A look at healthy vs unhealthy coping skills.

Jason Brien.

Everybody is prone to stress and distress but why is it that some people seem to manage better than others? Coping skills are the strategies and techniques that we consciously and unconsciously use to help us to tolerate and manage stress and distress. We generally learn our coping skills by watching and interacting with others during childhood. If we are surrounded by people who only use unhealthy coping skills, then chances are we will also adopt those unhealthy skills and vice versa for the healthy coping skills. Let us look at some unhealthy coping skills.

*Cutting, self-harm. 

*Self-medicating/misuse of legal and illegal substances (prescription pills, drugs, tobacco and alcohol). 

*Withdrawing from family, friends, work, etc. 

*Excessive spending, gambling, shopping or sexual activities. 

*Using violence or abuse against others. 

*Shifting blame, not taking responsibility. 


*Sleeping too much or too little. 

*Under or over eating.

Unhealthy coping skills often ‘match’ how we feel or think during times of stress and distress. That is, when we don’t feel good about ourselves or our situation, like when we are sick for example, it is generally much harder to find the motivation to do ‘good’ things. When we are feeling down and depressed, withdrawing from people ‘feels’ natural. Likewise, when we don’t feel or think ‘good’ things about ourselves or our bodies, then we don’t care too much if we consume toxic and dangerous chemicals (drugs and alcohol) which have the potential to destroy our bodies.

Since unhealthy coping skills ‘match’ our feelings and thoughts, it can be much harder to implement healthy coping skills which appear to be counterintuitive (like socialising instead of withdrawing). The key to applying healthy coping skills is first learning your stress and distress triggers and then ‘overriding’ the unhealthy coping skills you would normally rely upon and replace them with the newly learnt healthy coping skills. Your stress and distress triggers can be the result of daily stress (paying bills, problems at work, etc), mental health diagnoses (Major Depression, ptsd, etc) or personality disorders (borderline, histrionic, etc).

Once you become more conscious of your stress and distress triggers, you can really begin to proactively reduce your unhealthy coping skills and so increase your healthy coping skills. Healthy coping skills require attention, persistence, focus, commitment and lots and lots of practice. You will need to repeat the healthy coping skills on a regular basis if they are to become your new default setting. Healthy coping skills fall across three broad categories; Social coping skills, emotional and physical coping skills and work-related coping skills. Let’s explore each of these three categories.

1. Social coping skills

Education and disclosure: The more that you know about your stress and distress triggers, the better equipped you will be to manage them. Knowledge of your triggers not only helps you to help yourself but it also makes it much easier to explain to others what you are experiencing and how they can best help support you.

Find supportive connections:  This links into the first point. You will always feel more supported if the people you are reaching out to understands your experiences and so have the capacity to provide empathy and sympathy. If the people you are reaching out to are invalidating you, there really is no point in continually seeking their support. 

Socialise: As the old saying goes “Misery enjoys the company of one”. Socialising is not that daunting when you have truly supportive and understanding connections. People who truly understand you will understand that you may not feel like talking much and they will understand that simply sitting next to you quietly watching a movie is all that you need right now.

2. Emotional and physical coping skills

Mindfulness: Finding time for mindfulness or even prayer can help to keep your mind and body calm and relaxed. 

Positive affirmations: Positive affirmations are mantras that we repeat to ourselves during times of stress and distress. For example, “I’ve got this”. “I can get through this”, “I’m not alone. There are people who can help support me”. 

Exercise: Exercise is important to keep the blood flowing throughout the body and brain and helps to keep our bodies fit and healthy. Not all exercise has to be outdoors or in public as there are plenty of exercises suitable for indoors or online (via Zoom, etc). 

Journaling: Keeping track of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours will help you to identify both patterns and triggers.

3. Work-related coping skills

Work in accordance to your strengths and weaknesses: Let’s look at stress and distress in relation to bipolar disorder for example. You may need to adjust your work schedule or start-finish times to suit your emotional highs and lows. During hypomanic or manic phases, you can potentially complete more work which covers you during the times when you are feeling less active/motivated. 

Be open and honest: Inform your employee about your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, some employers may not care but some employers will especially if they see you as a valuable asset. With this in mind, talk with your employer about any employee assistance programs (counselling services, etc). 

Manage your work-life balance: All work and no play will only make it harder for you to manage stress and distress. Even just taking a few days off work to relax can do you and your mind/body wonders.