Coping Mechanisms: How Do You Function in Times of Stress?

Coping mechanisms are complicated psychological processes. Everyone has different habits they fall back on when times get tough.  In many cases, these behaviors are completely ingrained in our minds. You may have either positive or negative coping mechanisms.  Recognizing your habits is a helpful way to improve your mental and emotional health. You should understand what coping mechanisms are, why we have them, and how you can develop healthy coping skills.

What Are Coping Mechanisms?

Coping mechanisms are behaviors, beliefs, or other strategies that help you handle difficult emotions and experiences. We can’t change the fact that life throws challenges our way.  We can, however, control the way we react to these situations.

Everyone uses different coping skills, and they can be either positive or negative. Some coping mechanisms provide short-term relief from trauma or stress, and others are long-term ways of managing hardships.

Developing positive coping skills is essential for maintaining good mental health. Although unhealthy coping mechanisms can provide temporary relief from negative life events, they can also prevent you from processing and recovering from trauma.

Examples of Coping Mechanisms

There are many types and classifications of coping mechanisms. Some focus on problems.  This means they aim to resolve or change the difficult situation to make it easier to manage. Others are emotion-focused. they target the emotions linked to the situation instead of changing the situation itself.

We can also categorize coping mechanisms as active or avoidant. With active coping mechanisms, you take steps to resolve the problem or reduce the associated stress. With avoidant coping mechanisms, you try to avoid or ignore the situation.

Active coping mechanisms tend to be healthier than avoidant coping mechanisms because they often lead to positive, long-term change. You either solve the problem or find a way to acknowledge, process, and cope with it. For example, you may talk through the issue with a close friend, family member, or therapist. You may choose to improve your mental health by exercising.  This is also a great way to relieve stress and boost your mood. Humor can be a good coping mechanism, too, because it allows you to face the issue head-on while remaining lighthearted.

Avoidant coping mechanisms are often maladaptive or unhealthy. Taking your mind off of the issue may feel good now, but it’s not sustainable forever. The problem or the associated emotions still exist, and trying to ignore them will only make you feel worse over time.

Sometimes, people engage in substance abuse or other reckless behavior as a way of coping with stress or trauma. Drugs and alcohol can numb difficult emotions, and activities like gambling and reckless driving provide a short-term adrenaline rush that distracts from the hardship.

Social isolation is another common coping mechanism. Some people fear that they’ll have to acknowledge their challenges when they interact with friends, family, or colleagues, so they withdraw instead.

Coping Mechanisms vs. Defense Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms and defense mechanisms are commonly confused, but there are key differences between them. Both are used to manage tough situations, but they’re different in their psychological origins.

Coping mechanisms are typically conscious decisions to engage in behaviors or thinking patterns that help you deal with something difficult. Even if you don’t consciously realize that what you’re doing is a coping mechanism, it’s still an intentional decision on your part.

Defense mechanisms, on the other hand, are unconscious. When you use defense mechanisms, your unconscious mind is trying to resolve unpleasant emotions, so you’re not purposely doing anything. One of the most common defense mechanisms is projection, which happens when you attribute your own emotions to someone else.

The other major difference is that coping mechanisms are usually intended to deal with an external situations or your emotions regarding an external situation. Defense mechanisms help you resolve your internal emotional or psychological state.

How Your Coping Mechanisms Affect Your Mental Health

Your coping mechanisms have a direct link to your mental health. Everyone has different coping skills and varying levels of resilience, so two people can have vastly different responses to the same event. Whether or not you have healthy, active coping mechanisms for stress can be the determining factor in how much a difficult situation affects you emotionally.

Positive coping skills can help you self-regulate while you’re in the middle of a tough moment. For example, some people take deep breaths or use other meditative practices to stay calm when they feel stress, which can make the situation seem less dire.

Healthy coping mechanisms benefit you in the long run, too. Instead of ignoring the problem, positive coping skills empower you to work through the issue until it’s resolved. You may also be more likely to reach out for support from a loved one or a therapist if you have good coping skills, which can make it much easier to manage the situation.

Maladaptive, on the other hand, can be detrimental to your mental health. If you run from a problem instead of working toward a resolution, it may get worse and worse until it’s inescapable. Unhealthy habits like substance use, excessive spending, or gambling can quickly become addictive, too, which is a serious mental health problem.

How to Develop Positive Coping Skills

Establishing positive coping skills is an excellent way to improve your mental health and become more resilient in the face of trauma. The first step toward developing better coping skills is to assess where you’re currently at.

When you feel stressed, anxious, or upset, what’s your first impulse? Do you want to distract yourself, or do you want to understand and process your emotions? We don’t always realize that certain behaviors are coping. Checking in with yourself and taking note of your current methods for coping will help you determine where you have room to grow.

It’s important to think both short-term and long-term when finding ways to cope with life’s difficulties. The best coping mechanisms help you stay calm in the moment while also offering long-lasting peace of mind.

Journaling can be a great way to find coping skills that work for you. In your journal, you can keep a log of your day-to-day emotions as well as stressful situations and how you handled them. Writing about your experiences can help you find clarity in your thoughts and emotions, and it can show you patterns in which coping skills help the most.

If you’re struggling to cope with challenging life events, consider speaking with a therapist. It can be hard to overcome unhealthy coping mechanisms on your own, especially when you’ve been relying on them for years. Your therapist will work with you to discover why you developed these habits and to find new, healthy ways to cope instead. Your sessions with your therapist are private and confidential, so you can be honest about your coping skills without fear of judgment.

Beverly Hills Therapy Group offers counseling services for clients in the Los Angeles area. A therapist on our team can help you overcome your negative coping and defense mechanisms. This will help you face tough situations head-on. To connect with a therapist in Los Angeles, contact us today.

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