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What are unhealthy coping mechanisms?

Marina discusses coping mechanisms that may actually be more harmful for you in the long term even if they provide short term relief.

Marina Afzal-Khan, Online Wellbeing Editor

Online Wellbeing Editor Marina Afzal-Khan discusses coping mechanisms that may actually be more harmful for you in the long term even if they provide short term relief.

TW: This article discusses some sensitive subject material, such as self-harm, alcohol and drugs

When you're going through a really rough patch, it is natural for you to want to cope with easy fixes that make the emotional pain disappear fast. This is because you're not thinking in the long term, the pain is happening now and it needs to stop NOW.


People with overwhelming emotions often find them intolerable. This encourages them to want to block and avoid them in order to cope in the meantime by taking extreme actions and measures. These measures - which will be discussed below - are unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms

1. Self-Harm
Of course, this is a very uneasy topic to talk about. As someone who has self-harmed in her life, I understand the reasons why one would feel like it works. It may feel like it results in a bit of relief, but even in these cases that relief is quick. In the long term, the scars and other various physical effects are not positive outcomes.

2. Isolating yourself
Everyone does it. Why burden anyone else with your problems? However, it is more likely that you are just dwelling on the feelings or issues you have, not helping yourself overcome them and feel better. It can make you lonelier; you push friends away, and feel like you're facing everything on your own.

3. Alcohol and Drugs
Alcohol and Drugs are two of the easiest coping mechanisms to use and the most common in our society today. They can alter the levels of serotonin, the 'happy chemical' in your brain, and give you a buzz for a few hours where you feel over the moon. Having a drink is very easy, just pop in to your local pub for example. In Bristol, naturally, obtaining drugs is also very easy. However, a hangover and a comedown can make your problems worse, much worse. What goes up must come down. Consuming drugs can make you feel on top the world and feel like the happiest person ever, yet the day or week after, people can feel high levels of anxiety and in a worse state than they did before they took the drug. In the long run, using it to cope just isn't worth it.

Image by Epigram / Luke Unger

4. Sex
Using sex as a coping mechanism can be dangerous for multiple reasons. Firstly, the health consequences that arise if you are frequently having sex - especially unprotected sex - with strangers or your toxic ex are very serious. It is understandable that it makes you feel better in the moment, because it can be fun and a good distraction. However, what about afterwards? Knowing that you have turned to sex just to cope with your emotions can result in feelings of shame, embarrassment, and can bring about low self-worth in the long term.

5. Altering eating habits
Some people alter their eating habits as a form of punishment. This is something I used to do. If I was feeling bad within myself, I would starve myself. At first, I did not realise what I was doing was harmful, but the underlying effects can be devastating.

Better ways to cope

1. Sitting with your emotions and feeling them
This can result in emotions becoming more tolerable, so that they don't seem so overwhelming and you can rationise them. The fact is, when you have overwhelming emotions and pain, you can feel scared. The truth is, sometimes taking the time to let the emotions pass is a better coping mechanism, allowing them to seem less scary in the long run. You may find that you have actually catastrophised your thoughts and jumped to the worst case scenario. Being able to see from a different perspective can reduce the intensity of your emotions or situation and lessen the urge.

2. Doing the opposite to your urges
It might sound like a confusing concept but actually fighting against your urges to drink, do drugs, self-harm, and other coping mechanisms can work and help the urge disappear. For example, If I am in the middle of a breakdown and want to turn to drugs, instead I could go to my flatmate's room and do literally anything else, such as put a movie on or cry. Crying is natural, and a good release. Although this won't feel like the most comfortable response, it will help pass the time till my emotions and pain feels less intense.

Just take that extra five minutes to attempt to reduce the intensity of the situation. Hopefully this will prevent you from harming yourself.

3. Self-soothing
Being able to calm yourself down without using anything to cope is a hard skill, but the most valuable and rewarding. It can improve the way your body and mind work because you are working it out for yourself. When your body is on 'emergency - catastrophy' mode you are not thinking clearly. There are a number of ways to self-soothe, such as:

  • Sitting in your room and burning incense,
  • Listening to your favourite music,
  • Eating your favourite meal,
  • Taking a long hot shower

And many more. This is because, instead of harming your body, you are actually looking after yourself. You are still addressing your emotions, but not in the negative fashion of blocking them out. Instead, you're turning your heightened feelings into making yourself feel better through surrounding yourself with positive things and by doing things that matter to you.

4. Short term distractions
I am not saying you should avoid your feelings. However, keeping your mind engaged with something else can help until the emotion or situation cools down a bit.

It is important to remember...

Time will help.

Time can rationalise. Time can put things into perspective and stop you needing to turn to those unhealthy coping mechanisms and instead focus you on protecting and loving yourself. When you have the urge to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms to cope with your problems, just take that extra five minutes to attempt to reduce the intensity of the situation. Hopefully this will prevent you from harming yourself. Emotions are scary. Pain is scary. But you can take control.

Disclaimer: This post has been written to help students with unhealthy coping mechanisms, from a student perspective. It is in no way an alternative to proper medical guidance and consultancy that can be offered by trained professionals.

Featured Image: Epigram / Marina Afzal-Khan

How do you cope with difficult times? Comment below or get in touch!

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