What are unhealthy coping mechanisms, and how do they affect me?

Whether it be stress, grief, anger, or any other tough emotion, we all have to find a way to cope with what life throws at us and the emotions that come along with it. Coping mechanisms are an integral part of functioning and dealing with life’s problems, but sometimes they can do more harm than good.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms happen when the behavior used to protect yourself is more damaging in the long run, even when it might relieve stress or injury in the short term.

What Are the 2 Types of Coping Mechanisms?

There are two main classes of coping mechanisms: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive coping mechanisms are also known as healthy coping mechanisms, since the behavior works to resolve problems using methods that reduce stress and harm.

Maladaptive, or unhealthy, coping mechanisms are behaviors that do not always seek to resolve the problem but are usually attempts to reduce its symptoms in the short-term. These can end up causing harm and increasing stress in the long term.

Maladaptive coping strategies can be tricky to avoid, since they can tend to feel like they’re helping. However, the relief experienced is only helpful in the short term. Patterns like these give temporary comfort while leading to harm and creating more problems in the long term, which is what makes them unhealthy.

Coping mechanisms can also be classified as meaning-focused, problem-focused, emotion-focused, or social coping.

  • Meaning-focused: Behavior that works to find out what the problem or feeling of distress means, then adjusts their perspective or feelings to help deal with the situation. 
  • Problem-focused: Behavior that is focused primarily on confronting the issue that’s distressing you.
  • Emotion-focused: Behavior that works to minimize the negative emotions caused by an issue, such as acceptance, a joking attitude, positive affirmations, or cognitive restructuring.
  • Social coping: Behavior that employs use of a support system and community to relieve stress and emotional strain.

Each of these four types can relate to both adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms depending on how they’re used.

What Are Bad Coping Mechanisms?

Coping mechanisms aren’t inherently bad, but when they become too much of a crutch and start to affect your mental and physical health, they can be harmful. These patterns might not look bad at first, and may even seem to help, but they can be unhealthy in the long run. 

Here are some coping mechanisms that can be unhealthy or maladaptive:

1. Isolation.

When you feel overwhelmed or constantly annoyed by others, isolating yourself from everyone might seem like a logical way to remove stress from your life. However, connection is a very important part of a healthy life, and decreased social interaction and physical activity can be harmful to one’s mental and physical health if it persists for too long.

2. Relying on others too much.

On the other hand, it’s also possible to over-rely on people in your life. Having support is good, but if too much of one’s self-worth and validation needs are placed on family or friend groups, one’s self-esteem can be put in a precarious position. When your happiness is wholly dependent on others being around you, it’s much harder to deal with hardship without them.

3. Jumping to conclusions/catastrophizing.

Trying to figure out potential outcomes to choices or problems can be a helpful way of solving them. However, if you start making quick judgements and constantly thinking of the worst outcomes so that you avoid any kind of hurt, you might be catastrophizing. This kind of cognitive distortion can affect one’s ability to consider positives as well as negatives, preventing one from making fully-informed decisions when it’s employed too often.

4. Doomscrolling.

Social media has become a very common stress outlet, but oftentimes it can heap on stress instead of relieving it. Doomscrolling is a habit of continuing to look through social media despite feeling weighed down by the bad news and emotions it brings up.

5. Avoiding problems.

Types of avoidance like procrastination, living in the past, oversleeping, toxic positivity, or overworking are often used to cope with stress by not thinking about it, but burying emotions and problems will only cause them to build under the surface. Emotions and hardship can feel overwhelming to face, but if they’re avoided, these emotions and problems will continue to cause you stress.

6. Impulse spending.

Retail therapy can provide a quick hit of dopamine, but if it becomes a constant stress-relief tactic, you could find yourself facing a different kind of stress. In the extreme, impulse spending can lead to severe financial and relationship problems that negatively affect your life.

7. Substance use.

Depending on substances to relieve your worry, stress, or tension can be a very slippery slope. Blowing off steam can be helpful, but when a substance becomes the only way that you can deal with your circumstances or emotions, using it can lead to serious physical and mental health problems.

8. Excessive worry.

It’s good to be prepared for bad outcomes as well as good ones, but when worry and fear start to hold you back from living your life, they can become toxic. When worry moves past being helpful and starts to look like catastrophizing and jumping to conclusions, it might be adding stress and discomfort to life rather than taking it away. 

