Recovery | What Are Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms?

[Disclaimer: The aim of this blog post is to tell my experience with honesty. Therefore, some content may trigger an adverse reaction. If this post is beginning to upset you, I advise that you please stop reading it immediately and talk to your support team or go the bottom of this post to find further resources.]

Today was one of those days. You know, the kind where nothing seems to be going right and everything is just a bit shitty? You feel like you are playing a video game; you are tripping over all of the obstacles and watching bad guys come at you left, right and centre but there is nothing you can do to stop it? Yeah, that kind of day.

These days are always tough and everybody has them, they are not unique to those dealing with mental health issues (or anybody else for that matter), but these days make it that little bit harder to get through in one piece. If a person is in recovery from some form of mental illness, then the chances of relapse can be higher on days that throw more challenges at us than usual. Even those who have never experienced any mental health issues can see an onset of new symptoms when hard times arise.

Everyday stresses and worries can build up, and if an individual has a history of engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms then they can fall back into these self-destructive behaviours to help them get through.

What is an unhealthy coping mechanism?

An unhealthy coping mechanism can be any behaviour that gives short term relief from any stress or pain but ultimately does not solve the problem and will cause more damage in the long run. For example, a list of different unhealthy coping mechanisms can include;

  • Self-medicating with cigarettes, caffeine, drugs or alcohol as a means to self-sooth (and/or to forget).

  • Burying (repressing) feelings or simply denying the problem exists.

  • Binge-eating to fill an emotional void or to feel comfort.

  • Restrictive eating or over-exercising as a means of regaining control.

  • Gambling or over-spending to the point of debt to give yourself a "buzz" or a distraction.

  • Self-harming as a means of self-punishment, to "feel something" or to "release" the negative emotions inside.

  • Projecting; a type of self-defence whereby a person projects negative emotions on to others e.g. "I'm not selfish, YOU are!"

  • Dissociating; disconnecting yourself from your emotions, problems or memories. Your body and mind go into auto-pilot and you may lose your sense of identity, time and place.

  • Isolating; separating yourself from the people around you by either avoiding conversation or the person entirely.

  • Acting out negative emotions through verbal or physical violence.

The unhealthy coping mechanisms I used to engage in were self-harm, under-eating, dissociating and isolating, so I know what I'm talking about here! Now, after many years of recovery and growth I can recognise that behaviours like these merely offer a distraction, a way out of the situation by replacing or erasing it from your mind for a momentary release. However, they do not actually make the problem go away and are often followed by shame, physical health issues, addiction, strain on the relationships around you and, ultimately, more stress and pain.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms can be deep-rooted, and may have been adopted as early as childhood, and provide a safety net or a certainty that becomes comfortable despite the chaos the mechanism causes. This is why they are so difficult to move past; without these mechanisms an individual may not know any other way of dealing with stress or pain.

Fortunately, there are ways to move past unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as replacing it with a healthier one or by learning what causes you to use these behaviours and gaining recognition of when you are going to use them... and this is where recovery comes into the game.

Changing what makes you "comfortable"

What recovery aims to do is to help you deal with both your mental illness and it's symptoms (if you have one) as well as life situations going forward by providing you with healthier coping mechanisms and an insight to the inner working of your thoughts. By working out why you are using these behaviours, what triggers them and what effect they have on you, you can start to work towards finding a suitable outlet that will give you the same release, but not carry the damage. This does not necessarily constitute a straight swap of behaviours and all is cured, mind you!

I have a very rudimentary analogy below to try and explain this better...

Imagine [if you will] you go to the doctor because you have become so poorly on a day-to-day basis that you are struggling to function. All you know is that your stomach hurts... bad. Your doctor tells you that it's because you are eating meat and you need to cut meat out of your diet to get better, along with further tests to see why the meat makes your stomach hurt. [Bear with me] All you have to do is swap actual meat for a meat-free option and the doctor even sets out a meal plan for you to follow. But it's not that easy! You have always eaten meat, every since you were a child, even though you can't remember why you starting eating meat in the first place. Everyone in your family eats meat and always has done, so you did too as this was the norm, even though you realise now that they have the same pain after eating that you do. [With me so far?] When you are having a bad day meat is your go-to solution, even though you know it hurts to eat it, but when you are having a good day you still think about meat and the next time you are going to eat it.

