Types of Coping Mechanisms: Healthy vs Unhealthy
Aspire Learning Space
Jun 20, 2022

The last two years have not been easy for anyone. Life in itself is very challenging, and with a global pandemic we saw people struggling financially, some grieving loved ones, and others fighting for their lives. Many of us haven’t lived through a pandemic like this before, and it’s only natural that most of us didn’t know how to cope. People often use strategies to process painful emotions or traumatic events using coping mechanisms.These strategies can also be active or avoidant, meaning that they can either address the source of stress while working towards finding solutions to the stressor or completely neglecting the stressor to avoid awareness of it. There are many types of coping mechanisms, some can solve the root issue while others do more harm than good. There are generally three types of coping mechanisms: problem-focused, emotion-focused, and appraisal-focused. Problem-focused tends to look at the cause of the issue and possible solutions, whereas emotion-focused tends to limit the emotional reaction to the cause of stress like exercising to release happy hormones. Appraisal-focused focuses on cognitive changes, or modifying thoughts or perspectives towards the situation like using humor to see the stress in a new light. Both healthy and unhealthy coping strategies fall under all three coping styles, with healthy ones being beneficial in the long term, and unhealthy ones having negative consequences.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms include:

  • Seeking help professionally
    Speaking to a professional is a healthy way to process traumatic events. It’s a problem-focused
    method that seeks to deal with the problem rather than ignore it. In the long run, it yields the
    best result as it addresses wounds and offers solutions.
  • Exercise
    People’s mood is elevated after a workout because moving our bodies releases dopamine and
    serotonin. Exercise is an emotion-focused method that helps a person handle stress, as
    opposed to a problem-focused method that seeks to find solutions.
  • Humor
    Most stand up comedians that use dark humor in their shows have said that humor has been a
    great method for them to cope with their trauma. This is an appraisal-focused approach since it
    is directed towards changing how a person feels or thinks about the situation. Not everyone is
    able to use this method, but humor sometimes gives people a sense of control over their
  • Starting new hobbies
    New hobbies serve as a positive distraction and an outlet for people. It is emotion-focused as it
    can leave people feeling better without necessarily targeting the issue. It is also an adaptive way
    of coping, because people can learn new skills and develop new passions through it.
    Examples of new hobbies:
    a) Learn a new instrument
    b) Take art classes
    c) Learn a new language
    d) Learn how to cook
    e) Get in jewelry making
    f) Start a podcast
  • Relaxing habits
    Meditation, journaling, listening to music, and stretching can all be ways of adaptive
    emotion-focused coping. Developing mindfulness and being in touch with our emotions is a way
    to reduce stress and limit our emotional reaction to trauma.
  • Leaning on a community for support
    No matter how much we feel the need to isolate ourselves during painful times, we weren’t
    created to do life alone. This emotion-focused method decreases our stress because having a
    community gives us a sense of belonging and increases our self-esteem which can take some
    of the pressure off of us.
    Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms include:
  • Spending too much time online/ gaming/ watching tv
    Phones have become pacifiers because as soon as people are left alone with their thoughts,
    they immediately reach for their phones to scroll. Phones don’t give people a chance to process
    any emotions because they distract them from painful thoughts. People might think that
    excessive screen time is merely a bad habit when in reality it is a maladaptive way of coping.
    This is also the opposite of confiding in a community, because it is isolating and leaves people
    feeling more alone.
  • Smoking / Drinking
    Temporarily numbing or sedating oneself is an emotion-focused approach because it limits
    emotional reactions to the situation, but unlike the adaptive ways mentioned above this coping
    style is unsustainable in the long run. Not only does it negatively affect a person physically, but it
    often leaves them less fulfilled than when they walked in. Smoking and drinking can lead to
    addiction and can severely affect a person’s financial state and relationships.
  • Finding comfort in food
    People tend to not think twice about food being a maladaptive way of coping, since unlike
    drinking and smoking, food is relatively “socially acceptable”. The reality is, anything that doesn’t
    target the root issue or leave that person better on the long run then is a maladaptive way of
    coping. Excessive eating tends to leave a person filled with shame and guilt as it leads to weight
    Coping mechanisms are often unconscious, and it’s important to recognize if we’re engaging in
    maladaptive ways of coping and to replace them with sustainable ones.
    Reflection Questions:
    1) How much time do I spend using screens and technology? What activities can I engage
    in that don’t require screens?
    2) When I’m stressed, my first instinct is to reach for __
    3) Which healthy coping mechanism can I start using?

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