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Dec 28, 2022

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Bad days are an inevitable part of life. You can’t change that. What you can change is how you react to them.

So you didn’t get the job, or your relationship didn’t work out, or you had a heated disagreement with someone. You’re left feeling pretty lousy afterward, and you’re looking for a way to alleviate your emotional pain. That’s when you turn to a coping mechanism.

We all deal with stress and disappointment differently. Some seek support from friends and family, while others turn to distractions—things like drug abuse, binge eating, and/or gambling.

What’s the harm in unhealthy coping mechanisms? They jeopardize your mental, physical, and even your financial health.

If you feel like you’re caught up in harmful coping strategies, you’ve come to the right place. We’re exploring healthy vs. unhealthy coping mechanisms and what you can do to overcome the latter: 

What Are Coping Mechanisms?

A coping mechanism is how you deal with negative emotions like anxiety, discomfort, and anger. It’s how you calm down after a stressful day or distract yourself from distressing thoughts. 

A coping mechanism is any way you try to get rid of or work through your negative emotions.

Problem-Based Coping Vs. Emotion-Based Coping

You can break down different coping skills into two broad categories:

  • Problem-based coping is rooted in taking action to change the situation that’s causing stress. You may look for a different job if your current position makes you unhappy. Or maybe you end a toxic friendship. 
  • Emotion-based coping is about addressing the negative emotions you’re experiencing and finding ways to soothe yourself. There are some things in life you can’t change; instead, you can focus on taking care of yourself after they happen.

Both coping strategies can help you manage a setback in life. Depending on your circumstances, one may be more helpful than the other. Let’s contextualize that with a few examples:

Ex) Your loved one is sick. Someone close to you has just been diagnosed with a serious illness. Unfortunately, their health is outside your control, and a problem-focused approach won’t be that beneficial. What you can do to cope with this news is tend to your well-being with an emotion-based coping strategy. 

Ex) You’re being harassed by someone at work. A colleague is making you uncomfortable. While you could take an emotion-focused coping approach, this won’t change the fact that the harassment is ongoing at work. Instead, you can take a problem-focused approach by informing your manager about the harassment. 

Why People Seek Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

From the outside, it seems perplexing: Why do people turn to harmful coping strategies that only make them feel worse?

But as with all things related to mental health, it’s more complicated than that. At its core, the problem is this:

You feel bad. You want to feel better. So you turn to something that will help you do that. But some coping strategies hurt more than they help.

Many unhealthy coping mechanisms can temporarily relieve those negative emotions. In the short term, they provide immediate relief or distraction. They’re a quick fix.

But in the long term, they only lead to more problems.

Here’s an example:

Someone is in a toxic relationship, where the other person is constantly tearing down their self-esteem. To cope with it, they use alcohol to distract from their unhappiness. But the next day, they feel even worse due to the hangover, and they haven’t come up with a plan for confronting their spouse. 

Examples of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

How do you tell a harmful coping tactic apart from a helpful one?

The harmful one has consequences that go beyond the problem you’re dealing with. 

To illustrate that, we’ll cover what unhealthy coping strategies look like: 

Alcohol abuse

Alcohol is one of those quick fixes we mentioned earlier. Some people have a few drinks to forget about their worries or numb what they’re feeling. 

Alcohol is a depressant. In the short term, it may give you a burst of energy and confidence. But as the hours pass, it leaves you drained and sad. You may feel worse about the problem than you did before you drank. 

On top of that, excessive alcohol use takes a toll on your physical health. It increases your risk of cancer and causes problems for your heart and liver. You could also develop an alcohol dependency. 

Drug abuse

When someone is looking to numb their emotions or escape from an unpleasant situation, they may turn to drug use. 

Drugs have powerful psychological effects and can distract someone from their problems. But the regret and guilt that follow drug use can intensify those negative emotions. 

Drug use comes with big risks; you could develop serious health issues or overdose.