Although this is just an analogy, I hope this gives some sense of why unhealthy coping mechanisms are so hard to overcome.

The problem is that unhealthy coping mechanisms (the meat in this analogy) will only continue to cause harm, but they become a part of this person's life and their identity. How does a person go about changing such a behaviour that is harmful, but is essentially part of who they are? This behaviour may have been learned, encouraged or past on somewhere along the line and the reason why that is the case is not always easy to find... so where do you start?

(Big) baby steps

Before I go into further details, I want to make it clear that recovery is not this magical elixir that once consumed grants you the ultimate strength and power to defeat your metaphorical video game enemies (I wish it was!). No, you do that defeating bad guys part yourself. Recovery is just the help that enables you to do it.

You are the main character in your story, with any treatment (such as therapy, lifestyle changes, rehab or medication) as your trusty, sidekick, backpack guy. This wonderful little dude gives you the weapons you need to fight the nasties, guides you along the right path on your epic quest and helps you realise when you need to rest and reserve your energy... but you are the one who walks that path and wins those battles.

The first steps of recovery though are not easy one. First you have to admit that you are struggling (sounds simple, really isn't), then you have to admit that you may need help (to yourself first, to others later), and finally... you have to realise that you are worth the help! That's the hardest part.

It took me half way into my therapy journey to admit that I was worth saving and after that point I then started to make some serious progress. Recovery truly starts after that point, not when you first get in touch with someone who can help or even when you first start attending sessions. It starts with you and your change in mentality. Recovery is a long battle and and you need to be willing to fight for yourself.

When trying to recover from a mental illness you not only battling the illness, but the everyday as well. At any one time a person may have money worries, work or unemployment stress, relationship problems with spouses, family or friends, health issues... or even a flat tyre that they really didn't need right now. No matter how big or small, all of these are metaphorical bad guys and obstacles that you may not feel strong enough to fight alone.

Unfortunately "being in recovery" does not make these things just go away, but what it will give you is some self-awareness.

If you can't recognise when you are succumbing to stress and pain, how are you supposed to fight it?

If you do not monitor your symptoms when they start to get worse, how do you work out what influences them so that you can remove triggers and ease those symptoms?

If you don't sit with your feelings, work out what it is you are feeling, where those emotions come from and their roots, how will you learn to control them and not fear them?

What is actually a Level 1 gremlin will look like a Boss Battle fire-breathing dragon, simply because you do not know how to defeat it. Recovery will teach you how to read your behaviour and therefore how to heal your mind.

Healthier coping mechanisms

There are several healthy coping mechanisms that can be used in place of negative ones. By splitting them into "emotion-based" and "problem-based" coping mechanisms we can work out which behaviours will not only best substitute your current behaviour, but also potentially solve your problem all together.

The right mechanism for you will be entirely dependant upon what negative mechanisms you find to be your crux.

Emotion-based coping skills focus more on expressing your feelings in healthier ways, so as not to repress them or allow them build up to the point of bursting. They focus on communicating how you feel to others, creating an outlet for feelings privately and analysing your own behaviour in an objective way.

Problem-based coping skills focus on ways that you can tackle to problem at hand without getting overwhelmed. Solving the problems causing the stress or pain will not only alleviate the symptoms but also give you more confidence with tackling future issues. Where a problem cannot be solved, emotion-based systems help you get through.

A mixture of both emotion and problem based solutions will yield better results, as you are tackling both the problem itself and how you deal with it internally. For example, if your negative mechanism involves self-medicating, light exercise can help with the physical need for a "buzz" whilst talking to a therapist can help get the root of your addiction. If you struggle with projecting or acting out negative emotions onto others, then a creative way to release emotions can help you to calm down and express your feelings, or writing down your thoughts and sharing them with others to help start healthy communication.

