Best Coping Mechanisms for Good Mental Health

  Friday, May 7, 2021

Coping mechanisms are crucial to help people deal with stressful situations and negative emotions that come from them. However, not all coping mechanisms are created equal, and sometimes, what we think of as coping mechanisms actually do more harm than good.  That’s why it’s important to learn about coping mechanisms, and have them in mind for when life throws stressful situations our way.

It’s also important to keep in mind that we might need coping mechanisms for situations that people don’t typically think of as bad or stressful. It’s obvious that when we go into grief for any reason, we need coping mechanisms. What’s not as obvious is the stress that accompanies otherwise joyful life events, like a new child, job, or home. While these events do bring a sense of elation and excitement, big changes to life’s routines can also call for coping mechanisms.

Coping Mechanism vs. Defense Mechanism vs. Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms 

To start, let’s delineate the differences between defense mechanisms and maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Defense Mechanisms 

Unlike most coping mechanisms, defense mechanisms are unconscious reactions to stressful situations. That means that unless we consciously attempt to recognize and address our defense mechanisms and why they were triggered, they might linger unabated. Defense mechanisms are an attempt by the unconscious mind to deny the reality of the stressful situation, or to mitigate the extent to which we admit that the bad situation is affecting us.

Defense mechanisms are often unconsciously employed by healthy people in order to keep themselves and their minds happy and healthy. However, sometimes, persistent use of defense mechanisms can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms that can be a danger to a person’s mental health.

Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms 

The signature characteristic of maladaptive coping mechanisms is that while they can provide some short-time relief to the person using them, they do not actually reduce a stressor or the impact of the stressor, and in some cases, they can even make the situation worse. Examples of maladaptive coping mechanisms include reliance on escapism, unhealthy self-soothing, numbing, compulsive behavior, and self-harm. If you or a loved one are using maladaptive coping mechanisms to get through a stressful time, it’s a good idea to seek professional help.

Recommended Coping Mechanisms 

If you are engaging in maladaptive coping mechanisms in order to deal with a stressful situation, you shouldn’t blame yourself. It is normal to be overwhelmed by stress, and to turn to whatever we think will make us feel better immediately without thinking of long-term consequences. However, try steering yourself towards adaptive coping mechanisms to provide real relief from problems or the stress they cause.        

Journaling 

Journaling is one of the best coping mechanisms out there. That’s because it can help you approach the three major adaptive coping techniques: behavioral coping mechanisms, which center on trying to solve the problem or the stressor through our behavior, appraisal-focused coping mechanisms, which center on modification of thoughts about the stressor, and emotion-focused coping mechanisms, which center on managing the emotions involved in the stressful situation. Let’s explore how journaling can be applied to each type of coping mechanism and some suggestions for exercises that will aid you in these different types of coping mechanisms.      

Behavior-Focused Journaling 

When we approach journaling as a coping mechanism with the intent of solving the problem that is causing us stress, much depends on the problem itself. The first question to ask is: does my problem have an actionable solution? Even if at first glance, you believe the answer is no, oftentimes, we can find a way to turn that answer into a yes.

For example, in the case of bereavement, we feel that our problem is the loss of our loved one, and the solution would be to regain the loved one, which is impossible. Therefore, we can feel like there is no actionable solution to our problem. However, if we just shift our perspective inward, we might see the situation a little differently. Instead of focusing on the loss as our problem, we can focus on the grief we are feeling, which is a problem with a solution. In the case of grief, we can seek out resources that are specifically designed to help people through grief and bereavement. 

Make a list of resources—it’s an exercise that doesn’t require much mental energy, and gives you something else to focus on. Then, go through your list of resources and answer the following questions: have you used this resource yet? If not, why not? If so, did it help you? If not, why don’t you think it was effective and what different kinds of resources might work better for you? If it did help, would you consider turning again to this resource or exploring similar ones? Answering these questions will definitely help you to develop plans and take actions that provide you with tangible solutions.   

Appraisal-Focused Journaling 

Modifying your thoughts about a stressful situation can be a challenge. We often find ourselves in “loops” that seem to have no end. Asking ourselves questions like “why did this happen?” and “when will it get better?” are a normal part of dealing with stressors. However, these questions can go from a normal reaction to maladaptive thoughts if we don’t get a handle on them.

“Why did this happen?”

Because I’m a bad person and I deserve bad things to happen to me.

“When will it get better?”

It will never get better and the rest of my life will be bereft and miserable.

When we start answering these questions with these types of thoughts, we are engaging in maladaptive thought behavior. We are becoming hopeless and depressed, without offering ourselves any grace. Journaling can help, by writing down in black and white how we are thinking about our stressors.

