Feeling Stuck? Ditch These Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms and Thrive

When it comes to dealing with life’s daily challenges, everyone copes differently.

And while there are a lot of positive ways to navigate your struggles, turning to negative coping mechanisms often feels easier in the moment.

The trickiest thing about ditching unhealthy coping mechanisms is realizing they do more harm than good. 

This guide will help you spot these destructive tendencies in your own life and swap them out for healthier ways to cope. But before we jump into all that, let’s start with the basics…


What are coping mechanisms?

Coping mechanisms are the strategies our minds deploy when dealing with stress, protecting us from mental anguish. These tactics are as varied as the individuals who use them, each serving the purpose of helping us manage adversity. The little things and the big things.

Psychological experts have come up with different ways of classifying coping mechanisms; here are some of the most common categories:

  • Emotion-focused: helps manage our emotional reactions
  • Problem-focused: tackles the stressor head-on
  • Meaning-focused: involves finding a sense of purpose or learning in the face of adversity
  • Social: encourages us to seek support from our social networks

☝️ Each of these groups contains many coping skills, both helpful and harmful.

For example, we can deal with our emotions in a healthy manner, such as journaling. We can also blame others, be too hard on ourselves, or lash out at loved ones.

When done right, coping can help us mitigate stress and build emotional resilience over time. 

Maladaptive coping mechanisms, on the other hand, provide momentary relief but are often detrimental in the long run. They might seem to help but ultimately do little more than temporarily sideline the issue.

When thinking of negative coping mechanisms, things like substance abuse, self-harm, and other extreme measures probably come to mind.

But there are plenty of more common methods that have become normalized in modern society. According to a nationwide survey by Myriad Genetics, 77% of Americans have used maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with mental health turmoil. 

77% of Americans have used unhealthy coping mechanisms

Personally, I often resort to rumination when I’m dealing with an issue. My brain tells me that if I think through a problem enough, I’ll arrive at the best solution—but this usually only leads to intense anxiety and wasted time.

Take a second to think about the coping skills you employ that might be doing more harm than good. If you’re not sure, this list might just jog your memory. Let’s get into it.


Eliminate these harmful coping mechanisms (your future self will thank you)

Before we get started, I want to emphasize that cutting these unhealthy coping skills out of your life is no easy task.

More than likely, any negative forms of coping you use have become instinctual, a behavior you exhibit without even thinking about it.

If you find yourself defaulting to these unhealthy habits even after trying to quit, you have NOT failed.

Filling your life with healthy coping mechanisms is a slow process but certainly a worthwhile one. Keep at it, and you will see improvement.



Avoidance is like sitting next to a baby lion and hoping it will disappear if you don’t think about it. But the thing about baby lions is that they, much like our problems, do not magically disappear—they only grow bigger and more threatening.

Though avoidance temporarily quiets anxiety, it ends up digging a bigger hole that becomes more and more insurmountable over time. Long-term reliance on this strategy can erode personal relationships, diminish work performance, and stall self-improvement efforts.

One study even suggests that this behavior is directly linked to depression up to 10 years down the line. The more we avoid, the more daunting our challenges can appear, creating a feedback loop that strengthens the avoidance behavior.


Escaping the cycle of avoidance requires intention and practice. By breaking your problems into small, more bite-sized pieces, you can reduce anxiety and face hurdles with confidence.

As you do this, you not only address the immediate stressor but also cultivate problem-solving strategies that serve you in other areas of life.



Isolation, often confused with productive solitude, is a deceptive coping mechanism that presents itself as a sanctuary from social stressors.

Here’s the difference: while healthy solitude is restorative, offering a chance to recharge your batteries in peace, unhealthy isolation cuts you off from the outside world—leading to loneliness and unchecked rumination.

This harmful variant of solitude is marked by a decline in social interaction and a retreat from activities that once brought joy—eventually affecting personal relationships and emotional health.

If you’re looking for proof, look no further than the worldwide mental health crisis that was largely brought on by pandemic-induced social isolation

Much like avoidance, isolation only makes your issues grow bigger with time. The longer you refuse to interact with others, the scarier it is to re-enter social situations.

It’s key to find a balance between valuing personal space and embracing social support. This means recognizing when seclusion is starting to become detrimental and seeking out friends and family as a result.

When you’re conscious of your personal limits of solitude and social interaction, both can become fantastic, healthy coping mechanisms in your toolkit.



Substance abuse

When stress and emotional turmoil hit, some turn to substances for relief. This dangerous coping mechanism often involves alcohol, recreational drugs, or misuse of prescription medications, all of which promise temporary numbness from psychological pain.

