What are coping mechanisms?

What are coping mechanisms and what should we do about them? The incredible responses to yesterday’s post (why can’t I get into yoga anymore?) prompted this question.

A coping mechanism (CM) is a behavior that a person turns to when he’s under stress, trauma, or anxiety; it doesn’t necessarily fix the underlying problem.  The example that immediately comes to my mind is food – sometimes being angry or upset can trigger emotional eating.  But there are so many ways that CMs manifest themselves.  Some are unconscious (fight or flight reaction), while others are more conscious or learned behaviors (eating).

When the body is under stress, it releases adrenaline.  CMs are a response to that.  Different people have different reactions to different levels of stress.  Some research even goes so far as to say that many mental illnesses (depression, panic disorders) are actually CMs.  Someone with a panic disorder has overblown reactions to what should be minor stresses.  When the mind is constantly under stress and constantly releasing unnecessary adrenaline, a panic disorder develops.  This is an example of an unhealthy but subconscious CM.  A panic disorder is not “learned”.

Some more examples of harmful CMs include alcoholism, bingeing, being a workaholic, eating disorders, over-exercise, addictions, and avoidance (of a problem, a person, etc…).  Don’t these all sound similar?

But not all CMs are bad!  Some people turn to exercise when they’re angry, upset, or sad.  This can be a wonderful release.  Hitting a punching bag is a much better option than socking your boss in the jaw.  Some other good CMs are calling a friend, journaling, meditation, and practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (changing what we *think* and *do* – a favorite topic of my idol Jillian Michaels).  A simple one  that I’ve learned from yoga is just taking a minute to *breathe* and be present.

I did some of my research using Aardvark, a cool tool that allows you to ask questions and have a random stranger give you an answer (you can pick which topics you want to answer questions about).  One response was, Routine is my biggest coping mechanism. I have the exact same big breakfast six days a week, and notice that towards the end of the day I’m not as hungry (no late night munchies).”

Another user said, “I’m definitely a fan of binge eating when stressed, but depending on what the stressor is, I might have absolutely no appetite as well. I tend to like sitting with someone, as long as they don’t talk to me. Listening is always a plus if I trust them.”

Come back later to hear my thoughts regarding my own CMs, how to recognize yours, some advice, and more!  Hit me up in the comments if you have any thoughts that you’d like me to address or specific CMs that you want to mention.

13 Replies to “What are coping mechanisms?”

  1. Breathing is a great coping mechanism, and one which I am trying to utilize more often.

    It may sound odd, but over the summer, I developed a coping mechanism of going to pray at a nearby cathedral during my lunch break. That church is one of the only truly quiet places I know of in Los Angeles, and it was so refreshing for me to spend a few minutes rejuvenating in a beautiful, quiet space.

  2. I am always fascinated to learn about the different coping mechanisms people choose. My coping mechanism is exercise. Nothing intense, but getting up and being active makes me feel a lot better when something is bothering me. I do have to be careful though. Back when I had an eating disorder I used to exercise excessively, so I really have to be careful that my coping mechanism doesn’t become destructive again.

    I look forward to reading the rest of your thoughts on this.

  3. Very interesting. Over the years, I’ve become very aware of the fact that food is often a coping mechanism for me. It’s very frustrating because I know better than to use food for a CM- I know how unhealthy it is, how crappy it makes me feel, etc. But knowing that I do it, what causes it, and the end result doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to stop. So frustrating!

    On the positive side of things, exercise is also a coping mechanism for me- running and yoga. I also like journaling, especially when I’m in an angry situation. Getting the thoughts out on paper helps a lot.

  4. what a great, informative post! definitely useful for any human being out there. no one’s without a need for a good CM! Mine is def exercise, and church.

  5. this is so interesting, i am looking forward to your next post! i definitely both over-eat and under-eat as a coping mechanism. i also tend to completely shut others out when i’m going through something – i don’t talk about the problem at all, i think that maybe it’s in fear of making it “real” by saying them out loud, and also admitting my weakness to others.

  6. This is great, maggie. lately bingeing has definitely been a CM for me but I’ve had the realization recently (thank goodness) that it doesn’t actually FIX the problem I was trying to cope with! After I’m done, the problem is still there to handle! So, I’m trying to change that and choose a different CM!

  7. this is very interesting Maggie. I think everyone has a Coping mechanism, the only difference is some is healthy and some are destructive. I’d love to hear more …. what’s your coping behavior.. does it change depending on the stress source? did it change over years?

  8. Exercise is a coping mechanism for me in some ways but not in others. The adrenaline rush I get when exercising sometimes actually increases whatever anger I’m feeling and I can be absolutely furious while exercising rather than relaxed. But usually I do calm down more once I’m done.

  9. My coping mechanisms completely depend on what’s going on in my life. If I’m overwhelmed and tired then I want to eat comfort foods and sleep. If I am anxious or stressed then I want to have a sense of control through diet and exercise. Once I am exhausted though, being healthy becomes very very difficult. My greatest defense against the behaviors that will follow exhaustion are planning ahead. I may not be able to control if I have a lot going on, but every Sunday I can plan my meals for the week. It’s all about figuring out a plan B for when life goes to hell. You know?

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