Maybe hours of TikTok is your go-to when you're overwhelmed or you deal with most conflicts by pretending they’re not happening. I mean, you can’t be in a fight with your roommate if the fight does not exist, right? Right?!? These are both examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms, otherwise known as behaviors (like numbing out to TikTok) and thought processes (like avoiding conflict) that we use consciously or unconsciously to manage our emotions when annoying things go down, says licensed clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, PhD.
Turns out, coping mechanisms can be positive or negative, or adaptive or maladaptive, if you will. The adaptive ones enable you to feel those negative emotions and handle them in a way that leaves you feeling better. For example, if you’re going through a breakup, adaptive coping mechanisms could entail listening to as much Adele as your ears can handle and/or journaling your face off.
Most of us (read: all of us) dabble in maladaptive or unhealthy coping mechanisms too. Dr. Howes explains that, anecdotally, these skills are often ones that were helpful when we first used them (likely as kids), but aren’t very effective now. Say, when you were little, you used the TV to zone out while your parents fought. Then it tracks that adult you might be tempted to watch TV or scroll through IG to avoid an argument with your partner, even if that’s wildly unhelpful, he adds.
Because those learned responses can be so ingrained in us, sometimes the things we think of as bad habits, like procrastinating stuff that makes us anxious on our to-do list, are really negative coping mechanisms we’ve outgrown.
So, how do you know if something is a coping mechanism?
It basically comes down to whether the behavior or thought process is tied to a feeling or not, says Dr. Howes. A habit is something that’s part of our routine and doesn’t have much to do with our emotions, whereas a coping mechanism is directly related to an uncomfortable feeling we’re experiencing—even if we don’t realize it at first, he explains.
More specifically, unhealthy coping mechanisms are almost always used to avoid your emotions. So, if you find yourself engaging in the same “bad habit” almost every time you feel sad, anxious, lonely or angry, it’s probably a coping mechanism.
The thing about unhealthy coping mechanisms though is that they don’t address the problem or your emotions head on. And since feelings refuse to go away until you deal with them, these types of strategies aren’t effective, says Dr. Howes. Popping bottles to deal with how you feel is a good example: You might relax a little at first—and maybe even forget what you’ve been stressing over for a few hours—but the next morning, the issues and emotions are still there.
On top of that, unhealthy coping mechanisms can sometimes harm you or the people around you, Dr. Howes explains. The obvious examples here are engaging in self-harm or taking your stress out on someone else, both of which are no bueno.
Sure, we all would love to quit the bad habits that keep us from living our best lives. But if those routines are actually coping strategies we’ve been leaning on anytime uncomfy emotions pop up, they can be a lot harder ditch. Still, if you can identify them as unhealthy coping mechanisms and work toward replacing them with positive ones, you’ll feel better in the long run. Here’s how to do exactly that.
1. Sit with whatever’s going on.
Since adaptive coping mechanisms always allow you to feel your feelings, the first step in breaking your unhealthy coping streak is to do exactly that. When you find yourself knee deep in mindless scrolling or seriously procrastinating, make some space for a little self-reflection, suggests Dr. Howes. What’s the emotion or issue you’re trying to cope with? If you’re not 100% sure, think about the times you normally engage in this maladaptive coping strategy and look for patterns. Are there particular circumstances or emotions that seem to trigger it? Identifying the root feeling or problem you’re facing and ~being present~ with it enables you to handle it and (hopefully) help it fade.
2. Do something to deal right now.
If whatever you’re feeling needs more than just attention, it’s time to sample some strategies that can help you feel better now and in the future. Pretty much any activity that enables you to feel whatever’s coming up and use those feelings to find a way forward will do, but you can also try: talking with a friend about what’s bothering you, journaling, going for a walk, doing a breathing exercise, playing with your pet, or talking to a therapist, says Dr. Howes. All of these can work to improve your mood or directly deal with what’s bothering you. FWIW, making one of these your go-to response might also protect you from future stressors, Dr. Howes previously told Wondermind.
If the way you normally handle hard-to-process emotions is getting in the way of your ability to function at work, in relationships, or impacting your health in general, that’s an indicator it’s time to find a therapist who can help you learn new coping strategies that’ll actually make you feel better over time, says Dr. Howes.
3. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
While adaptive coping strategies are a very, very good thing, you’re also allowed to take a break from your sadness or anger or whatever it is you’re feeling, says Dr. Howes. So don’t beat yourself up if you catch yourself leaning on a negative coping mechanism every once in a while. We’re all human, and sometimes engaging in one of those strategies can feel good in the moment. Ultimately though, the goal here is to make that a rare occurrence so you make more time for thoughts and behaviors that’ll truly help you feel better.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.