Substance abuse has the potential for physical dependency and a plethora of health issues, including the risk of overdose.

Mentally, it can exacerbate existing conditions like anxiety and depression, while socially, it can dismantle relationships and professional lives. Substance addiction creates a terrible cycle where the user’s only reprieve comes from using again.

The first step toward getting better is acknowledging the problem.

Once identified, recovery hinges on professional help and a willingness to embrace healthier coping strategies, such as resilience-building and finding a support network.

If you struggle with this coping habit, you’re not alone.

There are over 46 million Americans dealing with substance use disorders, meaning there is no shame in accepting support from loved ones or those who have had similar experiences.

Here are a few resources for anyone looking to free themselves from addiction:

SAMHSA support groups

American Additction Centers support groups

SAMHSA National Helpline



In a culture that equates busyness with success, overworking is often applauded rather than condemned as a poor means of coping.

But there’s a fine line between dedication and overworking. While hard work can be fulfilling, overworking is an excessive grind that can mask underlying emotional distress.

It’s a brand of avoidance that allows people to leave personal issues unaddressed without feeling too bad about it.

Yet, this relentless pace comes at a high cost. Physical symptoms like burnout and chronic fatigue are commonplace with this behavior, and one’s mental well-being is also at risk of a slow decay.

With so much time and energy dedicated to work, little remains for maintaining relationships or attending to personal matters.

It can be difficult to notice when overworking becomes a problem, but there are a few recognizable signs: an inability to log off, guilt during downtime, and neglecting one’s own needs and relationships. 

The best way to combat this issue is to draw clear boundaries. Whether you allot a certain amount of time to work, schedule a mandatory period of relaxation, or minimize the number of tasks you complete each day, you must respect the limits you set.

If you’ve found yourself working more than usual recently, ask yourself if you’re doing it out of necessity or as a way to avoid something that’s going on behind the scenes.




Procrastination is commonly viewed as a quirky personality trait among students, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. 

It’s also not laziness or disorganization; it’s a complex reaction to stress and anxiety.

The temporary relief might feel nice, but it’s really just a big middle finger to our future selves, to whom we’ve given the same project with a shorter deadline.

Personally, I find that the guilt of putting off a responsibility prevents me from doing anything I actually enjoy, resulting in time wasted for no real gain.

A sub-category of avoidance, procrastination is best dealt with by breaking daunting tasks into less daunting parts. This can reduce much of the stress and anxiety that comes with tackling a large project all at once. 

With around 88% of the workforce procrastinating at least one hour each day, it’s easy to sweep this unhealthy coping mechanism under the rug. I’d encourage you to be a part of the 12% and reclaim your time as best you can. You’ll be glad you did.



Rumination and catastrophizing

Ruminating on past events and obsessing over potential disasters might feel like mental preparation, but they’re more like treadmills for your brain—constant motion getting you nowhere.

Rumination is that broken record of past slip-ups, conversations, and missed opportunities that keeps spinning in your head, while catastrophizing makes you believe that a missed homework assignment will lead to living in your parents’ basement when you’re 50.

Sure, it might seem like you’re just being thorough or realistic, but when these thought patterns hijack your mental space, that’s a red flag. The increased anxiety associated with these behaviors is suffocating and draining, depleting your ability to confront your responsibilities in a healthy manner.

So, how can you gain control over your mind and keep it from wandering to dark places? 

Mindfulness exercises help to reflect on your thoughts and find your inner zen; meditation and journaling are two popular options.

If you, like me, struggle with overthinking right before bed, try to allot yourself time to wind down as the day comes to a close. Create a low-stress, consistent routine that will tell your body and mind that it’s time to chill out until the morning.

Professional help is another great option. Sometimes, being able to vocalize your thoughts is all you need to silence the nagging voice in your head. Here is a resource to help you find a mental health professional near you.



Disordered eating

Disordered eating (such as bingeing, purging, or fasting) is an incredibly complex coping mechanism. It can stem from a number of stressors including unrealistic societal expectations, low self-esteem, or the desire to feel in control.

Addressing disordered eating requires understanding the emotional issues that fuel it.

Effective strategies include therapy, which can help in unpacking the underlying triggers, and nutritional counseling to rebuild a balanced approach to eating. Establishing a support network for accountability is also a great tool.

If you’re familiar with this coping mechanism, remember, it is possible to reforge a healthy relationship with food.

And if you’re looking for encouragement, consider reading these stories from individuals who overcame their difficulties with support.



Denial is often employed as a protective mechanism when reality seems too harsh to face. It’s a type of avoidance that involves rejecting the truth in favor of a more manageable fabrication.

