10 Most Common Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: A List

Unhealthy coping mechanismLife entails a wide tapestry of different experiences. Some are pleasant; some are sad; others are challenging.

Coping mechanisms are the ways we respond to difficult experiences. We can think of our coping mechanisms as our emotional and behavioral toolbox.

But what happens when our responses to our experiences are not helpful? What do we do if our responses to our problems become the problem?

In this article, you will find reflections on the 10 most common unhealthy coping mechanisms, including their origins, a few real-life examples, and how we can learn to orient ourselves toward healthier alternatives.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Resilience Exercises for free. These engaging, science-based exercises will help you effectively deal with difficult circumstances and give you tools to improve the resilience of your clients, students, or employees.

Psychology of Healthy and Unhealthy Coping

Coping is an essential psychological process for managing stress and our emotions (Folkman & Moskowitz, 2004).

Coping consists of our “thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations” (Algorani & Gupta, 2021, p. 1).

Coping mechanisms are psychological strategies that can entail thoughts or behaviors designed to manage stress, adversity, and emotional challenges.

Healthy coping involves adaptive strategies that foster our long-term psychological wellbeing, while unhealthy coping encompasses maladaptive approaches that can lead to negative outcomes.

Healthy coping strategies, such as relaxation, seeking support from our loved ones, and positive reframing of unhelpful cognitions, are designed to foster resilience (Compas et al., 2001).

Such coping promotes emotional regulation, enhances problem-solving skills, and cultivates a sense of self-efficacy and learning. In that way, it contributes to our long-term wellbeing and thriving.

Researchers have identified over 400 different coping strategies and presented multiple classifications for healthy coping styles (Machado et al., 2020).

They can be viewed on the coping strategy wheel and have been divided into five broad styles.

Unhealthy coping, on the other hand, involves maladaptive responses and often leads to a cycle of increasing distress (Skinner et al., 2003).

Unhealthy coping mechanisms involve behaviors that provide short-term relief but may exacerbate distress in the long run. Substance abuse, avoidance, self-harm, and negative self-talk are among the most common examples of unhelpful coping strategies (Klonsky, 2007; Skinner et al., 2003).

These strategies often impede emotional processing, worsen our stress, and hinder effective problem-solving. Unhealthy coping mechanisms can lead to a cycle of negative emotions, decreased self-esteem, ill health, and even physical harm (Suls & Fletcher, 1985; Zuckerman, 1999).

Factors influencing our coping choices

Our choice of coping mechanisms is influenced by factors such as personality traits, cultural norms, and most importantly, our past experiences.

Often, the roots of our unhealthy coping mechanisms can be found in our childhood, and they are also shaped by our early attachment styles.

We may, for example, have lacked good coping role models, our emotions may have been delegitimized or ridiculed, or we may have grown up in an unstable or even violent environment, where we were exposed to many threatening stressors.

Some of us may resort to unhealthy coping due to a lack of awareness of healthier alternatives (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Additionally, social support and access to resources play crucial roles in shaping our individual coping strategies (Thoits, 1995).

Generally, unhealthy coping mechanisms can easily become bad habits — automatic, default responses to our stressors — and in these cases, we may need to seek professional help to develop more generative ways to enhance our emotional resilience.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms: A List

Substance abuseUnhealthy coping mechanisms, defined as maladaptive strategies used to handle adverse emotions or stressful situations, have been the subject of extensive psychological research (Smith et al., 2018).

While these mechanisms often provide short-term relief, they can lead to long-term psychological, emotional, and even physical harm (Jones & Oliver, 2015). In the long run, unhealthy coping perpetuates negative outcomes.

The most common maladaptive coping techniques include the following (Thompson et al., 2010; Enns et al., 2018; Wadsworth, 2015; Tapu, 2016).

1. Substance abuse

Substance abuse, including alcohol, drug, and pain killer consumption, is a very common unhealthy coping mechanism (Dawson et al., 2018).

The temporary relief offered by substances may lead to addiction, exacerbating mental health issues (Hawke et al., 2019).

As with most unhealthy coping mechanisms, prolonged and excessive substance abuse usually turns into the most pressing challenge in our life and becomes the greatest threat to our wellbeing.

