Why are different types of coping mechanisms?
We all deal with stress—difficult relationships, dentist appointments, school deadlines (which might even be why you’re here!). We call the things we do to deal with the stress from these situations, coping mechanisms. The term was first used by psychologists Abraham Maslow and Bela Mittelmann in Principles of Abnormal Psychology (1941). Use of the term started to spike in the 1960s when psychologists began using it more frequently to refer to the methods people use every day.
Sometimes coping mechanisms help people manage the emotional effects of one-off events, but often they are applied to ongoing things, such as stress at work or grief from the loss of a parent. Coping mechanisms are also used to manage mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. Some coping mechanisms are healthy, like meditation, and some are unhealthy, like drinking heavily or smoking. Unhealthy coping mechanisms are sometimes called maladaptive, meaning they’re a bad, faulty, or inadequate way of adapting. Many coping mechanisms are subtle, unconscious mental processes, like denial.
Psychologists sometimes classify coping mechanisms into a few main categories. Here are some of them:
- Defense (relying on subconscious coping methods)
- Adaptive (tolerating the stress)
- Avoidance (ignoring the stress)
- Attack (fighting with someone rather than deal with the real problem)
- Behavioral (making changes to your behavior to minimize the stress)
- Cognitive (changing how you think about a situation)
- Self-harm (hurting yourself in some way)
- Conversion (turning one emotion into another)
As you can see, there is a wide range of different ways to cope—both healthy and unhealthy—and some are even used at the same time. Everyone experiences stress, so understanding what a coping mechanism is and how to spot one is a good thing for both your own mental health and that of others.
Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them maintain their emotional well-being.
What Are Coping Mechanisms?
Significant life events, whether positive or negative, can cause psychological stress. Difficult events, such as divorce, miscarriage, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, can cause most people to feel grief or distress. But even events that are considered positive by many—getting married, having a child, and buying a home—can lead to a significant amounts of stress. To adjust to this stress, people may utilize some combination of behavior, thought, and emotion, depending on the situation.
People may use coping mechanisms for stress management or to cope with anger, loneliness, anxiety, or depression.
How Are Coping Mechanisms and Defense Mechanisms Different?
Some may confuse defense mechanisms with coping mechanisms. Although these two concepts share some similarities, they are, in fact, different.
- Defense mechanisms mostly occur at an unconscious level, and people are generally unaware they are using them. One’s use of coping mechanisms, on the other hand, is typically conscious and purposeful.
- Coping mechanisms are used to manage an external situation that is creating problems for an individual. Defense mechanisms can change a person’s internal psychological state.
Coping Styles and Mechanisms
Coping styles can be problem-focused—also called instrumental—or emotion-focused. Problem-focused coping strategies are typically associated with methods of dealing with the problem in order to reduce stress, while emotion-focused mechanisms can help people handle any feelings of distress that result from the problem.
Further, coping mechanisms can be broadly categorized as active or avoidant. Active coping mechanisms usually involve an awareness of the stressor and conscious attempts to reduce stress. Avoidant coping mechanisms, on the other hand, are characterized by ignoring or otherwise avoiding the problem.
Some coping methods, though they work for a time, are not effective for a long-term period. These ineffective coping mechanisms, which can often be counterproductive or have unintended negative consequences, are known as “maladaptive coping.” Adaptive coping mechanisms are those generally considered to be healthy and effective ways of managing stressful situations.
Types of Coping Mechanisms
Among the more commonly used adaptive coping mechanisms are:
- Support: Talking about a stressful event with a supportive person can be an effective way to manage stress. Seeking external support instead of self-isolating and internalizing the effects of stress can greatly reduce the negative effects of a difficult situation.
- Relaxation: Any number of relaxing activities can help people cope with stress. Relaxing activities may include practicing meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or other calming techniques, sitting in nature, or listening to soft music.
- Problem-solving: This coping mechanism involves identifying a problem that is causing stress and then developing and putting into action some potential solutions for effectively managing it.
- Humor: Making light of a stressful situation may help people maintain perspective and prevent the situation from becoming overwhelming.
- Physical activity: Exercise can serve as a natural and healthy form of stress relief. Running, yoga, swimming, walking, dance, team sports, and many other types of physical activity can help people cope with stress and the aftereffects of traumatic events.
A short list of common maladaptive coping mechanisms includes:
- Escape: To cope with anxiety or stress, some people may withdraw from friends and become socially isolated. They may absorb themselves in a solitary activity such as watching television, reading, or spending time online.
- Unhealthy self-soothing: Some self-soothing behaviors are healthy in moderation but may turn into an unhealthy addiction if it becomes a habit to use them to self-soothe. Some examples of unhealthy self-soothing could include overeating, binge drinking, or excessive use of internet or video games.
- Numbing: Some self-soothing behaviors may become numbing behaviors. When a person engages in numbing behavior, they are often aware of what they are doing and may seek out an activity that will help them drown out or override their distress. People may seek to numb their stress by eating junk food, excessive alcohol use, or using drugs.
- Compulsions and risk-taking: Stress can cause some people to seek an adrenaline rush through compulsive or risk-taking behaviors such as gambling, unsafe sex, experimenting with drugs, theft, or reckless driving.
- Self-harm: People may engage in self-harming behaviors to cope with extreme stress or trauma.
Coping Mechanisms and Mental Health
The use of effective coping skills can often help improve mental and emotional well-being. People who are able to adjust to stressful or traumatic situations (and the lasting impact these incidents may have) through productive coping mechanisms may be less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns as a result of painful or challenging events.
People who find themselves defaulting to maladaptive coping mechanisms and/or experience difficulty utilizing effective coping strategies may eventually see a negative impact on mental and emotional well-being. Those who have a difficult time knowing how to cope with anxiety, stress, or anger may fall into the habit of relying on a maladaptive coping mechanism. Consuming alcohol can often help people feel less stressed in the immediate moment, for example, but if a person comes to rely on alcohol, or any other substance, in the face of challenging situations, they may eventually become dependent on the substance over time.
If you experience stress and don’t know how to cope, a therapist or other mental health professional can often help you develop and improve your coping skills. Therapists can provide support and information about coping skills, and therapy sessions can be a safe, nonjudgmental environment for people to explore the coping methods they rely on and determine how they help or hinder stress management.
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