Coping mechanisms are strategies that people use or develop in order to deal with, or avoid dealing with, difficult and stressful emotions or situations. Whilst some people may use exercise, a healthy diet or meditation as a way to process difficult feelings, it can be very easy to fall into unhealthy habits instead, especially if we have pre-existing mental health conditions.
For example, those who have suffered with eating disorders may automatically fall back into restrictive eating habits or fall into a pattern of binge eating when life gets difficult. Whilst we can easily beat ourselves up for not ‘handling things’ in a healthy and productive manner, it’s important to remember that coping mechanisms serve an instinctive purpose. In times of stress, we seek comfort and safety. On a biochemical level, unhealthy coping mechanisms are serving that purpose.
That doesn’t mean we should allow them to continue, however. Part of overcoming mental illness is learning how to cope in healthy ways that serve a higher purpose for you long term. Here, we will take a closer look at how mental illness can affect our coping mechanisms, and how you can learn to shift your unhealthy coping habits into more helpful ones.
Why mental illness makes us vulnerable
Mental illnesses come in a wide variety, and each person will experience them slightly differently to the next. But essentially, mental illness means that our brains aren’t working exactly how they should. This can warp our perception, and make us feel more anxious, stressed, insecure and prone to depression than we would be otherwise.
When we are stressed, we seek instant comfort. Our brains instinctively drive us to seek the quickest fix and push us to run away from our cause of stress. This is why when you are really, really hungry, all you want to do is eat sugary foods such as chocolate – your body knows that’s the quickest fix for its hunger, even though you know consciously that it’s not the healthiest option.
For people with mental illness, this stress response can trigger a repetition of a familiar pattern of negative behaviour that instantly soothes or avoids the initial problem, but also creates bigger issues long term.
Recognise your behaviour
It’s important to recognise when we are relying on unhelpful coping mechanisms to avoid facing stress, as they can lead to more serious mental and physical problems. If you are fixating on something that is not going to help you long term, such as obsessive cleaning, isolating yourself from family and friends, or abusing alcohol, you need to consciously recognise the signs that your habits are not serving you.
You may find it helpful to write down the root causes of your negative habits, and commit to facing the problems head on instead of allowing them to cause you further problems. Talking to someone you trust can be a massive help and relief, and can help you springboard yourself into a better place mentally.
Make small changes
Often when our mental health is low, we can feel overwhelmed by the thought of fixing everything. Remember, your perception is magnified when you are struggling mentally, so everything will seem worse and harder than it truly is. Being kind to yourself and committing to changing just one small habit at a time can be really helpful in focusing on what you can achieve – one step at a time.
Speaking to a health professional can be an intimidating thought, but sometimes it is necessary in order for us to make profound changes to our health and wellbeing. There is no shame in asking for help, and you are not alone. By recognising when our coping mechanisms are beginning to be less than healthy, we can make the choice to improve them.
This article is written by a freelance writer.