2. Avoidance and denial

Avoidance and denial involve ignoring or suppressing distressing emotions or situations (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).

Such mechanisms hinder our emotional processing and contribute to heightened stress and anxiety (Carver & Scheier, 2011).

If we avoid tackling our problems or deny that they even exist, we cannot resolve them. This coping mechanism leads to stagnation and paralysis and hinders our emotional growth (Smith et al., 2018).

3. Self-harm

Self-harm, such as cutting or burning oneself, is a particularly distressing and a counterproductive coping strategy (Klonsky et al., 2018).

This behavior can offer a fleeting sense of control and relief but often results in increased emotional turmoil and can lead to dangerous physical injuries (Zetterqvist, 2015).

4. Negative self-talk

Engaging in negative self-talk, when we excessively criticize or put ourselves down, is linked to reduced self-esteem and heightened depression (Brakemeier et al., 2014).

The reinforcement of pessimistic thoughts and negative assumptions about ourselves can perpetuate and magnify our distress (Beck, 2019).

Negative self-talk is a very common coping mechanism, and again, it is a mechanism that starts out as a protective strategy designed to save us from danger that subsequently morphs into a maladaptive one that holds us back in numerous areas of our life.

David Burns (1980/1999) and other practitioners of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy have provided more detailed descriptions of the various cognitive distortions that usually determine our negative self-talk.

The most common cognitive distortions involve all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, mental filtering, disqualifying positives, jumping to conclusions in the form of mind reading and fortune telling, magnification and minimization, emotional reasoning, “should” statements, labeling and mislabeling, and personalization (Burns, 1980/1999).

5. Emotional eating or binge eating

We may also engage in emotional eating or binge eating to numb our emotions and cope with overwhelming stressors in our lives.

Like other maladaptive coping strategies, this one results in a classic vicious circle, in that our unhealthy response to problems soon turns into the main challenge in our life.

Those of us engaging in binge eating become trapped in a cycle of guilt, shame, and self-hatred, which is the direct consequence of this coping mechanism.

6. Isolation

Another unhealthy coping mechanism is withdrawing from social interactions. Isolating ourselves from our peers is also a detrimental choice of coping mechanism because avoidance or fear-driven isolation can lead to mental health and wellbeing issues.

When we cut ties with other people, we deprive ourselves of energizing human interactions and nourishing relationships, significantly narrowing our opportunities for healing and growing.

7. Procrastination

Procrastination means avoiding important tasks or delaying their completion. Interestingly, we often procrastinate on precisely the tasks that are most important to us because we cannot bear the thought of doing them in a less than perfect way or even failing at them.

Again, procrastination may provide temporary relief because when we procrastinate, we remain in the sphere of possibility where we can indulge in fantasies of perfect or near-perfect outcomes.

However, procrastination increases our stress in the long run, because it massively decreases our sense of self-efficacy and is also related to feelings of guilt and shame.

8. Overworking

Many of us also engage in overworking to cope with feelings of disconnection, emptiness, lack of purpose, and alienation. We may also self-medicate with work to avoid addressing problems in other areas of our lives, such as our family, partnerships, or friendship circles.

Yet the problem with overworking is that it is likely to aggravate the challenges we do not address. And the more time we spend at work, the emptier our lives become in other domains.

It becomes increasingly difficult to stop and face that emptiness. What is more, overworking may also increase our risk of burnout and lead to a decrease in overall life satisfaction. It could also lead to various stress-related health problems.

9. Aggression

Aggression, too, can be a maladaptive coping mechanism, which can take the form of expressing anger, frustration, and irritation in harmful and upsetting ways and inappropriate contexts.

Aggression leads to strained relationships and can ultimately harm and push away the people who are closest to us.

If you need help with this unhealthy coping mechanism, head on over to this Anger Management Guide for constructive guidance.

10. Excessive screen time

Finally, we may also indulge in excessive screen time to numb unpleasant feelings and thoughts or to avoid complex tasks or challenges.

What counts as excessive and unhealthy screen time is difficult to generalize, though. Many of us have to use screens for work, and screens can also be platforms for meaningful social interactions, provide us with stimulating ideas, or help us relax.

Most of us will be guilty of wasting some time on social media or gaming platforms, or we may have a Netflix binge-watching habit.