Examples of both types of mechanisms can be found below;

Emotion-Based Mechanisms

Calming your mind and body

  • Listening to music that you find relaxing or playing an instrument

  • Playing with a pet

  • Taking a bath or shower

  • Practicing deep breathing, meditation, or muscle relaxation

  • Yoga or other gentle exercises such as swimming or walking

  • Getting outdoors to enjoy nature

  • Eat healthy food to give your body nutrients

  • Mindfulness

Releasing emotions

  • Going out with a trusted friend to do something you enjoy (i.e. step away from the stress to focus on the good around you)

  • Painting, drawing or doing other creative activities to channel those emotions onto the page or canvas

  • Praying or going to church (if you are religious)

  • Light exercising such as a jog, swimming or cycling

  • Gardening, cleaning or making home repairs

Communicating emotions

  • Figure out what it is you are feeling and increase your emotional vocabulary

  • Writing how you feel down in a notebook or private blog

  • Dig deeper to find your "Primary" and "Secondary" emotions. For example, your secondary emotion could be Anger, but the primary emotion could be betrayal or hurt, which is the root of how you are really feeling

  • Practise positive affirmations towards yourself. Be kind and tell yourself that you can get through this and that you are strong! After all we need to learn to communicate with ourselves as much as we do other people

  • Set boundaries for others around you so that you feel more comfortable and they understand how their actions have an effect

  • Go to a rehabilitation centre

  • Seek counselling or therapy

Problem-Based Mechanisms

Problem solving

  • Discuss situations with a spouse or close friend

  • Analyse the events leading up to the use of your unhealthy behaviour to identify the problem/trigger

  • Make and follow through with an action plan to solve your problems or how to manage triggering incidents

  • Make an appointment to visit your local GP if you are worried about your mental health or addiction

  • Recognise when something is out of your control. Sometimes your circumstances cannot be changed. Understand that how you feel about this situation IS in your control, and then use emotion-based mechanisms to help you through

  • Seek counselling or therapy, or a rehabilitation centre (yes... these options are in both)

Beating the urge

Obviously, the more practise you get at engaging healthy coping mechanisms, the better you will be at emotional expression and problem solving, but that alone will only do so much. You will also have to tackle your unhealthy mechanisms.

You cannot simply swap coping mechanisms and overnight be able to handle anything the world throws at you, like I said you need practise. Often a behaviour that you've been using for so long becomes so familiar that it's a reflex reaction to stressful stimuli. You might even "miss" the behaviours even though you know they are damaging you and have an "urge" to engage with them because you simply don't know how to cope otherwise. A behaviour like this feels safe, any other, new behaviour is unknown. You may even feel that giving up the harmful behaviours will hurt you in the long run; that your urges will build up and burst and cause even more damage than they did before, and so you convince yourself to carry on.

What I need you to know is that you are capable to moving past the difficult times and you are worth the help that others will be able to offer you if you only have the courage to take it. Those behaviours do not define you and you will become more of a person than you thought possible once they are no longer in your life (and you're awesome so who wouldn't want you to get better and succeed?)

The process of adopting new behaviour and beating old habits is a long one that takes work and time but is worth every second and every time you feel as though you can't make it through is an opportunity to prove to yourself that you can. Believe me you can. But don't expect to be perfect at it straight away!

Finding out what works for you is trial and error and you shouldn't lose hope if you have a momentary relapse into old behaviours, because at least you are trying! As long as you keep trying you will get better at it, challenges will become easier to tackle and you will win!

For further information about seeking help or a place to turn to when a relapse occurs, please see the resources below. Help is available.

How to start your recovery process

  • Contact your local GP

  • Talk to a person you trust (or seek out online communities and support groups such as Mind's Side By Side https://sidebyside.mind.org.uk/)

  • Read mental health resources online to try and make sense of what you are going through (below).

  • Call a mental health helpline. You may find it more comforting to speak to someone who is trained to help and will not judge you. Mind, Rethink, CALM, Samaritans and the NHS all have helplines you can call.

  • Create your own mental health self-help care plan by using the resources linked below.

  • Find a therapist here or here.

For when you need urgent help Samaritans Helpine - https://www.samaritans.org/

Mental Health Foundation - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/your-mental-health/getting-help

NHS information regarding general mental health - https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/

NHS information regarding access to urgent help - https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/

Mental health advice tailored for men - https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/

Mind Charity - https://www.mind.org.uk/need-urgent-help/

How Mental list of apps and online resources - https://www.howmental.com/resources

Rethink Mental Illness - https://www.rethink.org/aboutus/what-we-do/advice-and-information-service/get-help-now/

Turning Point - https://www.turning-point.co.uk/services/drug-and-alcohol-support.html

Alcoholics Anonymous - https://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk/

Please go to A&E if you feel you are in immediate danger.