Dealing with stress: Are your coping skills healthy?

Could your coping skills actually be adding to your stress? What makes coping skills healthy?

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Oct 7, 2021 UPDATED
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According to a poll conducted by Gallup last year, 60% of adults in the U.S. experience stress and worry on a daily basis. These numbers suggest that if you’re an American over the age of 18, there’s a decent chance you feel stressed not just some of the time, but most of the time. These findings are disheartening, but they’re not particularly shocking. 

It’s nearly impossible to live a modern life without encountering stressors. Routine stress is sewn into the fabric of holding down a job, maintaining relationships, and taking care of basic needs. Moderate to severe stress is brought about by sudden changes, loss, and circumstances outside of our control—such as a pandemic that lasts over a year. 

Whether it’s mild or severe, acute or chronic, stress is inevitable. 

So how do you handle that stress? Some people attempt to sweat it out at the gym. Others cultivate a mindfulness practice . Still others turn to drugs and alcohol. These are all known as coping skills, or coping mechanisms, and some are better for you than others.

What are coping skills? 

Coping skills , which can be more accurately described as coping mechanisms as they don’t always involve “skill,” are the thoughts and behaviors we deploy to try to resolve or mitigate stressful situations.

These situations can be internal or external, and anywhere from mildly to severely stressful. Unlike defense mechanisms , coping mechanisms are “voluntary and conscious.” We choose our methods of coping and use them intentionally. 

Accordingly, researchers posit a strong link between our personalities and our preferred coping mechanisms. How we choose to deal with stress has a lot do with who we are. There are hundreds of ways to cope, and several distinct, fundamental approaches to stress management. Mental health professionals divide coping behaviors into four main categories

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration showing a collection of seven potted plants.

The 4 main coping strategies

1. Problem-focused coping 

These strategies eliminate stress by eliminating its source. This is an active style of coping , geared towards solving the problem that’s getting you down.

Working harder, carefully planning, and sidelining competing activities are all common, problem-focused coping strategies. If, for example, you’ve ever cancelled plans in order to knock out an overwhelming amount of work, you’ve taken a problem-focused approach. 

2. Emotion-focused coping 

These methods address feelings of stress, not the stressor itself. Emotion-focused behavioral strategies relieve symptoms and regulate negative emotions. They help us control our stress responses when we feel unable to face the stressor head-on. 

Common constructive emotion-focused coping skills include meditation, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, positive reframing and exercise. But they’re not all positive: Avoidance, self-blame, wishful thinking, excessive drinking, drug use, and social withdrawal are also forms of emotion-focused coping. 

How we choose to deal with stress has a lot do with who we are.

3. Meaning-focused coping 

Cognitive tools that help us gain a broader understanding of stressful situations so that we can see them in context, and thus manage them, can be called “ meaning-focused .” This style of coping involves acceptance, finding positivity, revising goals and reevaluating priorities . Meaning-based strategies empower those suffering with stress by helping them understand it.

4. Social coping 

This occurs when people in stressful situations reduce stress by receiving support from others . Talking it out with a friend, confiding in family, speaking to a mental health professional or sharing your experiences with trusted members of your community are all forms of social coping. 

What are some unhealthy coping skills? 

The fact is, some coping mechanisms hurt us more than they help us. Unhealthy or maladaptive coping skills are coping mechanisms that are strongly associated with bad outcomes, intensifying symptoms, and risky behavior. 

However you choose to cope, it’s important to make sure that the strategies you rely on don’t harm your mental health. In order to understand what works and what doesn’t, psychologists make a clear distinction between “engagement coping” and “disengagement coping.” 

Engagement coping 

Engagement or approach coping is the healthy and effective kind, and like most skills, can be learned and improved upon. These skills help us deal in meaningful ways with our stressors and symptoms.

Problem-focused coping skills—like setting aside time to resolve a stressful situation—fall under the umbrella of engagement coping.

Certain emotion-focused techniques like support-seeking, positive reframing, and emotion regulation are also forms of engagement coping. Humor, mindfulness, and venting all help us get a handle on stress. Whether directly or indirectly, these coping mechanisms effectively reduce stress by engaging with it. 

Disengagement coping

Disengagement coping includes avoidance, self-blame, wishful thinking, and denial. This unfavorable set of emotion-focused techniques aims to reduce stress by escaping the threat of stress altogether. Steering clear of people, places, and thoughts that cause stress is a common form of disengagement coping, as is drinking or using drugs to alleviate stress. 

However you choose to cope, it’s important to make sure that the strategies you rely on don’t harm your mental health.

Disengaging can lead to isolation, social withdrawal, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, and an increase in negative moods and anxiety. Put simply, pretending our problems don’t exist won’t solve our problems. 

On the contrary: Denial and avoidance typically lead to an increase in intrusive thoughts about the stressor and make the problem harder to solve as time goes on. Avoidance is tempting in extremely stressful moments, but it is not a healthy or sustainable coping mechanism. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of four different shaped and colored books stacked on top of each other.

What are 3 healthy coping strategies? 

1. Seeking support

For many, this may seem like a no-brainer, but simply talking to someone can be a simple and effective coping skill. Sharing your feelings and experiences with people you trust can provide perspective, relief, and stability during rough periods. This is a social coping strategy. 

2. Practicing mindfulness

Whether it’s strict meditation or practicing breathing exercises, mindfulness is a healthy way to reduce stress and regulate the negative thoughts and emotions that come with stressful situations. 

3. Exercise  

Running, yoga, team sports, and activities that engage your muscles not only have physical health benefits—they help you get a handle on stress symptoms , making exercise an emotion-focused coping strategy. A jog can work wonders for a worried mind. 

Are your coping mechanisms healthy? 

If you’re trying to determine whether or not your coping skills are healthy, consider the categories of coping mechanisms above. What kinds of coping skills do you rely on? Are you engaging with your stressors, or going out of your way to avoid them?

Are you attempting to relieve stress by ignoring it, or taking active steps to get on top of your symptoms and stop stress at the source? 

Put simply, pretending our problems don’t exist won’t solve our problems. 

Finally, is your method of coping causing more problems, or is it helping to alleviate both immediate and long-term stress? If it’s the latter, then you’ve likely got experience putting positive coping skills into practice.

Keep in mind that when it comes to coping constructively, friends and family are a great outlet, but nobody is better equipped to help you than a mental health professional. If you’re having trouble coping, consider a consultation with somebody trained to guide you towards a more healthy relationship with stress. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic that lists the 4 main coping strategies.

Article originally published Aug 18, 2021. Updated Oct 7, 2021.

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