Screen time as a coping mechanism becomes problematic when we are addicted to gaming or spend so much time online that we cannot cope with our daily tasks and neglect our real-life relationships and self-care.

To conclude, in all 10 cases, we can observe the same underlying mechanism at work: The behavior or thoughts that were originally designed to help us cope become addictive or habitual and soon turn into our most pressing primary problem. In other words, our ways to respond to our emotional crises end up becoming the crisis.

You may also enjoy this short explanatory video on slightly different selections of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

5 Unhealthy coping mechanisms you shouldn't ignore - Psych2Go

Real-Life Examples of Unhealthy Coping

We may engage in a wide variety of unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage our emotional distress. The following three real-life scenarios illustrate the allure and consequences of unhealthy coping.

1. The slippery slope of substance abuse

Katja was struggling with overwhelming stress at work, her recent breakup, and various family issues. Unable to cope with the emotional turmoil, she sought solace in alcohol more and more often.

What initially provided a temporary escape from her problems quickly transformed into a nightly ritual. Katja’s dependence on alcohol as a stress-management strategy escalated.

First, she started drinking every day of the week and then ever earlier in the day. She hid the extent of her alcohol consumption from others.

Gradually, her life spiraled out of control, causing further distress and isolation. The substance that once offered her relief had trapped her in a cycle of physical and emotional addiction.

2. The dangers of negative self-talk

Daniel had always struggled with a lack of self-confidence, but a series of interpersonal conflicts at work led to him being haunted by self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.

He was passed over for promotion three times. He constantly berated himself for his many perceived failures and had become his own harshest critic.

Negative self-talk had infiltrated every aspect of his daily life, corroded his self-esteem, and exacerbated his anxiety. Even minor setbacks immediately triggered a barrage of self-critical thoughts, trapping him in a cycle of damaging and counter-productive self-sabotage.

Daniel’s inner critic had become a relentless torturer that made it increasingly impossible for him to think of himself as a worthy human being deserving of dignity and respect.

3. The loneliness trap

Sandra had experienced a series of losses in her life, leaving her feeling increasingly vulnerable and emotionally fragile. First, her mother died of cancer, and then her long-term partner died in a car accident.

She found it difficult to ask for help and didn’t want to burden her friends with her own grief. Yet her grief, pain, and losses were all she could think about, and she couldn’t really engage in other topics of conversation.

Sandra withdrew further and further from social interactions. Isolation became her chosen coping mechanism as she thought to shield her growing sense of vulnerability from the world. Soon, weeks turned into months, and Sandra found herself trapped in an ever-more-desolate emotional landscape. Her isolation had deepened her despair and prevented the healing and growth that only connection and support can provide.

As you can see, each of these three examples illustrates the short-term relief that unhealthy coping mechanisms can provide, as well as the detrimental long-term consequences that follow in their wake.

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How to Stop Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Some coping mechanisms may originally have been helpful but have become unhealthy because we began to use them excessively.

Examples include physical exercise, a great coping mechanism if used judiciously, that deteriorates into a gym addiction or the occasional glass of wine that allows us to relax but that we consume more and more excessively until it constitutes a problem.

Freeing ourselves from our unhealthy coping requires self-awareness, intentional change, and great discipline.

If we have been trapped in a cycle of maladaptive coping or if we have become addicted, we may need to seek professional help. If our unhealthy coping still seems like something we can manage on our own, we can also try to develop healthier habits to disrupt our unhelpful patterns, for example, by practicing mindfulness (Beck, 1967; Kabat-Zinn, 1982).

There are a range of psychological interventions that focus on enhancing healthy coping skills. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, for example, teaches us to identify and challenge maladaptive thoughts, promoting positive reframing and problem-solving (Beck, 1967).

Mindfulness-based approaches cultivate acceptance and nonjudgment and seek to enhance emotional regulation (Kabat-Zinn, 1982).

Skills to Cope in a Positive Way

Stress relief activitiesAcceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) encourages us to accept our emotions, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, and to observe our thoughts in a detached manner, without getting sucked into negative thought spirals.

ACT seeks to enhance our psychological flexibility and our ability to cope with the entire range of human emotions by encouraging us to defuse from our unhelpful thoughts.

