When individuals experience stress, they often turn to coping mechanisms. These mechanisms are actions people take unconsciously or consciously to deal with uncomfortable emotions or problems. Most individuals develop habits that act as ways to cope with stress. Unfortunately, many negative habits are often a “crutch” to get people through difficult situations.

There are either healthy coping mechanisms or unhealthy coping mechanisms. But, an unhealthy coping mechanism, by nature, is simply avoiding the problem, and most people know that ignoring problems won’t make them disappear.

Dealing with Uncomfortable Emotions

Some individuals see coping mechanisms as a form of addiction. Like most habits, a coping mechanism has addictive qualities. Individuals experience a compulsion towards a particular mechanism or habit and often find it difficult to resist it. 

These coping strategies are used as distractions or crutches to help the individuals avoid uncomfortable emotions or deal with the stress they’re experiencing. Therefore, coping mechanisms aren’t truly a choice that people make but rather an unconscious habit that can harm their well-being. 

The Need for Coping Mechanisms

Each person who has struggled with addiction understands it very well. People are replacing one addiction with another as they try to compensate for a perceived “lack,” either psychologically or emotionally.

For example:

• Someone stops drinking alcohol and starts shopping excessivelyDrinking  shopping

• Someone quits smoking and starts overeating

People are replacing one addiction with another as they try to compensate for a perceived “lack,” either psychologically or emotionally.

This is called addiction replacement and is where a new addiction replaces a previous addictive behavior to generate the same high or feeling. There’s always the chance of one addiction leading to another — referred to as multiple addictions. This occurs when the person no longer feels pleasure from the substance or other addictive crutch.

Addictions can be transferred easily from one particular habit or substance to another. This is because a person with an addiction isn’t craving the physical substance but instead the fulfillment of the emotional need.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

There are many different unhealthy coping mechanisms that people engage in or with. Some include:

1. Escape

When an individual uses escape as a coping mechanism, they become socially withdrawn or isolated from friends and family members. Those who tend to it may often spend their time watching TV, going online, or reading a book.

Isolation is a result of depression and anxiety in that certain people turn to it as a self-induced coping mechanism to avoid human interaction and deal with excessive worry. For other people, isolation is the main driver of depression and anxiety, craving the stimulation and support that socialization provides.

2. Unhealthy Self-Soothing

If a person continually turns to soothing behaviors, these behaviors may become negative coping mechanisms. For example, one individual may attempt to soothe distressing feelings by using:

• Gambling

• Video games

• Sex

• Food

Using alcohol or drugs to escape, overeating or shopping unnecessarily are also examples of unhealthy coping strategies.

3. Compulsions

Compulsive behaviors can be represented in several forms. They may include:

• Theft

• Gambling

• Reckless driving

• Physical abuse

These actions aren’t only mentally and physically damaging, but they can often bring criminal implications as well.

4. Numbing

Some individuals will turn to binge eating, drugs, or alcohol to “disconnect” from negative feelings. Sometimes, they are quite aware of their actions but are desperately trying to stop the feelings occurring inside them.

5. Catastrophizing

This is a cognitive distortion that causes individuals to jump to the worst conclusion possible, typically with extremely limited objective reason to despair or limited information. When there’s an upsetting situation, but one that isn’t necessarily catastrophic, they’ll continue to feel as if they’re in the midst of a crisis.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

It may seem like individuals develop unhealthy coping habits easily, whereas it often takes time to develop healthy coping habits. Even so, it’s well worth the effort to learn and use positive coping mechanisms. 

Some healthy coping strategies include:

1. Exercise

One of the best methods to manage stress is to exercise regularly. It offers various benefits, including:

• Builds confidence

• Lifts the mood

• Supports physical health

Individuals should engage in some form of physical activity each day, even if they just go for a walk. 

2. Get a Support System

Individuals should find a friend or family member that they can turn to for support. Or, they can be a supportive friend themselves to someone in need. Certain boundaries need to be agreed upon to keep the relationship healthy.

3. Go to Counseling

Individuals can use counseling sessions with a licensed counselor as an outlet to process several stress-related issues like relationship issues or stress surrounding grief.

4. Meditate or Pray

Individuals need to learn how to slow down. One great way to do this is to meditate and ground themselves. If they are people of faith, they can use their meditation time to pray.

5. Eat Healthily

Like regular exercise, individuals can support their physical health by choosing nutrient-dense foods. 

6. Journal

Writing down their feelings and thoughts when they start feeling stress creeping in can help a person eliminate some of the negativity out of their head and get it on paper instead. 

The Dangers of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Unhealthy coping strategies may offer individuals temporary relief from their issues, but they won’t help them deal with them efficiently and productively. Experts agree that unhealthy coping strategies may help people to feel better at the moment, but they can be damaging in the long run since they frequently lead to adverse consequences like depression, anxiety, or addiction.

Several studies suggest that stress is a top substance abuse risk factor. Individuals frequently turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with or cope with their issues. While it may offer them temporary relief, substance abuse often leads to many other issues. 

These issues may include the following:  

• Relationship problems

• Financial difficulties

• Addiction

If individuals find themselves turning to substances as a way to cope with their stress, they must reach out to a healthcare professional or substance abuse counselor for help.

And, as mentioned earlier, sometimes individuals will substitute one unhealthy coping mechanism (i.e., alcohol or drug use) with another (i.e., gambling), which leads to even more issues down the road. Individuals must recognize when they’re engaging in coping strategies that aren’t healthy and seek help before they get out of hand.

We Can Help

Individuals interested in healthy, positive methods to overcome negative feelings or emotions and who are worried that they will develop negative behavioral patterns should contact New Method Wellness to speak with a healthcare professional from our wellness team. 

At New Method Wellness, we don’t just treat addiction. We also treat the underlying mental health problem fueling the addiction, including engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms.