For several months now, a dear friend of mine has been in a consistently terrible mood. These moods manifest in irritability and moodiness that oscillates between elation and deep blues. One day, when it was just the two of us over coffee, I gently probed her about these patterns. At first, she denies and shrugs off my observations only to eventually disclose she hasn’t had an AFD in several weeks. “In fact”, she says, “I can’t recall the last time I had one”.
If you are not already familiar with this acronym, AFD stands for Alcohol-Free Day. “It’s the immediate gratification”, my friend says, “I’m a sucker for it, but you’re so good at it”, she continues. “Good at what?” I ask defensively. For some reason, my mind has conflated her words with the accusation of being boring. “What about when someone spontaneously calls you, or when you have a stressful day, or you’re bored and unsure as to how to fill an evening? How do you cope?”, she asks. I shrug and let go of my defensiveness. My friend is looking at me desperately as if I possess something valuable. It seems the ‘it’ she is referring to isn’t something to do with being uptight and regimented, but with my healthy coping mechanisms.
Short-term coping mechanisms immediately relieve discomfort, making them addictive over time
A coping mechanism is a conscious or unconscious behaviour we engage in, when feeling overwhelmed by a stressful situation or by uncomfortable emotions and memories. Coping mechanisms can be helpful or unhelpful, depending on the behaviour and context. Short-term coping strategies tend to involve avoidance, such as distraction, denial, and minimising the stressful stimulus. As short-term coping mechanisms tend to relieve discomfort immediately, they can become quite addictive. When overused and heavily relied upon, these short-term strategies can be unhelpful as they cause greater problems and distress down the track, despite feeling oh-so-good at the time. Examples of common short-term coping mechanisms are; reaching for social media when you have a hard task to complete; online shopping when you are stressed about your relationships; mindlessly eating when you are overwhelmed by life’s expectations; binge-watching TV when you have life admin to attend to, or compulsively over-exercising when you feel discomfort driven by emotions.
Short-term coping mechanisms are a tricky double-edged sword, in that the very thing that takes the edge off -maybe a couple of drinks at the end of a long day- also causes us greater distress in the long run. These coping behaviours fail to address the root of the issues, so the stressor continues unopposed, growing over time. The late, great, writer Joan Didion once wrote that ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live’. This quote speaks to negative coping mechanisms we engage in individually and collectively as a society, whereby we appease our stress, fear, and discomfort with other, more pleasant, things. It seems we are masters of pretending and avoiding.
What works for you will probably not work for someone else
Conversely, a healthy coping mechanism does not shy away from the truth, instead, it acknowledges the stressor itself, and the emotional response it is inciting. Healthy coping mechanisms attempt to understand the stressor and process it, so that it no longer operates as a stressor. You might like to think of it as a process of dismantling. However, this dismantling looks different from person to person, depending on their style of coping. What works for you might not work for someone else. Having always found jogging incredibly jarring on my neck and knees, I’ve never understood why people want to subject their bodies to it. Nor have I understood the process of baking or had the knack for gardening. Recently someone said to me: Your yuck is someone else’s yum. At the time, I was ridiculing the person in front of me in line who had ordered a skim milk mocha. So, considering this insight, I will refrain from listing the coping strategies I engage in. Rather, I will suggest the following core components that set you up well to enjoy the benefits of helpful coping mechanisms. While they are all likely familiar sounding and may engender eye rolls, it seems many of us fail to perform these basic tasks. They are proven to cultivate a healthy lifestyle and make you far less likely to engage in unhelpful coping mechanisms. These are:
- Getting quality sleep,
- A balanced diet,
- Being active,
- Taking regular breaks in the day to empty the mind and turn your gaze inward,
- Doing something pleasurable or fun every day, and,
- Intentional relaxation via yoga, meditation, music, bodies of water and nature.
Setting up helpful coping mechanisms now, places you well for the future
If you find you tend to engage in short-term coping mechanisms or think you may be a little reliant on them, then psychotherapy is worth considering. Professional support, even just a small amount, can help you reduce your dependence on these short-term fixes. Coping mechanisms are a fundamental component of psychotherapy because stress is an essential, unavoidable component in our daily lives. Also, heavy reliance on short-term coping strategies is a major risk factor for several mental health disorders. In this way, you do not need to have experienced a major life change, suffer from trauma or meet diagnostic criteria to visit a psychologist. The simple desire to have more positive coping mechanisms in place is a great reason to engage in psychotherapy. This kind of therapy is known as ‘preventative support’ as you are proactively putting the right procedures in place for when adversity occurs. In the meantime, you can try these two approaches for when unhelpful urges arise:
- When overwhelmed by a situation, say your unhelpful urge out loud. For example, you might feel compelled to make a stiff drink, eat a packet of Tim-Tams or pick a fight with your partner. If you say the most desired response out loud, you are allowing yourself to observe its irrationality. And, even if do perform the most desired behaviour, at least you are acknowledging it and taking responsibility. It’s when the negative, self-soothing behaviour is performed thoughtlessly or unconsciously, that it can become a destructive and stubborn habit.
- Contrary to the above approach, when overwhelmed you might do the exact opposite of what your urge is. This takes a lot of effort but is a useful means of separating yourself and the stressor. As soon as you feel overwhelmed do the thing you would never think to do, the thing you most definitely do not want to do, like blast your most irresistible favourite song and dance for a minute, or ask a person in your life for a big squeeze or to join you for a walk. These actions are both brightening and grounding and serve to give you a moment of joy and perspective that no matter how terrible that stressor is, it isn’t the end of the world.
The long-term benefits
Today is a perfect example of one of those days my friend was referring to in which I felt entirely at war with myself and my lot. It began in the morning when I snoozed my alarm and missed yoga, knowing full well I was going to incur a cancellation fee that would later frustrate me. I’d also had an indulgent weekend and was bitter about the state of my bank account and the lethargy of my body. Add on a day of unproductive work, and an unnecessary tiff with my partner, and all I wanted to do was crawl into a ball on the couch and drink a glass of wine rather than swim at the pool like I said I would. But swim I do. It is gazing down at the black line at the bottom of the pool, lifting my sore arms through something that feels like porridge, I think, why the hell am I bothering with this?
Several hours later though, I sit in the answer to this question. This is to say, the profound sense of calm that would not have been available to me had I visited my local bar for a cold glass of beer, with a cigarette hanging from my fingers. I would have done this happily several years ago, but I also recall the way this kind of pleasure, this immediate gratification, is fleeting and the way the distress the next morning continues to be compounded, like an avalanche gathering more snow and debris as it moves down the hill.
Check out this podcast if you want to explore coping mechanisms broadly further. We also have more specific articles on music and coping with emotion here, how self-compassion can help improve our capacity to cope here, and coping with relationship insecurities here.