Coping Mechanisms

Life is filled with challenges, interpersonal conflict, physical and emotional pain, loss, and stress.  It doesn’t matter who you are – no one goes through life unscathed.  Some people also experience significant trauma, be it a childhood scarred by abuse, neglect or the tragic loss of one or both parents; a near-death experience as an adult; being the adult victim of violence or abuse; or witnessing something horrible happen to a loved one.

Below are some lists will help you recognize any unhealthy coping mechanisms you may still be using, while also providing ideas for new, beneficial ways to cope with the challenges that are an inevitable part of life.  Your recovery is vital to your well-being.  You can decide to begin replacing negative ways of coping with ones that enhance your life and your recovery.

Coping Mechanisms to Aid Your Recovery

Regardless of your past – your life “story” up until now – what matters most is how you cope.  All of us learn various “coping mechanisms” as children.  For example, as a very young child you may have clung to a favorite blanket or sucked your thumb to comfort yourself when you were scared.  As you got a little older, you may have used humor to deflect or hide emotional pain, or acted out when you wanted attention from your workaholic parents.  Perhaps you took a healthier route and channeled angry or painful feelings into physical activity, tearing up the asphalt as a sprinter or slamming tennis balls in vigorous volleys with a teammate.


Perhaps you learned to use alcohol or drugs as a way to cope.  Substance abuse is one of the most popular – and destructive – means of coping with life stressors for many adolescents and adults.  Many, if not most , addictions start out as an ill-fated attempt to relax after a stressful day, calm down after a conflict with a significant other, feel more confident in an uncomfortable social situation, or numb painful feelings of rejection or loss.  It worked so well the first time, you did it again and again.  Before you knew it, you were drinking or using every time you felt stressed or experienced unwanted emotions.  And now you’re an addict.

If lasting recovery is one of your goals, it’s essential to examine the coping mechanisms you’ve been using over the years (in addition to substance abuse).  You’ll find that one of the keys to recovery is making sure you identify maladaptive coping techniques and begin to replace them with new, healthy ones.  Doing so will help keep you on the right path.

Common Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Following are some of the more common unhealthy coping mechanisms – the ones that can easily trip you up and make you vulnerable to relapsing.


This is a very common coping mechanism for addicts.  Hostility, anger, and / or hurt are usually the driving emotions behind passive-aggressive behavior.  For example, you’re angry that you had to cancel a weekend getaway because your mother-in-law came to visit unannounced, so you “accidentally” spill a glass of red wine all over her new silk blouse.  Passive-aggressive behavior may make you feel good in the moment, but it will damage your relationships and keep you from dealing with negative feelings in a constructive manner.


This occurs when you redirect negative feelings about someone or something (e.g. anger at your boss, frustration about getting stuck in traffic) toward someone (or something) else – typically someone “safer” or someone who just happens to cross your path next, such as your spouse, your children, or a coworker.  Unfortunately, this unhealthy coping technique can create serious problems in your relationships.


This coping mechanism occurs when you mentally put conflicting emotions or thoughts into different “compartments”.  For example, a woman who’s secretly involved with two  men compartmentalizes her feelings for one whenever she’s with the other.  Sometimes compartmentalization serves a purpose, but those compartments inevitably start to “leak.”

Staying Ridiculously Busy

Whether it’s being a workaholic or keeping your schedule overbooked with activities, this is yet another way to avoid dealing with people, situations, or emotions that you don’t want to face for one reason or another.  You’ll either burn yourself out or be forced to “face the music” at some point  –  both of which are powerful triggers for relapse.


It’s a rare person who doesn’t procrastinate at least once in a while.  But when you do it frequently, it creates a lot of problems in your life.  It also leads to more stress, which is not good for anyone in recovery. If you are a procrastinator, you’re most likely trying to avoid doing something undesirable, uncomfortable, or difficult.


This is one of the most common coping mechanisms for addicts.  It involves lying to yourself and others in an attempt to avoid facing the painful truth about yourself.  If you’re in recovery, you’ve already admitted (at least to some degree) that you have a problem with alcohol or drugs.  But, you may still be using denial in other areas of your life.  For example, maybe you’re in denial about how troubled your marriage is or how critical you are of your children.


