Coping mechanisms and strategies are the things you do in response to a heightened (negative) emotional state.
For example, a dismissive avoidant attachment style frequently will have negative associations with vulnerability. When they have been uncharacteristically vulnerable with someone, they will often have a “vulnerability hangover”. They will distance themselves, not return calls, and not answer messages, until they have regained their emotional footing. They might distract themselves by working, playing video games, eating comfort food, etc.
All these behaviors are mechanisms to deal with the emotion, which the person which uses them discovered over time.
It’s important to realize this – realize that they are serving a need! Trying to just suppress the mechanism by willpower will not work! This is the reason that people who were alcoholics in AA (alcoholics anonymous) are “fighting” to stay dry – because for their subconscious, alcohol is still a viable way to remove the emotional pain they are experiencing.
Alcohol as a coping mechanism
Sometimes people will drink before going on stage – to deal with the stage fright. Alcohol indeed has (depending on the quantity you ingest) a calming (down) effect on the nervous system. But it has other side effects as well:
- you can develop alcohol tolerance – so the calming effect will lessen, the quantity you need to drink will increase
- you might need to drink to obtain a base level to be able to function (for people who are seriously dependent on alcohol)
- drinking a lot might damage your liver and your nervous system in irrecoverable ways
- drinking impacts your ability to think clearly – therefore increasing the risk of behaving in a way with others that you will regret later
As we see it is something which works, but which has a cost. This is the core idea behind updating the coping mechanisms! We will look at the downsides of any particular coping mechanism, to firmly associate negativity with it – this in turn will reduce your likelihood of using it. Same as you would avoid a stinking mess of something disgusting on the floor!
Dealing with unproductive coping mechanisms
This is another tool from the PDS (personal development school) by the talented and beautiful soul Thais Gibson. Join her school in order to experience the magic for yourself! Or try the one on one coaching I offer based on Thais’ methods (Thais does not do one on one coaching anymore).
Step 0: Identify the negative coping mechanism
In this step, you will look at the negative coping mechanisms in your life, and settle on one to work on.
Some helpful suggestions:
- what behaviors of yours do you frequently feel ashamed about after they happen? (e.g. raising your voice with your kids / threatining them)
- which behaviors have negative consequences you are unhappy about, but seem not to be able to escape? (e.g. comfort food in stressful situations led to you being known as the “chubby girl” in your friend circle)
- which behaviors do you criticize in other people, but also exhibit yourself? (e.g. you abhor controlling people, but yet are controlling in subtle ways yourself) – this is called “shadow work”, by the way
Be gentle with yourself. These mechanisms have naturaly evolved, and they are not “forever”. You will be able to work on them and upgrade them.
To not overwhelm yourself it is important to pick just one of these coping mechanisms to start working on! I suggest to pick the “lowest hanging fruit” first, a mechanism which does not show up extremely frequently or which you are least ashamed of, for example. Once you will see the success with this mechanism, you will have more confidence going after the “bigger stakes” coping mechanisms in your life.
Step 1: identify needs this mechanism is meeting
Humans are very energy aware species. Most of the things we do serve a distinct purpose. Yes, even things like bungee jumping serve to create certain emotional states. The coping mechanisms are not different ! We use them to get certain needs met.
Key to the work on the coping mechanism is identifying WHICH needs it is meeting.
For example, if you raise your voice when talking to your kids, this might meet the need to feel in control. Or the need for feeling as an authority. Or the need to feel safe.
Tip: joining the PDS you will be able to find some personality needs lists, which can help you to identify the needs by providing useful suggestions.
Step 2: brainstorm new ways of getting the need met
The most important and crucial thing which attacking and suppressing just the coping behavior would miss is meeting the need.
When a person is thirsty, they want something to drink. Now the drink does not have to be something with alcohol in it – water might do just fine!
We have to look for alternative behaviors and strategies which will ALSO get the needs met, but in a healthier way.
For example, when you find yourself resorting to alcohol to calm yourself down, viable alternatives might be:
- learning some calming breathing techniques (which are surprisingly effective! even when feeling love sick, as I can attest for myself!)
- practicing yoga
- taking a break from work and taking a walk
- removing stressors from your life pro-actively – for example, creating an anti-stress budget, from which you can spend to deal with the little stressors of life
Be creative, come up with ways which fit you and your life. Remember, the goal is to improve on the coping mechanism you are already using.
These coping mechanisms are just tools. Now you would not want to use a screwdriver to hammer a nail into a wall, right? In some ways, that is what you are doing using the wrong coping mechanisms.
Another example: instead of comfort food to calm yourself down, you might use the emotional processing tool. The emotional processing tool actually deals with the problem instead of pushing it away! It also builds new positive associations and a more relaxed calm state – instead of fat on your body!
Step 3A: look at downsides of the bad coping mechanism
This and the following step are meant to be repeated frequently, and felt for intensely.
Repetition + emotion are the key to reprogramming the stored associations in your subconscious.
Here we want to collect as many negative associations as possible to the “bad” coping mechanism which you are aiming to replace.
For example, with alcohol:
- alcohol is expensive, I could use the money in other ways
- I don’t even really like the taste of alcohol
- when I’m under the influence I can’t show up in a good way for my kids
- People have made fun of me when I’ve had too much alcohol – I felt intense shame often in these situations
- …. etc.
Drive these negative associations into your subconscious mind until you build a natural wariness and inhibition around the coping mechanism in question.
Step 3B: look at upsides for new coping strategies
Again, this is not a one-time exercise, but meant to be done every day – for example just before sleeping or just after getting up – to build positive associations to the new strategies you brainstormed.
An important suggestion here: associate these new strategies with things you naturally care about.
For example, if you want to cope with stress by exercising instead of drinking alcohol, and you have a high “personality need” (natural need for) family, you might try to arrange with family members to work out with you – thereby increasing the drive for you to use your new coping strategy.
I personally started working out, after I associated that the workout would let me feel more energy throughout the day – and I have a high need for being productive.
Final tip in closing
Most important: start upgrading your negative coping strategies today! You will start reaping the rewards and avoiding the downsides. It’s like removing a credit from your bank account and putting in balance so you can earn interest!
Have fun with this exercise, explore it creatively, and enjoy your life – it’s yours to live, and not for old outdated coping strategies to run 🙂