One way to get rid of negative emotions? Cover them up with something stronger. That’s why gambling can be so problematic when it’s used as a coping strategy. You may start to rely on gambling to alleviate your emotional discomfort—a dangerous habit that can destroy your finances. 


Sex is one way to forget about a stressful situation. But if you continually rely on random sexual encounters to distract yourself, you could feel lonely and empty afterward. Risky sex has implications for your physical well-being; you could be at risk of a sexually transmitted infection or unplanned pregnancy. 

Binge eating

You’ve probably heard of the phrase emotional eating; it’s when you rely on food to temporarily relieve your distress. 

This can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food. If other areas of your life feel out of your control, you may turn to food as a way to regain a feeling of control. 

Retail therapy

When you buy yourself something nice, it gives you a temporary rush—treating yourself feels good! But if you rely on going shopping to cope with stress, you may end up spending beyond your means. Debt will only add to your stress levels.

Examples of Healthy Coping Mechanisms

A healthy coping mechanism takes a bit more work. It won’t always provide immediate relief, and it often involves confronting the thing you want to avoid most. 

But there’s a clear reason why these coping strategies reign supreme—because they help you move toward a solution rather than giving you additional problems.

Facing your problem directly

It’s difficult to confront uncomfortable emotions. That’s why so many people turn to the coping strategies we’ve listed above, which usually involve escapism and distraction. 

But discomfort can be a good thing. It’s a measure of progress. Working toward that solution can be uncomfortable—but you’ll feel so much better when you’re on the other side of it. 

Here’s what that may look like for you:

  • Identifying the problem. What’s causing your discomfort? 
  • Looking at solutions. Is the problem something you can change, or is it something you need to cope with? 
  • Finding what you need. How can you help yourself feel better at this moment in a way that won’t end up hurting you later?

Physical activity

So you can’t change your circumstances, but you’re dealing with a lot of negative emotions—you’re worried, angry, or upset. What’s a healthy way to let out those emotions?

Try exercise! It’s a way to physically release what’s going on inside your head. On top of that, it helps you take care of your body. 

Exercising can be strenuous, but once done, you’ll feel calmer and better equipped to deal with the issue at hand. 

Talking to someone you trust

When you keep all your problems pent up in your head, things can start to get blown out of proportion. Instead of seeing solutions, all you see are the negatives that you’re caught up in. 

That’s why it’s so valuable to have an outsider’s perspective on the problem. Open up to someone you feel comfortable with, whether that’s your partner, a close friend, or a family member. You can share how the issue is making you feel, and they can help you find ways to better deal with it. 

Seek professional help

Develop healthy coping skills with the assistance of a professional. With a therapist, you can explore the following treatments:

  • Dialectical behavioural therapy. What drives you to turn to unhealthy coping strategies? How do you become more mindful of your reactions to unpleasant situations? DBT is all about changing the way you behave to create a healthier, happier life. You’ll learn strategies for managing your emotions and dealing with opposing truths. 
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy. Learn how to challenge the thoughts that lead you to practice unhealthy behaviours. You have the power to change the way you think and, in turn, how you act. 
  • Addictions counselling. If you’ve developed an addiction, you may feel powerless. Don’t lose hope. Through addiction counselling and other treatment programs, you can resist cravings and find healthier ways to cope with stressful life events. 

How To Learn Healthy Coping Strategies

No one ever said it was easy to break bad habits. Unlearning the coping strategies you’ve relied on for years, and replacing them with healthier ones, is no small task. Here’s the good news: You don’t have to do it alone.

At One Life Counselling and Coaching, we’re here to guide you along your therapy journey. When you book an appointment, we’ll match you with a therapist who’s the right fit for you. From there, we’ll develop a treatment plan tailored to what you want to work on. 

I am the founder of One Life Counselling and Coaching LTD and I am honored to lead a team of professional psychologists, psychotherapist’s and life coaches who dedicate their professional lives to helping people to elevate their mindsets, evolve their beliefs and learn to thrive in the present moment.
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