turn to familiar foods, like ice cream or pizza, for comfort. Emotional eating is not inherently unhealthy. However, when we lose control of our emotional eating behaviors, we can develop binge-eating disorder, which leads us to eat large amounts of food in short periods of time.
Procrastination. Anyone who has missed a deadline at work or forgotten a school assignment does not need to be told twice that procrastination can wreak havoc on our lives. Believe it or not, procrastination is not sheer laziness: it is often an anxiety-driven behavior. Perfectionists may put off starting a task because they cannot perform it to their unreasonably high standards.
Over- or under-sleeping. When we are stressed, we may overcompensate by staying up too late in order to get more tasks done. Or, we might oversleep in order to escape dealing with our problems. Regardless, over- or under-sleeping has real consequences on our health that can backfire, especially in the long-term.
Social withdrawal. Our support systems play an important role in stress management. While our natural tendency may be to withdraw from social situations when we are overwhelmed, it’s healthier to do the opposite, by leaning into our loved ones for support.
Self-harm. People who do not suffer from self-injury are often puzzled by this behavior. It can be difficult to understand how hurting yourself could provide a sense of comfort or ease — but for people who engage in self-harm, cutting, burning, or scratching themselves is a coping mechanism that helps them manage overwhelming emotions.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Exercise. As the infamous Legally Blonde quote goes, “exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy.” While it’s not quite that simple, research supports that exercise — especially vigorous aerobic exercise — is a powerful coping mechanism for stress and anxiety. Working out takes advantage of the mind-body connection by allowing us to release negative emotions through movement while doing something constructive.
Healthy eating. Taking care of the body allows us to take better care of the mind. Stress weakens our immune system — and for most of us, getting sick is the last thing we need when we are busy or overwhelmed! While many of us want to reach for “junk food” like chocolate or chips when we are stressed, a more useful approach is to pay more attention to what we put into our bodies. There is evidence that a balanced diet rich in whole foods and healthy fats can help our body build resistance to stress and strengthen the immune system once again.
Social support. Spending time with friends and family may be the last thing on our minds when we have a packed schedule — but it’s even more important to make time for socializing when we are stressed. Sharing your problems with someone you’re close to can lighten the burden of stress. Even if you don’t feel like talking about what’s bothering you, sometimes getting away from the source of your stress for an hour or two to grab coffee with a friend or go on a date with your partner offers a much-needed shift in perspective.
Relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques are like a mini-vacation for your mind — in fact, meditation has been shown to have a longer-lasting effect on stress than a “real” vacation! Yoga, meditation, or even taking a bath can give you a few moments of mental space from stress, allowing you to go back to the day’s activities feeling relaxed and refreshed.
Problem-solving techniques. Perhaps the best way to reduce, or even eliminate, stress is to solve the problem that’s stressing you out in the first place. The problem-solving process can be broken down into four simple steps: examining the problem, defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and taking action. When faced with a challenge, many of us go through these steps automatically. Others may need to take time to think through their problem more concretely or even take notes on the steps they want to take to solve their dilemma.
How to Change an Unhealthy Coping Mechanism
Long-term change is never easy. The longer we have relied on our unhealthy coping mechanisms, the more difficult they are to replace with healthier behaviors.
If you have ever made a New Year’s resolution before, you probably know what it’s like to try and fail at establishing a healthy habit. Even though we know they are good for us, we are always tempted to turn back to what we know.
Changing an unhealthy coping mechanism can be challenging, but it gets a little easier when we understand the psychology of building new habits and tolerating distress. Here are a few actionable tips for replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with better habits.
Understand the Golden Rule
Did you know there’s a treatment called “habit reversal training” that’s all about helping us break our bad habits? Coping mechanisms are essentially habits, so the same rules apply to changing our negative coping strategies into positive ones. According to habit reversal training, the Golden Rule of Habit Change is that every habit has three components: a cue (a stimulus that triggers an automatic behavior, a.k.a. the habit), a routine (the behavior itself), and the reward (which helps our brain remember this behavior for later). Based on this cycle, the best way to change our bad habits is to retain the trigger and reward, while replacing the behavior with a more positive coping mechanism.
Take Opposite Action
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches distress tolerance skills to help patients build greater resilience to overpowering emotions. In DBT, patients learn how to tolerate distress in a number of ways, but one of the most important strategies is taking opposite action. According to DBT, we can improve our distress by acting oppositely from the emotion or impulse we are feeling. For example, if feeling stressed would normally trigger us to order unhealthy takeout, we might cook a healthy meal for ourselves instead. We might not always “feel like” taking opposite action based on our emotions in the present moment, but by replacing negative behaviors with their antonyms, we can substitute positivity and resilience for stress.
Replace Negative Thoughts
Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) thinks of our behaviors as a product of our thoughts, and our feelings as a product of our behaviors. In other words, by changing our thoughts, we can substitute more positive behaviors for negative coping mechanisms. Building confidence helps us build resilience to stress, so we can become more resilient simply by engaging in positive self-talk. For many of us, negative thinking patterns become automatic, just as our habits do. By replacing automatic negative thoughts with their positive opposites (as we would with our behaviors in DBT), we can retrain our brains so that in time, automatic positive thoughts replace automatic negative ones, and positive self-talk replaces negative self-talk.
Image Source: Joyce Barwiss
Track Your Behavior
Consistency is key when it comes to forming new behaviors, according to research performed at University College London. One way experts suggest maintaining consistency is through self-monitoring. A checklist, journal, or even an app that allows you to tick off a box whenever you perform a healthy habit can help you keep track of how well you are doing at replacing your unhealthy coping mechanism. If you are able to maintain consistency, that’s great — keep it up! If not, that might be an indication to reassess your strategy. Maybe there is a different healthy coping strategy that will work better for you or a different approach you can take to make your new habits stick.
Seek Professional Help
When all else fails, or when you’re dealing with something that’s more serious than a simple “bad habit” (such as self-harm or substance abuse), it might be time to turn to the experts. Our trained therapists can help you target self-destructive behaviors and hold you accountable for replacing them with healthier habits. They can also help you work through the negative thought patterns and limiting beliefs that might be keeping you stuck in unhealthy habits. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you cope better with stress.