There are many more ways in which habits can become debilitating and unhealthy coping mechanisms, since nearly anything can be used to avoid one’s problems. However, recognizing these patterns is a great first step toward unraveling them. It will take time, but it’s possible to replace these coping mechanisms with ones that will serve you better in the long run and help you adapt to life as it changes.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Stress

Many of the patterns listed above are used to deal with stress. Though tactics like avoidance, overworking, or isolation can provide relief in the moment, the stress usually remains. Decreasing stress in the long run requires using more healthy approaches to coping.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Depression

Unhealthy coping, when stemming from depression, often takes on many of the patterns above, but it can also start to blend with symptoms that frequently occur due to depression. 

For example, depression can cause a tendency toward more inactive coping strategies like oversleeping, over or under eating, or isolation, none of which will end up breaking the depressive cycle. If you find that your unhealthy coping habits might point to depression, talk to a mental health professional. They can help you break out of your cycle of unhealthy coping and give you potential tools to help combat depression.

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What Are Negative Coping Behaviors?

Since we’ve already explored what unhealthy coping mechanisms look like as habits, let’s explore what it might act like as they struggle to cope in healthy ways.

If you are using more unhealthy coping mechanisms than healthy ones, you may tend to be on-edge or irritable. It might be hard for you to find energy to spend time with friends or family, especially if you feel that you have to hide how you’re really doing.

You also might make more rash decisions, or conversely, have a hard time making any decisions without feeling overwhelmed. Your feelings might have a habit of exploding out of you every once in a while, either in anger, rage, or sadness, making you feel your emotions in extremes.

It might be hard to redirect away from your coping mechanism, causing you to spend more and more time doing that activity or habit as you feel worse. It can become an obsession, or even an addiction, something you start to do automatically when you start to feel stressed. 

Unhealthy coping mechanisms are something that many people struggle with on a daily basis, whether they know it or not. However, this behavior can be overcome. It’s never too late to address the patterns that are hurting you and try to change them.

How Do I Break Unhealthy Coping Habits?

Unhealthy coping habits are hard to break, but replacing them with good habits over time will help you lead a much healthier life. There are also ways to release the stress before it causes you to resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms. Here are some examples of ways to address your problems in a healthy way:

  • Physical exercise, like going for a walk. Being active and exercising regularly is an excellent way to relieve stress and anxiety.
  • Talking it out with someone. Talking to someone you trust, like a friend or family member, about your problems can help keep you accountable as well as create a solid support system around you. Reaching out and staying connected to others can help you decompress.
  • Mindfulness or meditation. Self-reflection can help you move through difficult emotions like anger or sadness instead of trying to shut them out, which allows them to pass through you rather than build up over time.
  • Hobbies or fun activities. Getting involved in something that makes you happy or gives you peace can be a great outlet for your feelings.
  • Facing the issue. Spend time trying to assess the source of your problem. Once you’ve realized what it is, work to find ways to overcome it, both in the long run and short-term. Work with your mind and your emotions, not against them.
  • Discovering your triggers. When you’re regularly faced with difficult feelings, finding out what triggers them is one of the best ways to help regulate them and even avoid situations that set them off.
  • Giving yourself appropriate down time. Setting aside time to relax or be alone can help you refocus and restore emotional balance. Being low on energy can make it easier for your triggers to affect you and put you on a shorter fuse. By recharging like this, you might boost your energy enough to make you reach for healthy coping mechanisms rather than ones that take less time and energy.
  • Talking to a mental health professional. While self-reflection can be helpful, sometimes what you’re facing might be too much to figure out on your own. Finding a good therapist or psychiatrist and working through treatment with them can be extremely beneficial for learning to process your emotions.

Coping mechanisms are processes you’ve developed to help yourself get through the difficult parts of your life. They can be helpful as often as they can be hurtful, so it’s important to know your patterns and make sure that you redirect from any that will end up being harmful long-term.

Creating a solid foundation of healthy coping skills will make you much more prepared to weather whatever problems come your way and live a well-rounded life.

Table of contents

What Are the 2 Types of Coping Mechanisms?

What Are Bad Coping Mechanisms?

What Are Negative Coping Behaviors?

How Do I Break Unhealthy Coping Habits?

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  • Clinical reviewer
  • Writer
Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC

Laura Harris, LCMHC

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Hannah DeWitt

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

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