When life gets stressful, how do you deal with it? Each one of us has developed ways to cope in the face of stressful situations, but what makes a good strategy a healthy coping mechanism?

What is coping?

Coping refers to the intentional thoughts and behaviors we use to manage stressful internal and external situations. Coping strategies exist to decrease the chance of physical, psychological, or social harm in the face of a given situation.

We develop coping mechanisms depending on the situations that arise and, over time, we tend to fall back on these same mechanisms. Unfortunately, some of these are unhealthy coping mechanisms that don’t address ingrained issues and should be replaced with healthy coping mechanisms to improve our relationships and self-image.

Types of Coping Mechanisms

There are three main approaches to coping. How you apply them determines if they qualify as a healthy or unhealthy coping mechanism. By considering each of these, you may be able to determine which strategy works best for you.

Emotion-focused coping is a strategy that addresses emotions at play and attempts to regulate them. This might look like crying, numbing through substance use, sharing your feelings with someone, or meditating.

Interestingly, there seems to be a correlation between age and the use of this strategy; the older you get, the more you rely on emotion-focused coping mechanisms. 

Problem-focused coping describes actions taken to change the situation itself and regulate the source of stress. It isn’t all cut and dry, though. Sometimes problem-focused coping involves cognitive restructuring, which can address our emotional response to a stressor. 

Avoidance-based coping isn’t discussed as much as the first two but is a rather typical response to stressful situations. It involves distraction techniques (engaging in another activity to avoid confronting the emotion or problem).

Healthy Emotion-focused Coping Skills

Healthy emotion-focused coping strategies can help you process your emotional response to stressors in a wholesome and constructive way. These might include:

  • Practicing Gratitude — Try writing three things for which you’re grateful every night before you go to bed or first thing in the morning.
  • Meditating — Practice daily meditation. Even as little as 3 minutes a day makes a difference.
  • Starting Therapy or Counseling — Talk therapy is a great place to begin processing emotions, fears, and stress.
  • Journaling Regularly — Sometimes, what we can’t express in a conversation we can put into writing. 
  • Practicing Self-careCreate a self-care routine to improve your overall well-being.
  • Talking to a Supportive Friend – Get a new perspective from someone you trust that knows how to listen.
  • Feel Your Emotions – We tend to stifle our emotions rather than feel them. Give yourself the space to feel and accept them in a nonjudgemental way.
  • Practicing Mindfulness – Mindfulness can be applied in almost every area of life and keep you motivated.

Healthy Problem-focused Coping Skills

Whether through experience, counseling, or figuring things out on your own, it is possible to learn how to problem-solve using healthy coping mechanisms in the face of every-day situations. 

For instance, if we don’t know how to solve an issue at work, we might seek counsel from a friend or colleague. If we feel disorganized throughout our day, we might develop a healthier routine or write a to-do list.

If you’re facing an antagonistic person, you might react by walking away before the interaction escalates. Or, when dealing with a codependent relationship, you might work to define healthier boundaries between you and the other person. 

However, if you are already experiencing heightened stress around a problem or situation, you may feel confused about what you want and how to achieve it.

For instance, if you’re dealing with a binge-eating disorder, you may not intuitively know the best approach to addressing your problem, especially when you’re triggered. 

In this kind of situation, it might be useful to take a step back and approach the issue from a problem-solving perspective.

This problem-solving process involves the following steps.

  1. Define your problem.
  2. Brainstorm possible solutions.
  3. Evaluate the practicality and effectiveness of each solution or combination of solutions. This can take the form of writing down a list of pros and cons and analyzing them.
  4. Once you’ve made your list of pros and cons, you can determine the best solution and implement it. It may not be the easiest thing to pick the most appropriate one, but if you consider the result and envision yourself there, how does that feel? Think about your body, your emotions, and your level of satisfaction, having solved the problem. 
  5. Re-assess your approach.

In addition to the more classic problem-solving approach described above, you can also practice problem-focused coping mechanisms to keep your mind on the right track when you catch it spiraling and slipping into negative thinking. In doing so, you can correct certain habits or behaviors with negative effects, such as binge-eating.

This approach is called cognitive restructuring. Here is a simple exercise you can follow to begin this process.

  1. Define the Problem. In this step, make sure to be specific. Using binge-eating as an example, you might describe your problem in the following way. 
  • I don’t like eating with my colleagues because they know I have weight issues and will be watching and judging me while I eat.
  1. List objective evidence to support your problem. 
  • I feel like people are always staring at me while I eat.
  • My co-worker gave me “a look” when I stood up for a second serving last time. 
  1. List objective evidence to argue against the thought.
  • I know I’m self-conscious and could be giving in to paranoia. Everyone is always looking at one another around the table while we eat. It’s normal.
  • When I left the table for seconds, a heated discussion was taking place, and maybe my co-worker gave me a “don’t abandon me” look and nothing else.
  1. Come to a conclusion that helps you modify the initial problem thought and regain your sense of clarity and calm.
  • Most of my colleagues are kind and there’s no reason to think they mean to make me feel bad. I’m going to continue eating lunch with them to make sure I’m eating regular meals, and I’m going to try to push aside these insecurities as they arise. People might look, but that shouldn’t be a reason to deter my progress and compromise my health.

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