Coping strategies (referred to interchangeably as coping mechanisms or coping skills) are behaviors that are designed to help us reduce the negative emotions associated with difficult events, situations, relationships, and more. Coping mechanisms may be learned both consciously or unconsciously.
Learning and implementing healthy coping strategies is a routine part of successful mental health treatment and as a result, discovering new coping strategies are often assisted by a provider. But some healthy coping strategies can be also self-taught, particularly simpler behaviors or habits we can adopt to help maintain our mental and physical health.
What Are Coping Mechanisms?
As explained above, coping mechanisms are the strategies that people often use in the face of stress or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can assist us in handling our stress, anxiety, and more, by offering ways to maintain or even improve our emotional well-being and ability to function.
It’s also important to make the distinction between positive and negative coping strategies; even though both seek to reduce negative emotions, only positive coping strategies help guide us toward long-term well-being (more on these soon). In comparison, negative coping strategies often only help us temporarily escape unpleasant feelings in the short term, but then leave us feeling worse off later.
Unhealthy coping mechanisms might include:
- Substance and alcohol use
- Lashing out physically or verbally
- Destroying objects or personal property
- Impulsive shopping
- Trauma dumping
- Social withdrawal, including becoming isolated from friends and family
- Avoidant behavior (ignoring dysfunctional behavior or bad habits)
These unhealthy ways of coping may even develop unconsciously, and sometimes we aren’t fully aware of their effects until we have the guidance and insight of a mental health provider, or continue to mature and develop.
What Are Positive Coping Strategies?
Positive coping strategies and mechanisms are designed to help us healthily adjust and respond to changes in our lives. Positive coping strategies are often a core component of different therapeutic methods, especially psychotherapy approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
Other techniques, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), or mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy (MB-CBT) also rely on the implementation of positive coping strategies. Positive coping skills differ from subconscious or unhealthy coping strategies in that they help us respond productively to:
- Difficult situations or people at work, at home, or in public
- The effects of different mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression
- Unconscious habits that are creating negative outcomes
- The challenges and setbacks we might face while working toward long and short-term goals
Healthy coping strategies can be separated into different groups, based on the nature of the coping strategy itself.
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What Are the 5 Types of Coping Mechanisms?
Coping mechanisms are often broken down into the following five distinct categories:
- Social support: This type of coping mechanism is all about seeking out resources and support provided by a social network to help us cope with stress of all kinds. Social support may take the form of financial aid, cooking meals, helping someone to relocate, or someone simply lending a friendly ear when we need to vent.
- Problem-focused coping: This coping type focuses on changing specific situations, sometimes by directly removing stressful things from our lives. For example, the problem may be an unhealthy relationship, crushing anxiety, or depression. Problem-focused coping helps us to start making positive changes.
- Spiritual coping: A somewhat broad term, this type of coping mechanism encompasses spiritual and religious responses to grief, stress, anger, and many other unpleasant emotions. Religious coping may be used to help empower us to overcome unhealthy habits or thought patterns that go against our spiritual or moral compasses, as well as to make sense of tragedy or loss.
- Meaning-making: This coping type is related to the process of re-evaluating situations to find a more positive understanding of the factors at play, the outcomes, and the lessons that can be learned from past failures and other scenarios.
- Emotion-focused coping: This form of coping helps manage emotions when we don’t want to change a situation, or when the circumstances are beyond our control. A good example of this would be processing the grief created by the loss of a loved one; it wouldn’t make sense to turn off our grief, nor can we bring the loved one lost back. Instead, we give ourselves the time, space, and understanding to grieve—and do our best to realize that the difficult emotions caused by the event will pass.
These five types of coping strategies all share one thing in common: They’re the basis for healthy coping strategies.
What Are 6 Examples of Healthy Coping Strategies?
Basic healthy coping mechanisms are often synonymous with many self-care activities. However, they differ in the way that they’re used; healthy coping strategies are seen as tools to reduce feelings of overwhelm “in the moment,” while self-care strategies are primarily preventative in nature.
Healthy coping strategies for dealing with anxiety, anger, stress, and other emotions can include:
- Exercise, has been proven to help fend off the effects of many mental and physical health conditions.
- Following a healthy diet, something that’s been shown to support long-term mental health
- Meditation, which can be used to identify harmful thoughts, work through unpleasant emotional states, and more.
- Talking through difficult emotions and situations with a loved one, as a way to let off steam, hear advice, and request support when it’s needed.
- Identifying and replacing harmful thoughts, a way to prevent difficult emotions like anger, fear, or anxiety from building, also known as cognitive reframing or restructuring.
