As each of us goes through life, we are inevitably faced with difficult situations, interpersonal conflict, internal conflict, and stress. In addition to those, some people are also faced with trauma. We all have various ways in which we deal with these challenges – known as coping mechanisms. They are sometimes referred to as defense mechanisms, as we use them to “defend” against stress and negative feelings.
Coping mechanisms may be mental or physical, conscious or unconscious, healthy or unhealthy. Healthy coping mechanisms are beneficial, whereas unhealthy ones are always detrimental in some way. We begin to learn our initial coping mechanisms at an early age. We may learn them from trial and error – those that bring some sort of reward or reinforcement from our environment are the ones we tend to use again and again. We may also learn some of them from our role models.
For example, the child who learns that acting out by throwing a tantrum when he’s hungry, mad, or sad results in attention or comfort from his parents, will likely continue using acting out as one of his or her coping mechanisms. If he grows up in a home with parents who use food, alcohol, or other substances to cope with negative feelings or stress, he will likely do the same. On the other hand, if his parents model healthy coping behaviors, he will have a good foundation for handling life’s challenges in adaptive ways.
Most people use a combination of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. For many individuals, as stress increases they are more likely to use less healthy means of coping. But each individual is different. Learning to understand and improve the ways in which we cope is often a lifelong process. Nothing has to be set in stone, although habits are difficult to overcome. Many people who end up seeking psychotherapy find that a key component to improving their life is learning new, healthy coping mechanisms to replace old ones that have caused them the very problems that led them to therapy.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Following are several unhealthy coping mechanisms that many people use at one time or another. As Freud pointed out, we often engage in these unconsciously, and they tend to distort reality in some way. They end up hurting us or others with whom we are involved – and often both:
• Acting out – misbehaving in order to get attention or get our needs met.
• Avoidance – this can be either mental or physical in nature – the goal is to avoid the distressing situation, task, or person.
• Compartmentalization – conflicting thoughts are mentally put into different “compartments”. For example, a man who is cheating on his wife may compartmentalize his feelings for his lover when he is at home.
• Compensation – emphasizing or focusing on strength in one area to make up for weakness in another. For example, the student who struggles academically strives to excel in sports (this is not necessarily unhealthy, unless the person goes to extremes or lacks insight into his compensating behavior).
• Denial – refusing to accept or acknowledge that something has taken place or cannot happen, such as the death of a loved one or that something we desire is unattainable. (Denial for a brief, initial period can be a healthy part of grieving or adjusting to challenging or highly stressful situations – it becomes unhealthy when it continues.)
• Displacement – redirecting feelings, thoughts or actions from the intended object or person to one that is safer. For example, coming home and yelling at your children when you are actually angry at your boss.
• Dissociation – detaching from parts of oneself. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID – formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) is an extreme form of this coping mechanism.
• Emotional eating – usually overeating, this involves using food as a way to “stuff” or assuage negative feelings.
• Fantasy – redirecting desires that are either out of one’s reach or considered unacceptable into the realm of imagination. For example, a woman who longs to be with her sister’s husband may fantasize about it but never act on her desires.
• Idealization – focusing on or over-emphasizing the positive aspects of something while ignoring its flaws or limitations.
• Intellectualization – shutting out undesirable emotions by focusing on things such as logic, facts, statistics, etc.
• Passive-aggressive behavior – rather than dealing with something directly that may be painful or result in rejection or conflict, one expresses his or her hostility or anger indirectly or passively. For example, a woman who’s upset that fun plans were cancelled due to her husband’s boring business dinner may go with him but then act in a way that embarrasses him throughout the evening.
• Projection – attributing one’s undesirable thoughts or feelings onto someone else. For example, the jealous boyfriend accuses his girlfriend of being insecure and jealous.
• Rationalization – using logical reasons to explain things that didn’t work out or to excuse unacceptable behavior. For example, an older, slacking employee who didn’t get a desired promotion explains that his employer favors much younger employees.
• Regression – reverting to immature or childlike behavior in stressful or overwhelming situations.
• Repression – pushing distressing thoughts or impulses out of one’s conscious mind to one’s subconscious as a way to avoid them.
• Self-mutilation – Harming oneself physically, such as burning or cutting, to redirect one’s thoughts to physical pain from distressing emotions.
• Substance abuse – using alcohol or drugs to numb or temporarily relieve painful emotions
• Sublimation – redirecting unacceptable urges into more acceptable activities. For example, the adolescent who has violent urges decides to take up boxing or play football in order to be aggressive in a socially acceptable way.
• Trivialization – Minimizing things that are significant – for example, a woman being physically or emotionally abused by her boyfriend indicates it “isn’t a big deal”.
Healthy Coping Mechanisms
Following are a few examples of healthy coping mechanisms:
Exercise – as a way to reduce stress and enhances one’s sense of well-being.
Focusing on the positive – while this could be unhealthy if one ignores or minimizes significant flaws or limitations, it is generally a healthy way of coping when it involves finding the bright side in challenging situations or looking for the good in others and oneself.
Journaling – putting one’s thoughts and feelings on paper as a way to express them and gain insight.
Meditation – Taking time to sit quietly in order to clear one’s thoughts, increase mindfulness, and reduce stress.
Relaxation techniques (e.g. yoga, tai chi, deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive relaxation) – engaging in these proven methods to reduce stress and help one to relax.
Talking it out – working through distressing thoughts or feelings by talking about them to a trusted confidant.
The types of coping mechanisms we use, whether healthy or unhealthy, significantly impact our lives. Our relationships, finances, health, and careers are all affected either positively or negatively by them. If you engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms that are creating problems in your life, it may be beneficial to work with a mental health professional to gain insight and learn healthy coping mechanisms to replace them.