Healthy Coping Mechanisms Through Therapy

September 26, 2019

In your everyday life, you probably have no reason to even talk about “coping mechanisms” on a regular basis. However, if you or a loved one were to be faced with a mental health issue of some kind, I would be willing to bet that you may hear and use these words often.

First and foremost, what are coping mechanisms?

These are the actions or behaviors that allow a person to be able to better manage uncomfortable emotions or situations, stress or temptations. In other words, how do you handle things as they arise? In the realm of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and even substance abuse, coping mechanisms are the strategies by which a person gets through the day, the specific moment and is able to overcome in the short-term. Each success or accomplishment in the short-term is one step closer to recovery and success in the long-term.

Like most things in life, there are coping mechanisms that produce either negative or positive results or in other words, healthy or unhealthy consequences. Let’s look at each of these separately:

Unhealthy coping mechanisms. Although utilizing unhealthy strategies may provide instant relief to the sufferer, the consequences of which are more often negative versus positive. As it may be called, a maladaptive coping technique will simply reduce the symptoms of the disorder while feeding into the issue itself. Some examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms may include overeating, substance use, self-harm or aggression. Use of these strategies will be dependent upon the specific mental health issue the individual is experiencing.

Healthy coping mechanisms. On the other hand, taking the high road, using healthy strategies may not always feel good at the time. However, the consequences of implementing these strategies can have life-long and possibly life-saving effects. Some examples of healthy coping mechanisms may include seeking guidance from a professional, relaxation techniques, social support, sharing your struggles with others, and healthy eating and proper exercise.

In our everyday lives, we all have our own coping mechanisms, even subconscious ones, to get us through the day. We may turn “bad” situations into good ones, or lemons into lemonade, simply by the tools that we use to handle them. We change our perspective on life and negative experiences and integrate the results back into our lives to create a healthy, sustainable view of the world and our part in it.

For example, a student may fail an exam and realize that had he studied, he could have actually passed and knows what he needs to do in order to be successful the next time. The student handled the failure in such a way that he learned from the negative experience and processed it in a healthy way. He could have taken a different route; blamed the failure on the test itself, pointed a finger at the teacher for not teaching, or even turning the blame inward, thinking and believing that he is incapable or not smart enough. Although subconscious, the student’s mechanism for handling the situation allowed him to turn lemons into lemonade so that he can move on and do better on the next exam.

Stress plays a major role in the everyday lives of most people, adults and teens. We feel pressures at work, the challenges of raising children, the stress of juggling career and family, the difficulties of finances and of course, our health. It is how you choose to deal with the stress that impacts your life today as well as your perspective on life.

Do you melt down, cry and scream, possibly resort to drugs and alcohol to temporarily relieve the pain that you are experiencing in stressful times? These would be examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms which will not lead to favorable outcomes. Utilizing unhealthy coping mechanisms for anyone may cause negative results but for a teen with a mental health issue, the results could be disastrous.

Maybe you choose to meditate, share your feelings with a friend or even a therapist. These are examples of healthy coping mechanisms that will help you move through the immediate cause of stress and anxiety and set you up for future success.

Now, that we understand what coping mechanisms are, let’s look deeper into how healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms can impact the life of a person suffering from a mental health issue.

Let’s look at some types of healthy coping mechanisms that teens can learn through therapy and the help of a mental health professional.

  • By talking about the situation at hand or feelings and emotions in an individual or group setting, teens can learn to manage the stress and anxiety that they feel. By expressing these feelings, teens can divert their energy away from negative behaviors which they may have previously handled through unhealthy means such as substance use, self-harm, and isolation.
  • Have you ever experienced a tense, overwhelming situation and then suddenly someone does or says something silly or even inappropriate? Just a little bit of humor has the tendency of breaking the ice, relaxing the situation and diverting the attention away from the stressful or uncomfortable situation even for just a moment.
  • Problem-solving. The teenage years are challenging and overwhelming by the very nature let alone if a teen is faced with a mental health issue. Their ability to find solutions on their own returns their sense of ownership, accomplishment, and pride over situations or challenges which they may feel they have no control over.

Problem-solving skills are important at every point in life but as teens are learning to make decisions on their own, without the watchful eye of their parent or caregiver, it can seem like a daunting task. However, with the help of a trained professional, teens with a mental illness can learn to feel confident about making their own decisions which will lead to positive, healthy outcomes. A therapist may ask the teen to make a list of all of the possible solutions to the problem at hand and to then discuss the consequences or fall out of each. By following this process, teens can even learn to predict the path that they will take when faced with those situations which they know they will face in the future, giving them the tools to be prepared and make the healthy choice.

  • Stress Relief. There are any number of activities which teens can learn to engage in to help them relax and think more clearly about the situation or source of the stressor. When the trigger is removed, making a decision which will lead to positive or healthy consequences is much easier.

Some options that a medical professional or therapist may suggest include:

  • Exercise of any kind. Research shows that raising your heart rate has the benefit of not only being good for your overall health but of bringing oxygen to your brain. Additional blood flow and therefore, oxygen helps to bring clarity to your thoughts and consequently, your options.

Go for a walk, shoot some hoops, practice yoga, ride a bike or any other activity which will provide you with an outlet for stress.

  • Breathing exercises. Learning how to control your breathing and slow your heart rate are great ways to cope with the challenges and stresses of a mental health issue. They are simple to do yet have a profound impact as a healthy coping mechanism.
  • Role Play. Rather than becoming anxious or overwhelmed by a potentially stressful situation, role-playing allows a teen to walk through the scenario before it even happens. This can help the teen to understand that the situation may not necessarily be as they expect it to be and provides them with the vision to see how their actions can change the path or direction of the event.

For example, let’s say that a teen would normally experience anxiety and stress over an upcoming party if he or she is suffering from an anxiety disorder. Rather than being overwhelmed by the thought of being around people, the therapist can role play with the teen to play out several possible conversations among party-goers, body language and its meaning, and what to do if the teen finds himself feeling uncomfortable. Having the coping mechanisms to manage the situation before it even starts will make the teen more comfortable going into the party and avoiding those things which he may normally have done including isolation, fear, lack of eye contact, or even avoidance all together.

  • Develop a positive attitude. Negativity breeds negativity and is compounded when a teen is challenged with a mental health issue. If the situation seems bleak or uncomfortable, teens may retreat into their comfortable place, possibly causing self-harm or resorting to substances for comfort because they want to avoid the negative feelings and emotions. However, by having a positive attitude and using this to cope with the situation, teens can learn to proactively tackle their fears and inhibitions simply by the right frame of mind and perception. Change your mind, change your perspective!!

Although it is not our intent to dwell on the unhealthy coping mechanisms, it is important to note how choosing to use the unhealthy coping mechanisms can impact a teen who may already be suffering from a mental health issue:

  • Feeling anxious and dwelling on it can in fact become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negative thoughts and self-speak can lead to negative actions and consequences.
  • Substance abuse is most certainly the result of using unhealthy coping mechanisms to find comfort, and immediate relief to an underlying issue. Although the drugs or alcohol may make the teen feel good right now, the long-term consequences far outweigh the euphoria of right now.
  • Escaping or avoiding the situation will provide an immediate sense of relief but will not change the long-term impact that facing the challenges head on actually has. The feelings of anxiety will in fact dissipate on their own but by not even trying or putting yourself into the situation, you will never know, again feeding the issue.

Substances, avoidance or isolation as a coping mechanism will only push the teen deeper into the issue itself, rather than providing relief and a means of recovery. By learning healthy coping mechanisms, your teen can certainly be well on their way to returning to their normal life, managing the stresses and struggles of not only their everyday life but also of their mental health issue.

Relax | Coping Mechanisms | Hillcrest

If your teen is struggling with a mental health issue, your first step towards helping them to recover is speaking to their doctor. Based on a thorough evaluation and assessment, it may be determined that the best option for treatment for your teen is at a therapeutic treatment center like at Hillcrest.

At Hillcrest, your teen will learn the necessary skills and techniques to create healthy coping mechanisms to help them navigate and manage their symptoms, stressors, and triggers associated with their mental health issue.