Coping Mechanisms

“Coping strategies refer to the specific efforts, both behavioral and psychological, that people employ to master, tolerate, reduce, or minimize stressful events. Two general coping strategies have been distinguished: problem-solving strategies are efforts to do something active to alleviate stressful circumstances, whereas emotion-focused coping strategies involve efforts to regulate the emotional consequences of stressful or potentially stressful events. Research indicates that people use both types of strategies to combat most stressful events.”

Common Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Following are some of the more common unhealthy coping mechanisms – the ones that can easily trip you up and make you vulnerable to self-protection.

  • Denial – This is one of the most common coping mechanisms for addicts.  It involves lying to yourself and others in an attempt to avoid facing the painful truth about yourself. 
  • Avoidance – Avoidance is a common coping mechanism, especially for anyone prone to anxiety or low self-esteem.  This is a particularly challenging habit to break, because each time you avoid something, you reinforce the behavior.
  • Displacement – This occurs when you redirect negative feelings about someone or something (e.g. anger at your boss, frustration about getting stuck in traffic) toward someone (or something) else – typically someone “safer” or someone who just happens to cross your path next, such as your spouse, your children, or a coworker. 
  • Procrastination – It’s a rare person who doesn’t procrastinate at least once in a while.  But when you do it frequently, it creates a lot of problems in your life.  It also leads to more stress, which is not good for anyone in recovery. If you are a procrastinator, you’re most likely trying to avoid doing something undesirable, uncomfortable, or difficult.
  • Passive-aggressiveness – This is a very common coping mechanism for addicts.  Hostility, anger, and / or hurt are usually the driving emotions behind passive-aggressive behavior.  For example, you’re angry that you had to cancel a weekend getaway because your mother-in-law came to visit unannounced, so you “accidentally” spill a glass of red wine all over her new silk blouse.  Passive-aggressive behavior may make you feel good in the moment, but it will damage your relationships and keep you from dealing with negative feelings in a constructive manner.
  • Rationalization – Rationalization involves the use of “logic” or excuses to avoid facing the truth.  For example, you may rationalize that you were passed over for a promotion at work because of your age, when, in reality, you were often late to important meetings and had bungled a recent high-priority project.
  • Staying ridiculously busy – Whether it’s being a workaholic or keeping your schedule overbooked with activities, this is yet another way to avoid dealing with people, situations, or emotions that you don’t want to face for one reason or another.  You’ll either burn yourself out or be forced to “face the music” at some point –  both of which are powerful triggers for relapse.
  • Compartmentalization – This coping mechanism occurs when you mentally put conflicting emotions or thoughts into different “compartments”.  For example, a woman who’s secretly involved with two men compartmentalizes her feelings for one whenever she’s with the other.  Sometimes compartmentalization serves a purpose, but those compartments inevitably start to “leak.”
  • Intellectualization – This is another way to avoid or “shut out” negative or uncomfortable emotions.  People who intellectualize often focus on things like facts, statistics, and logic – not only in their conversations with others, but in their own internal dialogue.
  • Trivialization – This involves minimizing or downplaying things that are important or significant, usually to your detriment.  For example, you tell yourself it “isn’t a big deal” when your spouse is verbally abusive to your or your children.

While there are other unhealthy coping mechanisms as well, those listed above are some of the most common.  Did you recognize yourself in any of them?

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Following are several examples of healthy coping mechanisms.. 

  • Exercise – Exercise is hands-down one of the best coping mechanisms.  In addition to helping you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, sleep better, and reduce your risk of developing a multitude of serious health problems, regular exercise also improves your emotional well-being.  Aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, brisk walking, cycling, and swimming) has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.  In fact, studies have shown regular exercise to be just as effective as taking an antidepressant medication for depression.  It also reduces stress, boosts self-confidence, and enhances self-esteem. If you find a type of exercise you enjoy and / or do it with a partner, you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.  (Always check with your doctor before embarking on an exercise program.)
  • Focusing on the positive – Relapses are often triggered by negative thinking.  One of the best ways to avoid a downward spiral is to focus on the positive.  Sometimes you may have to dig deep to find the silver lining, but it’s there.  This doesn’t mean you should trivialize or minimize negative things; rather, acknowledge them and then look for the positive.
  • Practice gratitude – The key here is to “practice” gratitude, as it doesn’t come naturally for most people. This means to consciously look for things – no matter how small  –  for which to be truly grateful.  It might be a cool breeze on a hot day or running water – things we often take for granted.  Some people find that keeping a daily “gratitude journal” is a great way to implement this coping mechanism.  When you feel sad, angry, or down, read through your gratitude journal to boost your spirits and refocus your thoughts.
  • Journaling – There’s a reason therapists recommend journaling – the act of writing down your thoughts and feelings – to their clients.  Journaling is a great way to express your feelings – both positive and negative – in a safe, private place.  Doing so on a regular basis will help you gain insight into yourself.  Expressing yourself on paper also helps ensure that you don’t keep negative feelings bottled up.
  • Meditation – Meditation is often associated with religious practice, but you don’t have to be religious to enjoy its many benefits.  It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to find a quiet place and sit in silence, focusing on nothing more than your breathing.  When practiced regularly, meditation provides numerous mental and physical benefits by inducing deep relaxation, enhancing mindfulness, and reducing stress.
  • Deep breathing – Sometimes we all just need to take a deep breath.  Formally practicing deep breathing – whenever you feel angry, upset, frustrated, stressed, or anxious – is an excellent way to reduce those negative feelings and calm yourself down.  Practice breathing from the diaphragm, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly.
  • Talking it out – As humans, we’re not meant to be socially isolated.  It’s important to have someone – a trusted confidante who’s a good listener – with whom you can disclose distressing feelings and thoughts.  Talking about them is a good way to work through them.  This is one of the reasons people go to therapy – to “talk out” whatever it is that’s troubling them.
  • Turn your anger or pain into something useful – Many charities, volunteer organizations, and self-help / inspirational books were borne out of someone’s pain or anger.  For example, a woman who endured a painful, heart-breaking divorce writes a book to help other women see the light at the end of the tunnel.  A man who lost his wife to ovarian cancer starts a charity to raise funds for ovarian cancer research.  Whether you create your own project or join another, channeling negative feelings into something that will help others is a win/win situation and a great way to facilitate healing.

Hopefully these lists will help you recognize any unhealthy coping mechanisms you may still be using, while also providing ideas for new, beneficial ways to cope with the challenges that are an inevitable part of life. 


Alicia Ramos