“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ― Henry David Thoreau.
Coping mechanisms are strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help them cope with painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adapt to stressful events while helping them maintain 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 sadness or anxiety in most people. But even events that many consider positive—getting married, having a baby, and buying a house—can lead to significant amounts of stress. To adapt to this stress, people may use a certain combination of behavior, thinking and emotions depending on the situation. People may use coping mechanisms to manage stress or to manage anger, loneliness, anxiety or depression.
HOW DO COPING AND DEFENSE MECHANISMS DIFFER?
Some may confuse defense mechanisms with coping mechanisms. Although these two concepts share some similarities, they are actually different.
- Defense mechanisms mostly occur at an unconscious level and people are generally unaware that they are using them. On the other hand, the use of coping mechanisms is usually conscious and purposeful.
- Coping mechanisms are used to cope with an external situation that creates problems for the individual. Defense mechanisms can change a person’s internal psychological state.
STYLES AND MECHANISMS FOR COPING:
Coping styles can be problem-focused—also called instrumental—or emotion-focused. Problem-focused coping strategies are usually coupled with problem-solving methods to reduce stress, while emotion-focused mechanisms can help people manage any feelings of distress that result from the problem.
Furthermore, coping mechanisms can be broadly categorized as active or avoidant. Active coping mechanisms typically involve awareness of the stressor and conscious attempts to reduce stress. Avoidance coping mechanisms, on the other hand, are characterized by ignoring or otherwise avoiding the problem. Some coping methods, even if they work for a period of time, are not effective in the long term. These ineffective coping mechanisms, which can often be counterproductive or have unintended negative consequences, are known as “maladaptive coping.” Adaptive coping mechanisms are those that are generally considered to be healthy and effective ways of coping with stressful situations.
TYPES OF COMPENSATION MECHANISMS:
Commonly used adaptive coping mechanisms include:
- Support: Talking about a stressful event with a support person can be an effective way to manage stress. Seeking external support instead of isolating yourself and internalizing the effects of stress can greatly reduce the negative effects of a difficult situation.
- Relaxation: Any number of relaxation activities can help people cope with stress. Relaxation 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 the problem that is causing the stress and then developing and putting into practice some potential solutions to deal with it effectively.
- Humor: Making light of a stressful situation can 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, dancing, team sports, and many other types of physical activity can help people cope with stress and the aftermath 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 become engrossed in solitary activities such as watching television, reading, or spending time online.
- Unhealthy self-soothing: Some self-soothing behaviors are healthy in moderation, but can turn into an unhealthy addiction if they become a habit of using them to self-soothe. Some examples of unhealthy self-soothing may include overeating, excessive drinking, or excessive use of the Internet or video games.
- Numbing: Some self-soothing behaviors can become numbing behaviors. When a person engages in a numbing behavior, they are often aware of what they are doing and may seek out an activity to help drown or overcome their anxiety. People may try to relieve their stress by eating junk food, drinking too much alcohol, or using drugs.
- Compulsions and risk-taking: Stress can cause some people to seek adrenaline through compulsive or risky behaviors such as gambling, experimenting with drugs, stealing or reckless driving.
- Self-injury: People may engage in self-injurious behavior to cope with extreme stress or trauma.
COPING MECHANISMS AND MENTAL HEALTH: Using effective coping skills can often help improve mental and emotional well-being. People who can adapt to stressful or traumatic situations (and the lasting impact these incidents can have) through productive coping mechanisms may be less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems as a result of painful or challenging events. People who find themselves failing in maladaptive coping mechanisms and/or having difficulty using effective coping strategies may eventually see a negative impact on mental and emotional well-being. Those who have difficulty coping with anxiety, stress, or anger may become accustomed to relying on maladaptive coping mechanisms. Drinking alcohol can often help people feel less stressed in the immediate moment, but if a person relies on alcohol or any other substance in stressful situations, they can become dependent on that substance over time.
- Mufina, MHP, M.S.C.P., D.M.H.,
Psychologist, Mental Health Counsellor,
Chennai, TN, India.
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