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Recognizing the Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms In Your Life

Recognizing the Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms In Your Life

Read Time • 5 Min
  • Category Mental Health
  • Membership Free


What do you do to alleviate the effects of stress on your life? Sometimes, these coping mechanisms can be adaptive for our lives and help mitigate stress in the long-term. Other times, coping mechanisms may work in the moment, but actually increase or worsen the stress over time. Many coping mechanisms are things we intentionally try as ways to combat stress. However, others operate outside our awareness; the things we have learned over time and automatically do when we begin to feel those first butterflies in our stomachs (or whatever first signs of stress you have). 

Types of Coping Skills

Coping skills can really come in any shape or size. Really, the goal is to find the behaviors, and mental activities that help an individual manage the stress in their lives. Additionally, coping can occur prior to the stressor influencing our life (proactive coping) or once the stressor has begun to impact us (reactive coping). Generally, coping is divided into four categories (Algorani & Gupta, 2021): 

  • Problem-focused coping: These are behaviors and thought processes intended to directly address the problems in our life. These essentially remove the stressful scenario from our life. For example, if you have a deadline and are short on time, implementing time management strategies and making lists prioritizing tasks would be problem-focused coping. Problem-focused coping has been shown to be effective for managing health conditions (Bozo et al., 2017) and is more common as we age (Chen et al., 2018).
  • Emotion-focused coping: These are often thought-based processes that intend to make the emotional component of the situation more manageable. For example, if you are really nervous for an upcoming presentation, implementing relaxation strategies in the days and hours leading up to the presentation will help you to calm yourself for the task at hand. Emotion-focused coping can work against us in the long-run (substance use, denial, avoidance, etc.), but when aimed at finding ways to allow us to experience, accept, and manage our emotions, this type of coping is generally effective.
  • Meaning-focused coping: Finding ways to make meaning out of the stressful situation in our life helps us align the stressful situation with our values, beliefs, and goals to cope in the moment. There are several examples of meaning-focused coping, such as when you are in a negative situation that seems to have no purpose, you can find the benefits of that situation. For example, maybe this situation is giving you a stronger sense of what really matters in your life. Research on the effectiveness of meaning-focused coping suggests that it can either decrease or increase distress, but generally depends on how the person makes meaning out of the situation (Wang et al., 2019).
  • Social coping: This is all about seeking support from others in your life. If you are going through a difficult transition, maybe ask a parent or older sibling about their experience with a similar transition. Social support significantly reduces stress for some people, but it is important to focus on the quality of those relationships as some social support can lead to more stress (Kneavel, 2021). 

Coping strategies are highly personal and what works for one person may or may not work for another. Each of these types of coping could be helpful for you, so we suggest trying them out and seeing what works best. It is also a balancing game, as you should trust that you know yourself best and should consider that new strategies might lead to new experiences. 

The Benefit of Journaling About Coping Skills

Thankfully, journaling is one tool we have that simultaneously acts as a coping mechanism and a means to process stress levels. Positive journaling methods have been shown to increase people’s self-reported mental health status (Stanley, 2019). One particular method of positive journaling is to write about and evaluate our coping mechanisms. This will likely have a ripple effect on our stress levels because the journaling itself can alleviate stress, help us develop a coping mechanism, and also enable us to identify other ways of coping with the stress. 

Today’s Task

I encourage you to take the time (10+ minutes) to write about both current and past coping mechanisms. Some people use the same stress management techniques throughout their whole life, even when they are no longer working for them. Others downplay the things they do to manage stress and then fail to use them in times of need. Others still simply put their heads down and go, go, go — and have never even thought about stress management. The purpose of this journaling session is to bring awareness and intentionality to the ways in which you manage your stress.

Please reflect on the things you have tried to manage your own stress. What worked? What didn’t work? Why did they/didn’t they work? What could you try in the future that is different? Then, go through your next few days and challenge yourself to either intentionally implement a strategy you know works or try something new! Let us know how it goes, and whether you have any tips for others.