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Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on May 6, 2024

Utilizing only healthy coping strategies is easier said than done. Almost everyone has a vice or two, and many people struggle with unhealthy coping mechanisms that only serve to make their problems worse. From substance abuse to toxic positivity to gambling to binge eating, there’s virtually no end to the number of unhealthy coping strategies people might use to get through life’s toughest problems. Below are some of the most common unhealthy coping skills that might be making your issues worse instead of better.

What’s The Difference Between Healthy Coping Skills and Unhealthy Coping Skills?

There’s a big difference between healthy coping skills and unhealthy coping skills. Healthy coping skills help us to deal with our problems in a productive way. They might involve talking to a friend, going for a run, or writing in a journal. Unhealthy coping skills, on the other hand, only serve to make our problems worse. These might include self-destructive behaviors like substance abuse, harmful thinking patterns like toxic positivity, or negative thoughts and emotions like rumination.

If It Helps Me Feel Better, Why Is It So Bad?

The problem with unhealthy coping skills is that they might provide temporary relief from our problems, but they don’t actually help us to deal with them in a productive way. In fact, experts say that maladaptive coping strategies tend to feel better in the moment, but are actually damaging in the long run. This is because they often lead to negative consequences, like addiction, depression, or anxiety. These mental health conditions are serious and may end up requiring mental health treatment. On the other hand, positive coping strategies might not feel as good in the moment, but they can help us to deal with our problems in a more productive way and are better for learning how to handle stress in the long run.

How Do I Know If My Coping Skills Are Healthy Or Unhealthy?

If you’re not sure whether your coping mechanism is healthy or unhealthy, there are a few things you can look for.

  • Ask yourself how your coping skills make you feel. Do they make you feel better in the long run, or do they just provide temporary relief? If your coping strategies make you feel worse in the long run, they might be unhealthy.
  • Think about whether your coping skills are helping you to deal with your problems in a productive way. If your coping skills are making your problems worse instead of better, they might be unhealthy. In addition, most people who suffer from stress have lower levels of productivity. That’s why it’s important to find healthy coping mechanisms that help you to stay productive, even when you’re feeling stressed.
  • Consider whether your coping skills are harmful to your physical or mental health. If your coping skills are causing you physical or mental harm, they might be unhealthy. For example, if your coping skills involve using drugs or alcohol to deal with your problems, they might be leading to both physical and mental health problems.
  • It’s also important to consider whether your coping skills are impacting your relationships. If your coping skills are causing problems in your relationships, they might be unhealthy. For example, if you’re using drugs or alcohol to cope with your problems, it might be causing strain on your relationships.

What Are Some Examples of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms?

There are many different examples of unhealthy coping skills. Here are some of the most common ones to look out for. If you’re guilty of doing any of these, it’s best to start exploring how to develop a healthy coping strategy for the future. Maladaptive coping mechanisms can cause a wide range of mental and physical health issues that may lead to chronic physical conditions and amplify mental health issues.

Substance Abuse

Various studies suggest that stress is a leading risk factor for substance abuse. This is because people often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their problems. While it might provide temporary relief, substance abuse can lead to a whole host of other problems, like addiction, financial difficulties, and relationship problems. If you find yourself turning to substances to cope with your stress, it’s important to seek addiction treatment as soon as possible. If you have been using substances that are addictive, you may require detoxification services or inpatient rehab to get back on track. These mental health services can help you identify your unhealthy habits and the things that trigger your urge to use drugs.

Some signs that your drug use, such as recreational marijuana use or alcohol use, has gotten out of hand include:

  • You’re using substances more frequently than you used to.
  • You’re using substances in larger quantities than you used to.
  • You’re using substances in ways or at times that are different from how you used to use them.
  • You’re having trouble stopping your substance use, even if you want to.
  • Your substance use is causing problems in your life, such as financial difficulties, relationship problems, or legal trouble.
  • You’re continuing to use substances even though they’re causing negative consequences in your life.

Using substances like marijuana releases dopamine, which can make it difficult to break the cycle. In addition, some people with severe substance use disorder might also develop withdrawal symptoms and develop a tolerance to the drug.

substance abuse as an example of unhealthy coping mechanisms

Toxic Positivity

Toxic positivity is the belief that you should always think positive thoughts and suppress negative emotions, as well as disregard the concerns of others. While it’s important to focus on the positive, toxic positivity can actually make your problems worse. This is because it doesn’t allow you to deal with your negative emotions in a healthy way, and it shows a lack of empathy for others.