- Using assertive anger during interpersonal conflicts, a way to resolve angry thoughts and feelings without burning bridges, making inflammatory remarks, or otherwise escalating a tense situation.
- Practicing good sleep hygiene, which involves ensuring that we stay well-rested and position ourselves in the best way possible to get a good night’s rest (i.e. excluding caffeine before bed, limiting blue light exposure from electronics in the evening hours, or gentle stretching). Progressive muscle relaxation and paced breathing exercises are also a great way to wind down before bed.
As our mental health awareness and ability to respond productively to stressors improve, we may also get better at using healthy coping strategies to improve our emotional and physical states.
With a therapist, counselor, or life coach’s assistance, we can also learn more specialized coping mechanisms—strategies that are specially molded to address our personality traits, life experiences, relationships with others, and the world around us.
What Are Life Coping Skills?
Life coping skills can refer to mechanisms that help us to adapt and readjust to conflict, communication issues, trauma, or crossed boundaries in our everyday life. Determining what life coping skills are needed may begin with a candid conversation with a mental health professional.
Our individual situations and reasons for seeking counseling usually determine the nature of the life coping skills we need to implement. A provider can also screen for undiagnosed conditions or disorders if necessary.
Some conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) make it extremely difficult to trust other people—so learning to respond patiently and without anger could be essential to maintaining healthy relationships. For someone working multiple jobs or who is dealing with difficult coworkers or bosses, the life coping skills they need might revolve around avoiding (or healthily addressing) interpersonal conflict and feelings of burnout.
General examples of life coping skills can include:
- Walking away from an argument or disagreement to cool off
- Learning to express emotional displeasure in a productive way
- Learning to say “no” to avoid overextending oneself with too many obligations
- Setting boundaries with loved ones
- Accepting the faults of others
- Setting realistic expectations for oneself and others
- Learning to avoid financial stress by reducing impulsive spending habits
Life coping skills usually focus on personal relationships, financial or educational goals, and other abstract concepts.
What Are Physical Coping Skills?
Physical coping skills are physically-active mechanisms that can be used to blow off steam and remain emotionally grounded. They can also help us to prevent emotions or situations from escalating, stimulating the body in order to allow the mind to focus on something other than the source of our stress and anxiety.
Physical coping skills can involve:
- Deep breathing, mindful stretching, walking meditations
- Eating healthy well-balanced meals
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding excessive use of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances
- Bonding with an emotional support animal or pet
- Spending time in nature
- Engaging in physically intense activities such as martial arts or weight training
Some providers are even trained to help an individual to spot the physical signs of tension that may be hidden, such as a clenched jaw or stiff neck, helping to improve the effectiveness of physical coping skills.
3 Simple Ways to Set Yourself Up for Successful Coping
The best way to improve your ability to cope with the hurdles and obstacles of daily life is to confide in a counselor, therapist, or psychiatric provider—but the initial steps can be accomplished on your own, with or without their assistance. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, it’s tempting to neglect important areas of our life and zero in on our problems with excruciating detail.
But in doing so, we may reduce our ability to cope with change and forms of conflict. And most importantly, we might block ourselves from the coping strategies we need to access in order to start fixing the issues at hand.
With this in mind, set yourself up for successful coping by:
- Maintaining good relationships to ensure you have social support. Stay close with your family members, friends, and coworkers, if possible. Remember to accept help and support when it’s needed, and offer to assist others, too. Volunteering our time to others has been shown to offer unique mental health benefits and improve our quality of life—just don’t overbook yourself.
- Doing your best to replace those negative thoughts with more positive or neutral ones. Not every problem is insurmountable, nor is every crisis unsolvable. Even if it’s difficult, it’s still possible to preserve hope for the future, and turn your present moments into opportunities to find humor, positivity, and grace in our human errors and shortcomings.
- Visualizing yourself achieving your goals. Used in meditation, yoga, and certain forms of therapy, visualization is something that the brain is already well-equipped to do, according to science. Use visualization to your advantage. Whether it’s imagining yourself confidently asking for that raise, picturing yourself finally saying “no” to a master manipulator, or walking through the doors of a new gym after a long hiatus, visualization can be a helpful confidence booster.
For better or worse, life will give us plenty of opportunities to develop healthy coping mechanisms, and as we learn more about what healthy coping truly means, we tend to learn more about ourselves, too.
Sometimes, the best we can do when a stressful situation lands in our lap is to view it from a broader context and to patiently begin unraveling the knots. But with healthy coping strategies up our sleeve, we get the chance to maintain an optimistic outlook, even when it seems like the odds are stacked against us.