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How coping mechanisms help us manage difficult emotions and situations

February 22, 2022 - 13 min read

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Types of coping mechanisms

The importance of coping mechanisms for mental well-being

Which coping mechanism works best for me?

Change is constant, and when it happens, it can feel overwhelming. That’s true no matter whether it’s positive or negative, expected or unexpected. When this happens, we look for ways to cope with the new stressors while trying to keep our emotional balance. 

Imagine that you are stepping onto a boat. When you put your foot on the deck, you feel the boat start to move beneath you. You hold on tightly to the shroud until you get your footing.

A short while later, you’re standing and talking to a friend on the boat when it suddenly begins to move. You stumble, looking for support behind you.

The movements of the boat are your changing circumstances. Your instincts to reach out for support are your coping mechanisms. And, as any sailor will tell you, certain parts of the boat are better to hold on to than others.

Types of coping mechanisms

The Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine defines coping as our “efforts to prevent or diminish threat, harm, and loss, or to reduce the distress that is often associated with those experiences.” These stressors are usually external situations or circumstances that trigger internal distress.

When these challenges arise, we usually default to one of two types of coping mechanisms: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.

Problem-focused coping means taking some action to get help or make the situation easier to deal with in some way. Emotion-focused coping is directed at managing the symptoms of emotional distress that arise in response to the circumstance.

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Neither coping mechanism is inherently better than the other. We can’t always take action to change our circumstances (for example, when we lose a loved one). In those cases, we can only manage our own reactions.

But chances are good that when you’re faced with difficult circumstances, you usually use a blend of both. Let’s look at the following example:

You look at your credit card statement and see a number of unfamiliar charges. You start to feel uneasy, but rationalize that they must belong to a family member. But after checking with everyone, it becomes clear that you’ve become a victim of identity theft.

Problem-based coping: You call the bank right away and tell them what happened. You freeze the cards and your credit report so no further damage can be done. Then you make a list of all your upcoming expenses so you can plan ways to handle them without your cards.

Emotion-based coping: You sit quietly for a minute, then pull out your phone and order your favorite takeout. While you wait, you pour yourself a drink. It’s too stressful to even think about, and if you try to talk about it you know you’ll blow up. You try not to think about it, but the situation keeps coming to mind.

Blended response: You call your friend, who just went through this situation themselves. They commiserate with you, reminding you that even though it’s frustrating, it happens on occasion. Your friend gives you a step-by-step list of what you need to do and encourages you to notify your bank right away. After you call the bank, you sit down to watch your favorite show. When you feel a little better, you’ll get back to canceling — and replacing — the rest of your cards.

Both problem-focused and emotion-focused coping are active coping strategies. These are proactive ways that we try to eliminate either the source of the stress or the stress itself. Active coping strategies are considered to be "adaptive" — that is, they're productive, healthy ways of dealing with stress.

Coping mechanisms vs. defense mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are a particular type of coping mechanism. They only arise in response to internal stress. Defense mechanisms are the unconscious’ way of responding to something that is triggering, traumatic, or otherwise poses a threat to our identities.

Unlike defense mechanisms, we usually know when we’re using a coping strategy to deal with stress. With defense mechanisms, the situation is threatening enough that we can’t bring ourselves to even acknowledge it. We may deny it, repress the memory of it, or even direct our frustration towards another person.

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The importance of coping mechanisms for mental well-being

Have you ever heard the phrase “Control only what you can control”? Whoever said that could well have been talking about coping mechanisms. When circumstances feel overwhelming, our coping mechanisms help us bring them back under control. We do this by either managing the emotions or by trying to fix the problem.

The magic of healthy coping mechanisms is that they function as a way to bring us back into homeostasis. When we shift into our coping strategies, we unconsciously go into “problem-solving” mode. Our ways of coping highlight the areas of a situation that we actually have some control over.

Your belief in your ability to positively affect your circumstances is called your internal locus of control. People with a strong internal locus of control are often physically healthier, feel happier, and are six times more likely to be resilient.

