What Are Healthy Coping Mechanisms?
You might remember the movie Soul Surfer about the professional surfer Bethany Hamilton. In 2003, when Bethany was a teenager, a 14-foot tiger shark bit off her left arm. Bethany’s story is exemplary not only for her bravery but also for her use of healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma she experienced.
Following her attack, Bethany relied on a strong support system of family and friends. She traveled to Thailand with her youth group to use her surfing skills to help children affected by a major tsunami. Rather than destroying her belief in a higher power, Bethany’s faith grew as a result of her trauma.
As a result of these healthy coping mechanisms, Bethany was able to achieve posttraumatic growth: what psychologists like Dr. Melanie Greenberg define as “the ability to derive positive benefits from adversity.” We may not all experience the trauma of a life-threatening shark attack over the course of our lifetimes, but we can all take lessons in coping from Bethany’s story.
In the face of adversity, Bethany did not withdraw from her social supports but leaned into them. She did not lose her faith but strengthened it. She did not become powerless but used her experiences to help others. These are just a few examples of healthy coping mechanisms we can use to grow from difficult experiences in our lives.
Read on to learn more about types of healthy coping mechanisms and how they can be applied in the face of adversity to help us achieve posttraumatic growth.
What is Trauma?
70 percent of the U.S. population has experienced trauma. When we talk about trauma, we often refer to traumatic events like natural disasters, sexual assault, or going to war. In reality, however, the word “trauma” describes a person’s subjective response to an event in their lives. Theoretically, any experience could be traumatic, depending on how a person perceives it. Sometimes, trauma is described as generational. This type of trauma includes racial and ethnic discrimination experienced by multiple family members. In this case, the trauma response is passed down from generation to generation. Someone who has experienced generational trauma may or may not have experienced the direct effects of discrimination, but harbors trauma as a result of what their family has gone through.
The human body has an instinctive reaction to trauma. Our emotional reactions can include sadness, anger, shock, disbelief, and numbness, while our physical reactions can range from agitation to persistent fatigue, to difficulty sleeping. It’s important to remember that while these reactions can feel distressing, they are a natural experience in the wake of trauma. While we should adopt healthy coping mechanisms to deal with them, we need not blame ourselves for experiencing a range of emotional and physical responses in the aftermath of trauma.
Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms
Coping mechanisms are important for all of us, not just those of us who have experienced trauma. The same coping strategies can be used to help us manage everyday stress at work, at school, or at home. However, in the face of adversity, our coping mechanisms become even more important.
Whether good or bad, coping mechanisms are used instinctively as a means of survival. As we attempt to navigate the aftermath of trauma, we turn to our coping mechanisms to help us get through the experience however we can. These coping mechanisms may be adaptive (positive) or maladaptive (negative).
Both of these responses to trauma are normal, but in order to achieve posttraumatic growth, we must try to replace maladaptive coping strategies with adaptive ones. In the next section, we’ll talk about some positive coping strategies you can use to cope with adversity, whether that takes the form of serious trauma or day-to-day stress.
How to Cope with Adversity
So, how can we turn adverse experiences into posttraumatic growth? Like Bethany Hamilton, we need to rely on our healthy coping mechanisms to help us create something positive from our traumatic experiences — and to constructively manage everyday stress.
These strategies will help you actively cope with the physical and emotional effects of stress and trauma. Read on to discover some of our favorite healthy coping mechanisms for achieving posttraumatic growth.
Build a Strong Support System
Research shows that social support from family, friends, and loved ones enhances our resilience to stress and improves our response to trauma. In contrast, a lack of social support is correlated with higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
It’s clear that a strong support system is an important component of any healthy coping strategy, yet in the face of trauma, reaching out to others might go against our instincts. Many people feel tempted to withdraw or self-isolate following an adverse experience.
If this describes you, you can use a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skill called opposite action to strengthen your social supports — whenever you feel like isolating, take the opposite action and reach out to a member of your support system instead. Others may have difficulty expanding their support networks, which can make it difficult to know who to reach out to following stress or adversity.
Making friends as an adult is a daunting task, but you can make it easier by taking stock of resources in your area. School clubs, religious communities, volunteer meetings, and support groups all provide excellent opportunities to expand your support network and strengthen your social support systems.
Practice Mind-Body Awareness
The term “spirituality” refers to the process of seeking meaning in life and reflecting on our internal experiences in a broader context than that defined by a church or religious group. Regardless of whether or not a person is religious, spiritual practices like meditation and mind-body awareness encourage us to broaden our sphere of self-awareness and derive greater meaning from life.
