6 Common Coping Strategies That Often Make Things Worse
We can be so used to our own coping strategies and defence mechanisms that we barely notice them
Dr Soph, psychologist and author of A Manual for Being Human explores six common coping strategies and how we can react more healthily
If any of the below resonates with you, therapy and counselling can help – find your therapist here
Did you know that there are many coping strategies that help us in the short-term but often end up making us feel worse?
Maybe you can think of a few off the bat. Like that time where you felt blue so you poured yourself a glass of wine, which helped so you drank a little more, waking the next day with a pounding headache and a pit of despair in your stomach. Or that time where you felt lonely and reached out to your ex (who you know isn’t good for you) and while the immediate connection removed the loneliness, a few days to weeks later you were back at square one remembering why you got rid of that person in the first place.
If either of those examples resonated, no judgement! As a clinical psychologist, it's my job to help people identify the coping skills that make sense in the short term but stop working in the long, and to offer people the best way forward.
Here is a list of the six most common coping strategies that often make things worse.
When we need total control (of our day and environment) in order to feel calm we set ourselves up for a problem. Why? Because the world is unpredictable. Think about 2020. None of us predicted our lives would be flipped upside down in this way. For people whose only coping strategy was control, when the unthinkable happens, anxiety and fear flood back in with no barrier to stop it.
If this is you we need to show you that you can cope when you aren’t in control. Decide on one thing you could let go of control around today. Don’t tidy the house, or maybe let someone else plan an activity today. Choose one thing you could tolerate letting go of control around and see how it goes.
If the thought of this makes you feel really anxious, choose a scientifically backed coping skill that we know works long-term, such as a breathing exercise or mindfulness, and watch the anxiety rise and fall as you breathe your way through the uncertainty.
The more you practice letting go of control, the easier it will become.
When we believe we need to be and do things perfectly in order to be good enough, or for life to be OK, then we buy a one way ticket to misery and burnout. Why? Because perfect doesn’t exist no matter how hard we strive for it. Particularly to perfectionists who have extraordinary error detection systems that will find flaws in anything and everything they do.
If this is you: Decide on one thing you can do imperfectly today. Burn the bacon and still serve it in a sandwich or leave a typo in an email to your boss (don’t point out the errors or explain it). Gradually challenge yourself to include more and more errors in your activities, until slowly you learn that nothing dangerous will happen if you are your imperfect self.
When we believe “I must please others in order to be enough, loved, get my needs met and/or stay safe” we risk giving all our energy away to others, leaving us exhausted and, secretly resentful that others don’t want to be there for us in return. Not realising that we may have taught the people around us that we have no needs as we never express them.
If this is you: Start a ‘no’ or ‘no-thank you’ club with your friends. See how often you can say no this week to activities or requests you don’t want to do, or don’t have time for. Gradually, build from there, putting boundaries around your time and energy.
When we avoid situations that make us feel anxious (such as social events or places that make us claustrophobic) we only increase our fear of that situation, as the temporary relief we feel when we avoid teaches our brain that avoidance is the only way to cope with worry should it arise. The next time you think of that situation the anxiety is worse not better (as your brain screams avoid, avoid! You won’t be able to cope if you go there!).
If this is you: Choose the smallest step towards the thing you have been avoiding today. Call the friend who organised the social event you feared and agree to a 1-1 meet up, decide to go up one floor in the lift that gives you claustrophobia. Have a breathing exercise and/or friend at hand, and take it slow.
5. Reassurance seeking
If you constantly ask people whether they agree with you, think you look good, like or love you, you may notice that, ironically, the more you check something or ask for reassurance, the more unsure you become. Why? Because constant reassurance seeking teaches your brain that other people are needed to make you safe, and that you cannot cope or trust yourself alone.
If this is you: Decide not to ask your friend if they like your outfit, or if they think you are making the right life choices. Rely on your own judgement. It will be scary at first but over time you will start to trust in your ability to cope by yourself.
When we reach for alcohol or drugs to take the edge off difficult emotions there are some common problems we face. For example, numbing doesn’t take away the pain long term (such as the grief of a break up or of the loss of a loved one). It instead tends to give us rebound pain the next day (such as a hangover). And, when used often enough, alcohol and drugs cause our brains to change in ways that mean we need them simply to feel normal. Yes, most alcohol and drug dependence started out as a way to cope that took on a life of its own.
If you notice you try to numb to cope with difficult emotions, decide what you will do instead of reaching for the bottle or other drug next time life gets hard. If you believe you are dependent on alcohol or drugs, please seek additional support.
Now you know some of the most common coping strategies that can make us feel worse. You also have the first steps that will help you move away from them. What step will you choose to do today? And, what new coping skill will you add to your toolbox in its place? A breathing exercise? Mindfulness? Whatever you choose, the more strategies you have, the more confident you will be that you can and will cope with whatever life throws at you.
Dr Soph is the author of A Manual for Being Human
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Updated in August 2022