Individuals who possess a strong Internal Locus of Control: Individuals with an external locus of control:
Are more likely to take responsibility for their actions Blame outside forces for their circumstances
Tend to be less influenced by the opinions of other people Often credit luck or chance for any successes
Usually have a strong sense of self-efficacy Don’t believe that they can change their situation through their own efforts
Tend to work hard to achieve the things they want and often achieve greater success in the workplace Frequently feel hopeless or powerless in the face of difficult situations
Feel confident in the face of challenges Are more prone to experiencing learned helplessness

When we take charge of what we can control — even if it’s just our emotional reaction to our circumstances — we improve our outcomes tremendously. The situation tends to look better because we feel better about it. This decreases the likelihood of depression, anxiety, poor self-esteem, and not-so-healthy coping responses.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms to look out for:

  • Increased substance use, including drugs, alcohol, and prescription medications
  • Pretending or acting as if the problem doesn’t exist
  • Indulging in escapism through partying, games, or other pleasure-seeking activities
  • Rationalizing their actions, especially when justifying bad behavior
  • Downplaying or trivializing the severity of the problem
  • Dramatic changes in their spending or eating habits, sleeping patterns, or exercise routine
  • Constantly complaining about their situation, asking for help but then not accepting it
  • Withdrawing from friends, loved ones, hobbies, and relationships
  • Compulsive risk-taking behavior, especially when done without regard for personal well-being

Which coping mechanism works best for me?

In the midst of a stressful situation, it can be hard to figure out how to start “fixing” it. Understanding how coping mechanisms work can help you create a strategy for dealing with stress. You can even design your framework in advance as a resource for when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

For example, here’s a step-by-step “guide” for getting through a difficult situation. 

1. Identify the feeling as “frustration”

Our emotions often appear first as physical feelings of discomfort. When that happens, we often react to try to make the psychological stress go away. 

The part of our brain that produces strong negative emotions is distinct from the part that handles problem-solving. The act of labeling your feelings pulls you out of the “reacting” mode and into the “problem-solving” mode. And you won’t know to start pulling out your coping mechanisms until you know that you’re feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or angry.

Of course, there are times when just labeling the feeling won’t take away the emotion. If that’s the case, you can have a plan for that too. Try drawing, journaling, or going for a long walk. If a strategy is particularly effective (or ineffective) make note of it for next time.

2. Determine which mechanism to use

Take a look at the situation. Is it something that you can control? The amount of control you have over the situation will determine your next step.

If you do have some control, you can use problem-focused coping skills. You might ask for help, write a list of action items, hire a professional, or talk to someone involved with the situation. If you’re not sure what to do, you could talk to a coach to start brainstorming coping methods.

If you can’t directly change the situation (or if you’re too overwhelmed to start working on it), use emotion-focused coping strategies. This includes anything that will make you feel better in a healthy and productive way. You might take a yoga class, read a book, or watch a funny video.

3. Control what you can control

You always have some control over a situation — even if it’s just in how you feel about it. Try thinking about your perfect outcome. Instead of being frustrated, ask yourself “What would it take to make this happen?” Solution-oriented questions like that start to highlight what you can do.

If the situation feels unchangeable (like the loss of a loved one) acknowledging that feeling can help. Try saying “I can’t change this, but I can change…”

However you move forward, it’s important to give yourself some emotional grace. Trying to cover up or muscle past your feelings has the tendency to backfire. It can often leave you feeling worse about the situation.

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Examples for how to cope with challenging emotions

Here are a few examples of how to handle difficult emotions with positive coping mechanisms. Keep in mind that this isn’t an exhaustive list. Feel free to design a strategy that works for you. 

Coping mechanisms for anxiety

When you’re feeling anxious, you’re often worried about some future-based event. It can be helpful (although counterintuitive) to indulge your fears. What’s the actual worst thing that could happen? How likely is it? And if it did happen, what would you do?

Working through these worst-case scenarios can help you feel more prepared and in control. 

You should also keep in mind that many physical symptoms can mimic anxiety. These include exhaustion, hunger, and dehydration. Make sure your anxiety strategy includes taking care of these basic needs.

Coping mechanisms for stress

When you’re feeling stressed, taking a step back from the situation is almost always helpful. This can be hard to do since our inclination is to keep pushing forward until the situation is resolved. However, our brains do their best problem-solving when they’re not actively thinking about the problem. Taking a break to do something else can help you both improve the situation and your own stress levels.

Coping mechanisms for depression

When you’re feeling depressed, it can be difficult to feel motivated to do anything at all. When that happens, it can help to pull back to the absolute minimum. Prioritize your self-care and boil your to-do list down to one or two tasks. Reach out to a mental health professional to talk through your feelings.

If you're having thoughts of self-harm, hopelessness, or suicide, call 800-273-8255 for immediate support.

Final thoughts

When life events have you feeling overwhelmed, it's always good to start by taking a step back. Doing so allows us to gain perspective and reframe the situation. When we have a healthy perspective on stressful events, we're able to better solve them. Healthy coping strategies focus on keeping yourself feeling good as you tackle the problem.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms often arise when we feel too overwhelmed to take any productive action. Keeping a list of your triggers and talking through them with a coach can help you move forward even when you feel stuck.

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Published February 22, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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