However, the short-term comfort provided by denial can lead to long-term complications.

It’s like not dealing with a pile of dirty dishes—they don’t just disappear, right? They pile up, get gross, and eventually, you’ve got a much bigger mess to clean.

That’s what happens with your emotions. Not facing them means they keep building up, making things way more complicated and emotionally draining when you finally do have to deal with them.

Moving past denial requires that you acknowledge it’s a problem. Then, consciously choose to face reality, no matter how difficult.

When you face your struggles head-on, you’ll build resilience and emotional maturity.



Converting emotional pain into physical pain, self-harm has the most drastic potential consequences out of all unhealthy coping mechanisms. 

The repercussions of self-harm are grave, presenting immediate physical dangers and fostering a negative psychological loop that can spiral into deeper emotional distress.

This cycle is characterized by a habitual return to self-harm as a false refuge from stress—complete with shame that further encourages the behavior. 

Although the mental health field has recently made great strides toward acceptance, there is still a lingering mental health stigma that contributes to self-harm.

When people feel as though their feelings are invalid or unheard, they may see self-harm as the best way to validate their struggles (to themselves and others).

To overcome self-harm, seek professional guidance and find a support network. Like many of the poor coping skills on this list, having a desire to seek help and a way to release emotional distress is key. Professionals can help you find healthier coping strategies.

Here are some resources to find a healthy place to vent your feelings:

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline

Crisis Textline

Find a mental health professional near you


Risky or impulsive behaviors

Risky or impulsive behaviors are another form of emotion-focused coping. While taking calculated risks is normal (and often necessary), impulsive actions without consideration of potential harm fall into this more concerning category. 

Several things we’ve already discussed could fit here: substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and overwork.

Other examples of risky behaviors include compulsive gambling, risky sexual behavior, excessive spending, and physical fights.

The draw to such behaviors lies in the allure of an adrenaline rush that distracts from underlying issues. For some, risky actions are a way to feel in control or to reaffirm vitality in moments of emotional numbness.

The problem with impulsivity is its tendency to spiral. What starts as one small risk can turn into a series of dangerous actions.

These behaviors risk not only physical peril but also legal and social consequences that can have long-lasting effects on your future and overall well-being.

Identifying impulsivity involves recognizing patterns of snap decisions in your life, as well as understanding what triggers these behaviors. You can use these insights to be more mindful and self-aware, allowing for planning and reflection before decision-making.

A mental health professional is also a great resource to help you work through these issues.


What are good coping mechanisms?

The best coping mechanisms are all about sustainability and support—they’re the habits that don’t just help you survive the storm but also strengthen your emotional resilience for future challenges.

Unlike their less helpful counterparts, these practices don’t numb or distract; they allow you to look reality in the face and live with conviction. 

Developing a reliable mental foundation isn’t glamorous or easy—it’s a slow, arduous process that requires making the right choices over and over again, and treating yourself with compassion when you slip up. 

Here is a list of healthy coping skills you can incorporate into your daily life:

1. Regular Exercise: Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, which act as natural stress relievers and mood lifters.

2. Mindfulness Meditation: Practicing mindfulness helps you stay present and calm, reducing anxiety and stress levels.

3. Adequate Sleep: Ensuring sufficient sleep each night can improve cognitive function and emotional regulation.

4. Social Support: Connecting with friends and family provides a sense of belonging and reassurance during tough times.

5. Creative Expression: Activities like painting, writing, or making music allow for emotional expression and can be therapeutic.

6. Problem-Solving: Approaching problems with a structured problem-solving process can reduce the anxiety they cause and provide a sense of accomplishment.

7. Time Management: Effective time management reduces stress by preventing last-minute rushes and feelings of overwhelm.

8. Humor: Finding humor in everyday situations can lighten one’s mood and offer a new perspective on difficult issues.

9. Relaxation Techniques: Practices like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga can reduce stress and promote physical and emotional well-being.

10. Volunteering: Helping others can create a sense of purpose and boost self-esteem, reducing feelings of helplessness.

11. Professional Help: Seeking therapy or counseling can provide strategies to deal with emotional distress and improve coping skills. 

Each of these strategies provides a constructive way to deal with stress, challenges, and emotional pain, contributing to a healthier mental state.


Leaving behind unhealthy coping mechanisms for good

If you’re not intentional about how you deal with problems, it’s too easy to fall into habits that are harmful long-term. Just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s good FOR you.

Positive coping mechanisms aren’t necessarily fun, nor are they a cakewalk. But they are the best way to promote a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.