Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage difficult and/or painful emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while maintaining their emotional well-being.
What Are Coping Mechanisms?
Significant life events, whether positive or negative, can cause psychological stress. Difficult events, such as divorce, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job, often cause distressing emotions in most individuals. But even events that are considered positive by many—getting married, having a child, and buying a home—can lead to a significant amounts of stress. To adjust to this stress, people may utilize some combination of behavior, thought, and emotion, depending on the situation.
Some may confuse defense mechanisms with coping mechanisms. Although they share some similarities, they are, in fact, different.
- Defense mechanisms mostly occur at an unconscious level, and people are generally unaware they are using them. One’s use of coping mechanisms, on the other hand, is typically conscious and purposeful.
- Coping mechanisms are used to manage an external situation that is creating problems for an individual. Defense mechanisms can change a person’s internal psychological state.
Coping Styles and Mechanisms
Coping styles can be problem-focused—also called instrumental—or emotion-focused. Problem-focused coping strategies are typically associated with methods of dealing with the problem in order to reduce stress, while emotion-focused mechanisms can help people handle any feelings of distress that result from the problem.
Further, coping mechanisms can be broadly categorized as active or avoidant. Active coping mechanisms usually involve an awareness of the stressor and conscious attempts to reduce stress. Avoidant coping mechanisms, on the other hand, are characterized by ignoring or otherwise avoiding the problem.
Some coping methods, though they work for a time, are not effective for a long-term period. These ineffective coping mechanisms, which can often be counterproductive or have unintended negative consequences, are known as “maladaptive coping.” Adaptive coping mechanisms are those generally considered to be healthy and effective ways of managing stressful situations.
Among the more commonly used coping mechanisms are:
- Support. Talking about a stressful event with a supportive person can be an effective way to manage stress. Seeking external support instead of self-isolating and internalizing the effects of stress can often greatly reduce the negative effects of a difficult situation.
- Relaxation. Any number of relaxing activities can help people cope with stressful situations. Relaxing activities may include practicing meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or calming techniques; sitting in nature; or listening to soft music, for example.
- Problem-solving. This coping mechanism involves identifying a problem that is causing stress and then developing and putting into action some potential solutions for effectively managing it.
- Humor. Making light of a stressful situation may help people maintain perspective and prevent the situation from becoming overwhelming.
- Physical activity. Exercise can serve, for many people, as a natural and healthy form of stress relief. Running, yoga, swimming, walking, dance, team sports, and many other types of physical activity can help people cope with stressful situations and the aftereffects of traumatic events.
Coping Mechanisms and Mental Health
The use of effective coping skills can often help improve mental and emotional well-being. People who are able to adjust to stressful or traumatic situations (and the lasting impact these incidents may have) through productive coping mechanisms may be less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns as a result of painful or challenging events.
People who find themselves defaulting to maladaptive coping mechanisms and/or experience difficulty utilizing effective coping strategies may eventually see a negative impact on mental and emotional well-being. Consuming alcohol can often help people feel less stressed in the immediate moment, for example, but if a person comes to rely on alcohol, or any other substance, in the face of challenging situations, they may eventually become dependent on the substance over time.
A therapist or other mental health professional can often help people develop and improve their coping skills. Therapists can provide support and information about coping skills, and therapy sessions can be a safe, nonjudgmental environment for people to explore the coping methods they rely on and determine how they help or hinder stress management.
- Coping strategies. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.humanstress.ca/stress/trick-your-stress/steps-to-instant-stress-management.html
- Cramer, P. (2015). Understanding defense mechanisms. Psychodynamic Psychiatry, 43(4), 523-552.
- Dombeck, M. (2006, July 3). Coping strategies and defense mechanisms: Basic and intermediate defenses. Psychological self-help tools: Online self-help book. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/coping-strategies-and-defense-mechanisms-basic-and-intermediate-defenses
- Galor, S. (2012, February 26). Defense mechanisms vs. coping. Retrieved from https://drsharongalor.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/defense-mechanisms-vs-coping
- How do you cope? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.semel.ucla.edu/dual-diagnosis-program/News_and_Resources/How_Do_You_Cope
Last Updated: 08-4-2016