The term “coping mechanism” is common in popular psychology. It brings to mind images of Netflix, ice cream, booze, and crazed sessions on the elliptical. We think of “good” coping mechanisms and “bad” ones. The idea is familiar and yet, I believe, poorly understood and under-appreciated.
[Cut to scene: a horse trots on stage. Therapist sees it and hops on. Therapist is now on her high horse.]
So first of all: What is coping? Why do we need it?
I’m a firm believer in the idea that some degree of discomfort is required for personal growth. The idea is straightforward with lifting weights (one of my personal favorite coping mechanisms). If you aren’t in some amount of pain with each bicep curl, you can’t expect to see progress later on (ideally, in the form of huge vanity muscles). For me, coping with the pain of lifting weights involves: picking a gym I like; going at a time of the day when I have the most energy and see the fewest humans; drinking water frequently; taking rests between sets; spending a weird amount of time creating a confusing trap/acoustic workout playlist; and buying bluetooth headphones with great sound quality. These are all the things I do to tolerate the fact that muscle strain and fatigue is generally uncomfortable. These things are how I “cope” with the pain inherent to getting stronger.
Generally, “coping” is whatever makes it easier for you to live life, keeping in mind that life is basically uncomfortable, if you’re doing it right, and pain is a prerequisite for growth. If you don’t find yourself needing to cope -- stop patting yourself on the back. That’s not necessarily a good thing, and it’s an awkward arm movement, anyway. Not needing to cope probably means you aren’t challenging yourself. So I want to take this moment to correct a popular misconception about coping: needing to cope is not a weakness. Needing to cope is a sign that you are scared, and you’re doing it anyway. Bravo!
When can coping be a problem?
Coping can also get you into trouble. If your coping mechanisms work too well, they may allow you to tolerate a degree of pain that isn’t healthy for you. This can be quite damaging in the long-term.
Here’s a fun anecdote: When I first graduated college, I was employed at a company that worked many of its workers to the bone. It also paid them a lot, which in turn prompted the workers to adopt some very expensive coping mechanisms. This was great for the company, because it meant their employees a) could tolerate more pain and b) had to stay at the company in order to fund those new coping mechanisms. But ultimately, this was “bad" coping, because it allowed for too much pain to go unnoticed. A bit of science: when a person is born with congenital insensitivity to pain, they die sooner rather than later. You need to be able to feel your pain.
So paradoxically, bad coping mechanisms are those that work too well, that enable you to tolerate more pain than is good for you. Remember that Tony Robbins quote? “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” “Bad” coping mechanisms are those that ease the pain of staying the same, even when change is your best bet at a better life.
Some coping mechanism are more likely to be “bad” ones. Generally it’s those that allow you to chemically alter your state of consciousness. Although it is by no means inevitable, alcohol is more likely to turn into a bad coping mechanism than taking a bath, for example.
Notice that I define “bad" coping functionally (i.e. by its result). Some drugs (like those prescribed) are not bad. Sugar is not bad. Gambling is not bad. These coping mechanisms are “bad” when they are such an effective escape from your pain that it feels “good enough” to stay the same. Knitting, for example, generally can’t do that. (And if it can, might I refer you to Knitters Anonymous, which is a thing that is real).
Ok, I get it; what about good coping?
So if bad coping is defined functionally, what is good coping? Good coping eases the pain of growing up -- and all the normal, remarkably devastating things that come with it -- without allowing you to numb out completely. Clients often guiltily disclose to me their Netflix habits, for example, or their penchant for Candy Crush. I think they expect me to shake my head sadly and wonder why they’re not meditating. Actually, I usually see these coping mechanisms as a real strength. And no, I don’t meditate either. I mean, Ick; the present moment can wait.
When should I start coping, and how should I do it?
First of all, you’re definitely already coping. Everyone does it. But maybe you feel like you need better coping mechanisms - either because you’re about to encounter new stress, or your previous coping mechanisms have stopped working. Times to get creative with your coping mechanisms include: starting a job; losing a job; going through a breakup; applying for graduate school; moving to a new place; experiencing illness; retiring; or taking on additional stressors, like caring for a new baby or sick parent.
Basically, I’m talking about transitions. Evidence suggests that transitions put people at risk for declines in mental health (e.g. increased anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, obsessions, compulsions, isolation). One great way to protect the life you’ve built is to find effective coping mechanisms during transitions.
Coping looks different for everyone. So define your coping mechanisms functionally, by how well they work. Keep in mind that if they work too well, they aren’t good. And if they don’t work at all, then they’re definitely not good. Yes -- even if they're meditating.
Do you have a coping skills that works well for you and want to share it with others? We would love to hear it using the comment section below!
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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]