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Stress and it’s Coping Mechanisms

“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.


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.


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.


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.


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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