Research shows that a greater sense of spirituality fosters our sense of connection to others, aiding in the process of posttraumatic growth. The results of this research have been so powerful that clinicians are developing spirituality-guided forms of psychotherapy to help participants increase their resiliency to trauma.
Spirituality grows as our level of consciousness or awareness expands. The practice of mind-body awareness asks us to turn our attention inwards and broaden our consciousness to include even the tiniest of sensations we feel in our bodies. You can practice mind-body awareness through a broad set of practices, including meditation, yoga, and biofeedback.
In one study of veterans with PTSD, mindfulness practices were associated with a reduction of negative symptoms. Another study of women with chronic, treatment-resistant PTSD found that yoga shows great promise as an effective treatment for PTSD. These practices, built on a foundation of mind-body awareness, attest to the success of spirituality in increasing our resilience to the physical and emotional effects of trauma.
Focus Your Attention on Others
Did you know that helping others can help you heal yourself? Whether through donating to charity or volunteering our time, research shows that doing good promotes our emotional well-being and combats feelings of depression. In fact, MRI scans show that donating money to charity activates the same part of the brain as having sex or receiving money ourselves.
Giving without the promise of receiving increases our resilience to stress by reducing stress-related activity in the brain. According to Emily Ansell, a researcher at the Yale University School of Medicine, “our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.”
Focusing our attention on helping others also allows us to view both traumatic experiences and everyday stress within a broader context. Compared to the tsunami victims Bethany Hamilton helped in Thailand, for example, relearning how to surf following a shark attack may have felt less insurmountable. The experience could have helped her feel more gratitude for the things she had — such as a stable home — that the tsunami victims did not.
We don’t have to travel halfway across the world to make a difference in the lives of others. You can volunteer your time with a local organization, like an animal shelter or food pantry, right here at home. Giving money or blood also takes little effort but can have a huge impact on the lives of others….not to mention, it makes you feel good, too!
Don’t forget the small things, either. Helping an elderly neighbor carry their groceries inside or lending an ear to a friend who is having a bad day is just as valuable as volunteering or donating to charity.
Take Time for Self-Care
The phrase “self-care” has only become trendy in recent years, yet the need to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally is as basic as our drive to eat, sleep, or even breathe.
Science supports the basic human need for self-care. As many as 70 percent of social workers who work with traumatized clients experience secondary traumatic stress — the effects of which can be reduced by effective physical, emotional, and professional self-care. Additionally, U.S. medical students — a demographic with a high suicide rate due to chronic stress and academic pressure — who practice self-care report better quality of life and greater resiliency to stress.
Clearly, self-care has powerful effects on our physical and mental health, especially when it comes to resiliency to trauma and stress. But knowing how to practice effective self-care, and finding the time to do it, is not as simple as recognizing that we need to do it.
DBT offers guidance for emotional self-care in the form of a technique called self-soothing. Self-soothing is a collection of ways to practice effective emotional self-care by engaging in activities we find comforting. The best way to practice self-soothing is by engaging the five senses. For example, utilizing your sense of sight could include visiting an art museum or walking in nature, while engaging your sense of smell could mean lighting a scented candle or slathering on your favorite scented lotion.
As essential as emotional self-care is to our sense of well-being, it is equally as important not to disregard the basics of physical self-care. Following a traumatic or stressful event, it’s easy to forget to eat balanced meals, get enough sleep, and practice good personal hygiene. Making the decision to take a shower, eat three complete meals, and wind down for bed on time is just as effective as a form of physical self-care as self-soothing is a form of emotional self-care.
Recognize the Need for Professional Help
When your chronic stress or trauma response becomes too overwhelming to handle on your own, there is no shame in recognizing that you need professional help. It’s important to understand the warning signs that may indicate you should seek the guidance of a trained mental health professional.
Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks related to a traumatic event, feeling on edge or easily startled, experiencing symptoms of depression (such as low mood or suicidal ideation), and feelings of paranoia, especially with the intention of protecting loved ones, are just a few of the red flags that could indicate a more serious mental health problem than simple stress.
People who have had closer exposure to trauma (i.e. directly experiencing an event vs. indirectly experiencing an event), have a history of previous trauma, or have a preexisting mental health condition may also be at higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a traumatic event.
If you are unsure if you need professional help coping with trauma or chronic stress, it never hurts to reach out to a mental health professional. They can guide you through a mental health assessment and give you an idea of whether you may benefit from treatments like medication or therapy.
Whenever you need to talk about a traumatic experience or are concerned about potential symptoms of PTSD, we are here for you. Reach out to The Meadowglade today to be connected with one of our trained therapists for an initial mental health consultation.