Effective coping strategies vs.  Maladaptive coping strategies

woman stressed

Whether you’ve been dumped by your date or you’ve had a rough day at the office, having healthy coping skills can be key to getting through tough times. Coping skills help you tolerate, minimize, and deal with stressful situations in life. Managing your stress well can help you feel better physically and psychologically and it can impact your ability to perform your best.

But not all coping skills are created equal. Maladaptive coping strategies are not only unhelpful, they negatively impact our mental wellbeing. Sometimes, it’s tempting to engage in strategies that will give quick relief but might create bigger problems for you down the road. It’s important to establish healthy coping skills that will help you reduce your emotional distress or rid yourself of the stressful situations you face.

To start with healthy and effective coping strategies you need to understand the two main types of coping skills: problem-based coping and emotion-based coping. Understanding how they differ can help you determine the best coping strategy for you.

  • Problem-based coping is helpful when you need to change your situation, perhaps by removing a stressful thing from your life. For example, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, your anxiety and sadness might be best resolved by ending the relationship (as opposed to soothing your emotions).
  • Emotion-based coping is helpful when you need to take care of your feelings when you either don’t want to change your situation or when circumstances are out of your control. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it’d be important to take care of your feelings in a healthy way (since you can’t change the circumstance).

There isn’t always one best way to proceed. Instead, it’s up to you to decide which type of coping skill is likely to work best for you in your particular circumstance. Once you determine which type of coping skill is best for your particular circumstance, here are some examples of both emotion-based and problem-based coping skills.

Examples of healthy emotion-based coping skills:

  • Care for yourself: Put on lotion that smells good, spend time in nature, take a bath, drink tea, or take care of your body in a way that makes you feel good such as painting your nails, doing your hair, putting on a face mask.
  • Engage in a hobby: Do something you enjoy such as coloring, drawing, or listening to music.
  • Exercise: Do yoga, go for a walk, take a hike, or engage in a recreational sport.
  • Focus on a task: Clean the house (or a closet, drawer, or area), cook a meal, garden, or read a book.
  • Practice mindfulness: List the things you feel grateful for, meditate, picture your “happy place,” or look at pictures to remind you of the people, places, and things that bring joy.
  • Use relaxation strategies: Play with a pet, practice breathing exercises, squeeze a stress ball, use a relaxation app, enjoy some aromatherapy, try progressive muscle relaxation, or write in a journal.

Examples of healthy problem-based coping skills:

  • Ask for support from a friend or a professional.
  • Create a to-do list.
  • Engage in problem-solving.
  • Establish healthy boundaries.
  • Walk away and leave a situation that is causing you stress.
  • Work on managing your time better.

Moving onto maladaptive coping strategies. Maladaptive strategies can arise from a disruption to the typical coping development sequence in response to:

  • Overwhelming stress – conflict within the family, financial hardship, death of a loved one, etc.
  • Poor treatment – growing up in a violent environment or not being given love and parental support, etc.
  • Emotional invalidation – being told your emotions are not reasonable, rational, or valid, etc.

Research shows that children placed in such situations are less likely to develop coping skills involving managing emotions and solving problems.

In response to stressful situations or not experiencing adaptive behavior, older children and adolescents may continue with less mature coping strategies such as avoidance and denial.

Maladaptive coping techniques include the following:

  • Substance abuse: Consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol and taking legal and illegal drugs.
  • Rumination: Extreme and ongoing focus on “depressive symptoms and on the implications of those symptoms” 
  • Emotional numbing: Shutting down feelings to provide relief from stress and anxiety.
  • Escape: Changing behavior to avoid the situation and difficult feelings.
  • Intrusive thoughts: Unwelcome or involuntary ideas and thoughts that may be upsetting and difficult to manage.
  • Daydreaming: While occasional daydreaming may result in a loss of focus and delayed task completion, in its extreme, maladaptive daydreaming is a form of addiction to daydreaming that can last for hours at a time.
  • Procrastination: Procrastination, like rumination, can lead to the conscious or unconscious avoidance of difficult issues or tasks that require completion.
  • Self-harm and binge eating: Both can be ways of dealing with difficult feelings and usually need specialist support.
  • Blaming and self-blaming: These form cognitive strategies that affect how an individual relates to difficult circumstances.
  • Behavioral disengagement: Under challenging situations, individuals may disengage or reduce the effort in a task or social situation.
  • Risk-taking behavior: Another form of behavioral disengagement used to alleviate the adverse effects of a situation.
  • Sensitization: Overly rehearsing a future event, excessive worrying, and hyper-vigilance.
  • Safety behaviors: The tendency to rely on someone or something to help cope with extreme anxiety. The person may seek continual reassurance that things will be okay.
  • Anxious avoidance: Avoiding situations or events that may cause upset. Unfortunately, this causes the person never to confront their fears or unlearn their faulty beliefs. Removing or avoiding such unpleasant experiences may cause the behavior to worsen.

Long-term use of such coping styles – and there are many others – is unhealthy. Such strategies are associated with high levels of psychological distress, including anxiety and depression in adolescents and adults. 

Now that you know examples of both effective coping skills and maladaptive coping skills, you can identify which ones you do and make the switch to effective ones if necessary. 

Resources: “Maladaptive Coping: 15 Examples & How to Break the Cycle” by Positive Psychology 

“Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions” by Very Well Mind

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