Many people might use toxic positivity as a way to deal with uncomfortable emotions. For instance, if someone is feeling anxious, they might try to think positive thoughts in order to calm down. However, this can actually make the anxiety worse when the positive thoughts do nothing, leading you to become even more anxious and start a vicious cycle.

In addition, people who use toxic positivity might also have a difficult time empathizing with others. This is because they’re trying to ignore their own negative emotions, as well as the negative emotions of others. Some examples of toxic positivity include sayings like:

  • “Everything happens for a reason.”
  • “There’s nothing you can do, so just relax and accept it.”
  • “You should be grateful for what you have.”
  • “Just think positive thoughts and your problems will go away.”

While using toxic positivity might feel good in the moment, it’s important to be aware of the long-term effects. This is because it can actually make your problems worse and prevent you from developing healthy coping skills.

toxic positivity as an example of unhealthy coping mechanisms


Another unhealthy coping mechanism is avoidance. This is when you try to avoid your problems instead of dealing with them head-on. Avoidance often goes hand in hand with addiction and shame. While it might provide some relief, avoidance is one of the worst things you can do for your resilience.

Take, for instance, anxiety. Avoiding triggers that make you anxious can actually lead to more anxiety in the long run. This is because it prevents you from exposure therapy, which is a form of treatment that gradually exposes you to your triggers in a safe and controlled environment. Unfortunately, many people think avoidance helps their anxiety when in reality it does the opposite.

Other examples of avoidance include:

  • Procrastination: Putting off tasks that you need to do
  • Ignoring your problems: Pretending like they don’t exist
  • Escaping into activities: Staying busy so you don’t have to think about your problems
  • Working too much: Even if you love your job, working excessive hours can be a form of avoidance.
  • Sleeping too much: Using sleep as a way to avoid your problems
  • Withdrawing from social activities: Isolating yourself from friends and family

Instead of avoiding your problems, it’s important to face them head-on. This is the only way you’ll be able to resolve them and develop healthy coping skills.

Self Harm

Another incredibly harmful coping skill is self-harm. This is when you hurt yourself on purpose as a way to cope with your problems. Common forms of self-harm include:

  • Cutting
  • Burning
  • Hitting yourself
  • Starving yourself

Self-harm can be incredibly addictive and difficult to stop. This is because it provides a temporary release from the pain you’re feeling. In addition, people who self-harm do so because they never learned to cope with negative feelings, identify negative emotions, or express themselves in a more positive way.

Some people who self-injury may have false beliefs, such as, “If I’m not harming anyone but myself, it’s not really a big deal.” However, self-harm is a very serious issue and should be addressed as soon as possible. If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm, it’s important to seek professional help.

self harm as an example of unhealthy coping mechanisms

How to Learn New, Healthy Coping Skills

If you’re using any of the unhealthy coping skills listed above, it’s important to learn new, healthier coping skills. This can be difficult since most coping skills are developed in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. However, learning and practicing healthier coping strategies is definitely possible, with some effort.

To help you:

  • Practice relaxation techniques: There are many different relaxation techniques you can try, such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Talk to a therapist: A therapist can help you understand your emotions and develop new coping skills.
  • Identify your triggers: Once you know what triggers your negative emotions, you can start to develop a plan for how to deal with them.
  • Challenge your negative thoughts: Negative thinking is often at the root of unhealthy coping skills. If you can learn to challenge and reframe your negative thoughts, you’ll be on your way to developing healthy coping skills.
  • Find a support group: There’s nothing like talking to others who are going through similar experiences. A support group can provide you with the empathy and understanding you need to develop healthy coping skills.

Help Us Help You Learn to Deal With Stress at Clear Behavioral Health

It’s important to remember that developing healthy coping skills takes time and effort. However, it’s well worth it in the end. With healthy coping skills, you’ll be better equipped to deal with life’s challenges and build resilience. At Clear Behavioral Health, we’re here to help you every step of the way. Contact us today to learn more about our mental health programs including mental health residential treatment for severe mental health issues, outpatient mental health programs, and virtual IOP serving all of California. We also offer substance abuse programs including detox and residential treatment as well as dual diagnosis outpatient programs for ongoing support.

Reaching out to a mental health professional can be the beginning of a journey toward healing. Call us today to learn how our full continuum of care for mental health and substance abuse can help you overcome mental health issues, substance use disorder, or both. Through learning adaptive coping mechanisms, participating in a wide range of therapeutic modalities, and prioritize healing, you can focus on working toward a healthier, happier you.

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