Avoidance is a common coping mechanism, especially for anyone prone to anxiety or low self-esteem.  This is a particularly challenging habit to break, because each time you avoid something, you reinforce the behavior.


This is another way to avoid or “shut out” negative or uncomfortable emotions.  People who intellectualize often focus on things like facts, statistics, and logic – not only in their conversations with others, but in their own internal dialogue.


This involves minimizing or downplaying things that are important or significant, usually to your detriment.  For example, you tell yourself it “isn’t a big deal” when your spouse is verbally abusive to your or your children.


Rationalization involves the use of “logic” or excuses to avoid facing the truth.  For example, you may rationalize that you were passed over for a promotion at work because of your age, when, in reality, you were often late to important meetings and had bungled a recent high-priority project.

Common Healthy Coping Mechanisms

There’s a popular saying that “nature abhors a vacuum.”  The same tends to apply in psychology.  That’s one of the reasons addicts often struggle in their recovery.  Giving up an addiction leaves a huge void in many different ways.  It also means you’ve given up one of your primary coping mechanisms.  So, now you need to replace it (as well as any other unhealthy coping mechanisms) with something else  – something healthy and life-affirming, rather than detrimental or downright destructive.

Following are a several examples of healthy coping mechanisms. Some will seem like common sense, while others may seem unusual or foreign to you.  Don’t be too quick to rule out any of these, even if they don’t seem like a good fit at first glance.  For example, maybe the idea of meditating sounds a bit too “spiritual” or “new age” for you, or maybe you’ve always hated any type of exercise.  However, since recovery is a new chapter in your life, it’s also the perfect time to open yourself up to new practices.


Exercise is hands-down one of the best coping mechanisms.  In addition to helping you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, sleep better, and reduce your risk of developing a multitude of serious health problems, regular exercise also improves your emotional well-being.  Aerobic exercise (e.g. jogging, brisk walking, cycling, and swimming) has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.  In fact, studies have shown regular exercise to be just as effective as taking an antidepressant medication for depression.  It also reduces stress, boosts self-confidence, and enhances self-esteem. If you find a type of exercise you enjoy and / or do it with a partner, you’ll be much more likely to stick with it.

Turn Your Anger or Pain Into Something Useful

Many charities, volunteer organizations, and self-help / inspirational books were borne out of someone’s pain or anger.  For example, a woman who endured a painful, heart-breaking divorce writes a book to help other women see the light at the end of the tunnel.  A man who lost his wife to ovarian cancer starts a charity to raise funds for ovarian cancer research.  Whether you create your own project or join another, channeling negative feelings into something that will help others is a win/win situation and a great way to facilitate healing.

Practice Gratitude

The key here is to “practice” gratitude, as it doesn’t come naturally for most people. This means to consciously look for things  –  no matter how small  –  for which to be truly grateful.  It might be a cool breeze on a hot day or running water  –  things we often take for granted.  Some people find that keeping a daily “gratitude journal” is a great way to implement this coping mechanism.  When you feel sad, angry, or down, read through your gratitude journal to boost your spirits and refocus your thoughts.


There’s a reason therapists recommend journaling  –  the act of writing down your thoughts and feelings  –  to their clients.  Journaling is a great way to express your feelings  –  both positive and negative  –  in a safe, private place.  Doing so on a regular basis will help you gain insight into yourself.  Expressing yourself on paper also helps ensure that you don’t keep negative feelings bottled up.


Meditation is often associated with religious practice, but you don’t have to be religious to enjoy its many benefits.  It can be as simple as taking a few minutes to find a quiet place and sit in silence, focusing on nothing more than your breathing.  When practiced regularly, meditation provides numerous mental and physical benefits by inducing deep relaxation, enhancing mindfulness, and reducing stress.

Talking It Out

As humans, we’re not meant to be socially isolated.  It’s important to have someone  –  a trusted confidante who’s a good listener  –  with whom you can disclose distressing feelings and thoughts.  Talking about them is a good way to work through them.  This is one of the reasons people go to therapy  –  to “talk out” whatever it is that’s troubling them.

Deep Breathing

Sometimes we all just need to take a deep breath.  Formally practicing deep breathing – whenever you feel angry, upset, frustrated, stressed, or anxious – is an excellent way to reduce those negative feelings and calm yourself down.  Practice breathing from the diaphragm, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly.