Coping Mechanisms: Everything You Need to Know

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Coping mechanisms are strategies that help people deal with stress and uncomfortable emotions. Whether you realize it or not, you are using coping mechanisms regularly. These behaviors can help you cope with stress in a positive way or can sometimes be harmful.

This article discusses different coping styles, types of coping mechanisms, and ways to improve your coping skills.

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Why Do We Use Coping Mechanisms?

Coping mechanisms help decrease the side effects of stress. The stress response is triggered by the "flight or fight" role of your sympathetic nervous system. This causes changes in your body to help you prepare to run away from or face potential danger head-on.

Side effects of the stress response include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased breathing
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Increased alertness
  • Heightened senses
  • Release of glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream for energy

These physiological changes are helpful when you are in a dangerous situation. However, they are also meant to be temporary.

Unfortunately, your body doesn't know the difference between actual danger and emotional stress. And chronic stress can lead to problems, such as:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches
  • Stomach pain
  • Body aches
  • Rashes
  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Lack of interest in activities

Active vs. Avoidant Coping

Coping mechanisms are classifiable as active or avoidant. Active coping means that you recognize the source of your stress and you are taking steps to change the situation or the way you respond to it. Avoidant coping occurs when you ignore the problem or issue that is causing you stress.

Coping Styles

Two common ways that people cope with stress are problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.

Problem-Focused Coping

Problem-focused coping aims to change or eliminate the source of your stress. This type of coping works if you have some control over the situation that is causing you stress.

Examples of problem-focused strategies for specific situations could include:

Situation: You frequently fight with your partner, which causes a stressful relationship.

Possible responses:

  • Seek counseling.
  • Set boundaries.
  • End the relationship.

Situation: Your job requires you to do presentations, but public speaking causes you stress.

Possible responses:

  • Practice in front of family or friends.
  • Hire a public-speaking coach.
  • Take a public-speaking course.
  • Find a different job that does not require public speaking.

Situation: You are diagnosed with high blood pressure.

Possible responses:

  • Talk to your healthcare provider about medication options.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Reduce your salt intake.

Emotion-Focused Coping

Unfortunately, it's impossible to avoid stress completely, particularly in situations in which you have no control over the source of your stress. Emotion-focused coping strategies can help you change the way you respond to your stress.

Examples of emotion-focused strategies for specific situations could include:

Situation: Your partner is diagnosed with cancer, causing you fear and anxiety.

Possible responses:

  • Gather information and focus on the facts.
  • Join a support group.
  • Journal about your feelings.

Situation: You are attending a party, but being around a group of people makes you anxious.

Possible responses:

  • Practice deep breathing.
  • Arrive with a friend for social support.
  • Plan topics of conversation.

Coping Mechanisms vs. Defense Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms and defense mechanisms are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. However, coping mechanisms can be described as skills a person uses intentionally to deal with stressful situations, while defense mechanisms are often automatic (or subconscious).

Types of Coping Mechanisms

Not all coping mechanisms are helpful. In fact, some can even be harmful. Adaptive coping mechanisms are positive coping skills, while maladaptive coping mechanisms are negative coping skills.

Adaptive Coping Mechanisms

Adaptive coping mechanisms empower you to change a stressful situation or adjust your emotional response to stress.

Examples include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Journaling
  • Talking with a friend
  • Positive thoughts
  • Taking a bath
  • Reading a book
  • Aromatherapy

Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms

Maladaptive coping mechanisms are negative ways of dealing with stress. Maladaptive coping commonly occurs in people who have experienced childhood trauma or abuse. Though these behaviors might temporarily distract you from your stress, they can eventually lead to physical and emotional harm.

Examples include:

  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Using drugs
  • Anger outbursts
  • Denying/ignoring the problem
  • Self-harm
  • Binge eating
  • Negative thoughts
  • Isolating yourself

How to Improve Your Coping Skills

If you find that your coping skills need some improvement, try these tips:

  • Identify your stressors: Positive coping mechanisms are most effective when you can identify the cause of your stress.
  • Take note of current coping skills: Notice how you respond to your stressors and determine whether you are currently using positive or negative coping mechanisms.
  • Try something new: You might need to try several different coping skills to find the one that works best for you.
  • Make it a habit: Incorporate your coping skills into your daily schedule. For example, take five minutes during your workday to do some deep breathing or meditation, even if you aren't feeling stressed.
  • Get some help: If you find it particularly difficult to build positive coping skills or get rid of negative ones, consider talking to a therapist.


Coping mechanisms are behaviors that aim to avoid stress or unpleasant emotions. These behaviors can be positive (adaptive) or negative (maladaptive). Problem-focused coping aims to eliminate or change the source of your stress, while emotion-focused coping helps you change the way you react to your stressors.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone experiences stress, but not everyone handles stress in a beneficial way. It can take time to unlearn negative coping mechanisms. At first, you'll need to be intentional about incorporating positive coping strategies into your daily life. With time, these responses will become more automatic.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are unhealthy coping mechanisms?

    Unhealthy coping mechanisms often distract a person from their stress. These behaviors can cause physical and emotional harm. Examples include substance abuse, self-harm, anger outbursts, and isolation.

  • Is eating a coping mechanism?

    Eating can be a coping mechanism, particularly if a person is eating to avoid feeling sad or stressed. Consuming sugar releases chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters that make you feel good. This has an immediate but temporary effect on your mood.

  • How can I improve my coping skills?

    You can improve your coping skills by first identifying your stressors and your current responses to these situations. Try a variety of positive coping behaviors including deep breathing, meditation, positive thoughts, and journaling. Then begin to incorporate these skills into your daily life.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coping with stress.

  3. Psychology Today. Avoidance coping.

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  5. Caga J, Zoing MC, Foxe D, et al. Problem-focused coping underlying lower caregiver burden in ALS-FTD: implications for caregiver interventionAmyotroph Lateral Scler Frontotemporal Degener. 2021;22(5-6):434-441. doi:10.1080/21678421.2020.1867180

  6. Boersma K, Södermark M, Hesser H, Flink IK, Gerdle B, Linton SJ. Efficacy of a transdiagnostic emotion-focused exposure treatment for chronic pain patients with comorbid anxiety and depression: a randomized controlled trialPain. 2019;160(8):1708-1718. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001575

  7. Psychology Today. Defense mechanisms.

  8. Wadsworth ME. Development of maladaptive coping: a functional adaptation to chronic, uncontrollable stressChild Dev Perspect. 2015;9(2):96-100. doi:10.1111%2Fcdep.12112

By Aubrey Bailey, PT, DPT, CHT
Aubrey Bailey is a physical therapist and professor of anatomy and physiology with over a decade of experience providing in-person and online education for medical personnel and the general public, specializing in the areas of orthopedic injury, neurologic diseases, developmental disorders, and healthy living.