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Healthy vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Whether happy or unhappy, big life events can be stressful. Difficult events like divorce, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job tend to inspire uncomfortable feelings. But even events or situations considered positive by many, like getting married or having a child, can feel overwhelming.

To cope with these situations, people tend to utilize a combination of thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. It’s important to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms for managing the challenges of everyday life. Of course, seeking professional help when needed is also crucial in facing such challenges.

What are Coping Mechanisms?

Also known as coping strategies or coping skills, coping mechanisms are the conscious or unconscious actions people take to avoid or deal with their stress over an uncomfortable situation or distressing emotions like sadness, grief, or boredom.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms tend to feel good in the moment but contain long-term negative consequences. Healthy coping strategies, on the other hand, may not provide instant gratification but lead to positive outcomes over the long term. Let’s look at some of the most common unhealthy coping mechanisms and the most common healthy mechanisms.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Avoidance or denial. Pretending that a problem doesn’t exist might provide temporary relief, but it inhibits one’s ability to address and overcome challenges—a vital part of life. By saying, “There is no problem!” avoids the steps necessary to solve the problem, which often enables the problem to grow bigger and more complicated.


Putting all of one’s energies and interests toward activities like gaming or “binge-watching,” to avoid the reality of a situation may not be unhealthy in and of itself, but it can grow into an unhealthy coping mechanism over time. While such activities offer temporary distraction, they do nothing to address the problem and can even hinder personal growth.

Negative Self-Talk

Having the occasional self-destructive thought flit across one’s consciousness is natural, but engaging in self-destructive thoughts is an unhealthy coping mechanism that crushes self-esteem. Besides, some self-destructive thoughts become self-fulfilling—by constantly telling yourself you cannot handle this or that situation, the situation gains size and power. Developing a positive mindset is crucial for maintaining mental health and resilience.

Substance Abuse

Turning to substances like alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism is a harmful pattern that can lead to addiction and exacerbate any underlying mental and physical health issues. Yes, it might temporarily numb one to the pain of distressing emotions, but it does nothing to help and can often exacerbate such emotions in the cold light of day.


Engaging in self-harming behaviors to cope with emotional pain is a dangerous coping mechanism. Examples of self-harm include cutting or burning one’s own skin and pulling out one’s own hair. It requires immediate professional intervention to provide support for healthy alternatives.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Healthy Distractions

Engaging in hobbies, activities, or interests that bring joy and fulfillment serves as a positive diversion from problems and stressors. Whether it’s reading, painting, gardening, listening to music, or pursuing some other hobby or passion, such activities provide a healthy escape and can contribute to a sense of personal accomplishment.

Physical Activity

Incorporating regular exercise into one’s daily or weekly routine is a great way to cope with stress. Because it triggers the release of endorphins—neurotransmitters that act as natural mood lifters—exercise can have a profound impact on mental health.

Talking It Out

One of the most effective healthy coping mechanisms is communication. Sharing thoughts and emotions with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist provides an outlet for self-expression. The process helps one gain perspective on their concerns and makes one feel less alone. Plus, verbalizing feelings often leads to a better understanding of one’s emotions, reducing internalized stress.

Mindfulness and Relaxation

Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and creating a gratitude list are all mindfulness practices that provide the tools necessary to manage stress and promote mental clarity. Such activities encourage one to “be present in the moment,” letting go of worries about the past or future. Studies suggest regular mindfulness practices can reduce anxiety, enhance focus, and usher in a sense of calm.

Coping mechanisms are classified with the medical community into healthy and unhealthy, based on their effectiveness and long-term impact on one’s well-being. By limiting one’s engagement in unhealthy coping mechanisms and choosing healthier ones, problems, uncomfortable situations, and difficult emotions can be more easily and more effectively managed.

Learn More about Coping Mechanisms with Northpoint Colorado

Want to know more about healthy versus unhealthy coping mechanisms? Find help from the professionals at Northpoint Colorado. We provide individualized, comprehensive recovery support for you or your loved ones. Just complete our online message form or call us today at 970.699.3132.