For example, to answer the question, “why did this happen?” write down every possible cause for the stressor. Real or imagined, emotionally charged or clinical facts, it doesn’t matter, just get them written down. Then, take a look at the list and answer the following questions: is this cause reality-based or my own opinion? If it is my opinion, would my loved ones or an objective observer agree with this opinion? If it is a fact, is it something that I have control over? (Hint: if it’s a fact-based statement about the past, you have no control over it now, even if you believe you would have had control over it then.) 

Finally, once you really dive deep into the answers to those questions, answer this one: is this thought helpful to my healing process? Write down why it is or why it isn’t helpful. By examining your thoughts in an organized fashion, you can help yourself make sense of what is often a confused jumble in times of stress.   

Emotion-Focused Journaling 

Even harder than finding tangible solutions to problems or changing your thought patterns concerning stressors, is identifying and coping with your emotions regarding your stressor. Emotions in stressful situations can easily go from the back of our minds to overwhelming in an instant.

Emotional coping can take one of two distinct approaches: emotional processing and emotional expression. Both of these emotional coping mechanisms can be aided by the simple but powerful act of journaling, each in their own way.   

Emotional processing coping involves understanding, considering, and examining emotions that arise in response to a stressor. When journaling, it can be easier to process your emotions by writing them down, and organizing how you relate to them. For example, if your stressor is unemployment, and your prevailing emotion is fear of your unknown future, here is a way you could process that emotion:

I am afraid of being unemployed.

Understanding: I understand why I am afraid; it is normal to fear the unknown. Fear is an emotional response that I can’t necessarily control through brute force, but I can understand why I feel it.

Considering: I consider fear to be a natural response to an unknown future. I don’t consider myself a fearful person, but I don’t blame myself for being afraid right now. I don’t believe that being afraid makes me a coward or less worthy of consideration.

Examining: When I look at my fear, I don’t actually find it useful with respect to my stressor. I can acknowledge my fear without minimizing it, but also recognize that upon examination, I don’t need it. This frees me up to search for emotions that are more useful to me, such as determination, positive expectation, and excitement for a new journey.

Emotional expression coping, on the other hand, doesn’t ask for you to organize anything—it simply requires you to express what you are feeling. If you are feeling angry, you can write all about it without fear of reprisal. In a journal, you are allowed to say whatever you want. 

For example, if you are feeling loathing toward a person, you can write it down privately—write down every little thing about them that makes you crazy, write a horror story about what terrible things you imagine they do in their free time. Make it detailed and over-the-top, exaggerate their every bad quality to the point of absurdity, and then stop and think about how it made you feel to spill your venom onto the page. 

Hopefully, it gave you a sense of catharsis, and that’s more than enough. But if it didn’t, then it’s time to ask why, and write down your answers. Maybe the person you feel angry with isn’t the problem—maybe it’s a larger systemic issue, or it’s a situation that’s actually beyond their control, or maybe you’re really angry with yourself. Whatever the problem may be, emotional expression can help you purge overwhelming emotions before they become engrained and maladaptive. Expressing and dealing with strong emotions can make it easier to free your mind to focus on adaptive coping behaviors, rather than allowing your overwhelming emotions to lead you down a maladaptive coping path.   

More Coping Strategies   

Relaxation: if you are feeling stressed, it’s important to find healthy ways to relax that don’t rely on maladaptive coping strategies like escapism or numbing. Some healthy relaxation techniques include meditation, getting outside in nature, going for a walk, reading a book, taking a bath, or getting a massage.   

Exercise: getting your body moving is a proven stress-reliever. If the idea of going to a gym is intimidating, try a free online yoga class to do at home, or simply going for a walk. Exercise benefits not just your body; it also helps to increase brain function and clarity.   

Creative Expression: we mentioned earlier that journaling for emotional expression can be extremely cathartic, but don’t stop there! Turn an emotionally charged cathartic piece into a short story, a cartoon, a painting, a collage, a sculpture… anything! Your only limit is your imagination, and the benefits of creative expression go far beyond the piece of art you’ve made. Creativity is shown to increase happiness and improve brain and mental health.   

Support: remember, no matter what you’re going through—you are not alone! If you aren’t comfortable turning to loved ones for support, you can also find support groups for nearly any problem out there. Online therapy is also an incredible and increasingly available resource that everyone should be taking advantage of.

Hopefully, you have found some coping mechanisms for good mental health that appeal to you. It’s definitely not one-size-fits-all; you may find that some coping mechanisms aren’t available to you, literally or emotionally, and that’s okay. But the more you incorporate healthy coping mechanisms into your life, the better you will feel in the long run. And don’t forget—if you are having trouble coping in a healthy manner, you can always find an online therapist who is happy to help guide you through mentally healthy coping mechanisms. 

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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