We may empower ourselves with healthy alternatives to our unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as stress-reduction techniques, journaling, and engaging in hobbies (Taylor & Brown, 1988).

Meditation, various mindfulness techniques, deep relaxation, and writing are all helpful activities for overcoming challenging situations.

We may also find solace in nature, in the company of others, or in physical activities such as exercising. We may find respite by attending communal gatherings, helping others, or learning something new.

Coping mechanisms - Mental Health Collaborative, Inc

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Explore PositivePsychology.com’s wealth of resources, including articles and worksheets on coping, mindfulness, and emotional wellbeing.

Realizing Resilience: A coaching masterclass

Why do some people not just master but even appear to thrive during challenging situations? What allows them to cope so much more effectively than others?

The Realizing Resilience Masterclass© explores the secrets of resilient people who bounce back from and adapt well throughout adversity. In this six-module course, you will learn the foundations of resilience and the skills and abilities that promote healthy coping.

Free worksheets

  • The Coping Skills Inventory provides you with six powerful coping strategies that can be applied to deal with stressful or challenging situations. This exercise explains specific coping skills and shows you how and when to use them.
  • The Cognitive Restructuring Worksheet shows you how to use Socratic questioning. It contains a series of open yet focused questions that two people can use in a dialogue to challenge irrational thoughts.
  • The Decatastrophizing Steps Worksheet uses five questions to take you through deconstructing what you may have experienced as an emotional catastrophe.

Recommended reading

In a related article, we explore The Science of Coping: 10+ Strategies & Skills and the coping strategies wheel in detail.

Do you feel that your unhealthy coping mechanisms got established mostly due to stress? Then you may find our article How to Cope With Stress highly beneficial.

If you’d like to dive into the science of coping, our article What Is Coping Theory? will definitely appeal to you.

Tools

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others overcome adversity, check out this collection of 17 validated resilience and coping exercises. Use them to help others recover from personal challenges and turn setbacks into opportunities for growth.

17 Tools To Build Resilience and Coping Skills

Empower others with the skills to manage and learn from inevitable life challenges using these 17 Resilience & Coping Exercises [PDF], so you can increase their ability to thrive.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

A Take-Home Message

This article has shown the many dangerous pitfalls and long-term detrimental consequences of unhealthy coping mechanisms.

It shows that what was originally designed to provide respite, soothe, or protect us can easily turn into a massive problem in its own right, aggravating and often eclipsing our original distress.

The good news is that healthy coping is a skill that we can learn. We do not have to remain slaves to our less-than-helpful habits. We can begin the journey of practicing sustainable and generative ways of reacting to our challenges today.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Resilience Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Support your friend by listening, expressing concern, and encouraging them to seek professional help if needed. Be a pillar of encouragement during their journey to healthier coping. Never underestimate the power of empathetic and nonjudgmental listening. Be prepared to recommend stronger behavioral interventions if they are at risk of self-harm.

Poor coping skills usually have their roots in our childhoods, but they may also arise from limited resources, lack of awareness, or personality disposition. Developing effective coping skills often requires practice and guidance, as well as patience and perseverance.

Sleeping is a necessary and natural way to restore and manage stress, but excessive sleeping designed to escape our problems might indicate an unhealthy coping mechanism. Balance is key here. If sleeping prevents us from functioning normally and mastering our daily tasks, there might be a problem.

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Comments

What our readers think

  1. Christy

    This article is a stark reminder that our instinctive reactions to stress and emotional pain aren’t always the most beneficial. While it’s tempting to resort to avoidance or escape, these coping mechanisms often create a vicious cycle of temporary relief followed by increased distress. It’s crucial to recognize these unhealthy patterns in ourselves and actively work towards developing healthier coping strategies.

    Thank you for shedding light on this important topic. The categorization of coping mechanisms helps understand the different ways people react to stress. I particularly appreciate the emphasis on developing healthy coping skills, as it provides a hopeful and empowering message for those struggling with unhealthy patterns.

    Reply
  2. Ben

    You have provided some beautiful insight into both negative and positive coping strategies, thank you for sharing this knowledge and I hope the next reader has found it as useful and informative as I have. Thanks again

    Reply
  3. John Fernandez

    Thanks for the article! Great to learn about some negative coping mechanisms!

    Reply

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