Viola, a therapist specializing in eating disorders, is intelligent, high-achieving, and compassionate. Unfortunately, her sister is incarcerated - necessitating Viola to step in as part of the caretaking team for her nieces - and her marriage is falling apart. The stressors are adding up to more than Viola can bear, and her eating disorder, a dangerous negative coping skill that had for years been in remission, is back.
Negative (or unhealthy) coping mechanisms are maladaptive behaviors characterized by long-term, harmful consequences. Why are negative coping mechanisms so seductive? Because, initially, they provide moments of respite. The breaks aren’t long-lasting, and the negative behaviors' emotional, relational, and physical consequences drastically outweigh any short-term reprieves.
Common negative coping mechanisms include:
Excessive substance use
Under-eating and over-eating
Too much sleep
Common positive coping skills (healthier alternatives) include:
Read a book (I mean, you knew I’d list that first)
Enjoyable movement (sports, etc.)
This is a reframe…the word I’m not using is “exercise,” which can become harmful if overdone.
Talk to a friend
Listen to music
Play an instrument
Let’s compare how negative coping skills versus positive coping skills impact Viola’s life.
Both situations start the same. Viola is mid-career and has been in recovery from her eating disorder for many years. When her sister gets in legal trouble, it stirs up unsettling thoughts from her past. Viola is so overwhelmed that she’s feeling numb.
Scenario 1: Negative Coping Mechanisms
Viola wants to feel something, anything. She is nervous to talk to her partner about what’s happening, so she avoids her to avoid immediate negativity. The isolation makes her feel worse and desperate for excitement. Viola buys a car she can’t afford, there is a brief adrenaline rush following this purchase, and for a few minutes, she feels better. Soon, though, she realizes she has a car she can’t pay for and a furious spouse and feels depressed. Rather than face her angry spouse and the problems she’s created, Viola spends more time away from home, eating fast food alone for many meals. Viola notices she feels numb again when she binges, which seems better than feeling depressed. She starts binge eating a few times each week, which causes intense stomach pain and is another expense when money is already tight… (This downward spiral could continue).
Scenario 2: Positive Coping Mechanisms
Viola reaches out to her childhood best friend and talks about her problems. The conversation is calming, and she even laughs at his jokes. She feels heard. This conversation motivates Viola to open up to her spouse about her feelings. The conversation is initially awkward, but by the end, they have worked together to devise a plan; they will walk together through a nearby park each evening. Viola is hopeful and soon notices she looks forward to the walks most days. She feels loved by her spouse, strong from the increased movement, and happy about increased time in nature.
Viola has to marshal her bravery and be vulnerable as a first step to using positive coping skills. But this investment in her future self pays off in dividends.
We all have different activities that make us happy. Create your list of positive coping skills when things are manageable so that you have them ready to pull out on challenging days.