Healthy vs Unhealthy Ways to Deal with Stress

man playing guitar

No one likes to experience stress, but it’s a natural part of life. In fact, it’s entirely normal to experience some level of stress on a daily basis. Some day-to-day stress can actually be a positive thing, as it can motivate you to get things done. However, chronic stress can have a negative impact on your physical, mental and emotional well-being. This is why it’s important to recognize stress and how to deal with it in a positive way. 

Coping strategies are the actions you take to deal with stress and other problems in your life. Unhealthy coping strategies often feel good in the moment, but they don’t actually help you deal with the stress. Plus, they often end up causing long-term problems. Healthy coping strategies, on the other hand, may not give you the instant gratification you’re hoping for, but they can lead to positive outcomes. 

Let’s look closer at unhealthy vs. healthy coping mechanisms so that you can recognize the ways in which you cope with stressful situations. 

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms 

Unhealthy coping involves behaviors that provide short-term relief but cause greater distress in the long run by decreasing self-esteem, creating negative emotions and impeding emotional processing. Here are some examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms: 

  • Substance use. Drugs, alcohol and prescription painkillers may offer temporary relief by numbing emotions and distracting the mind, but they do nothing to treat the source of the stress. Substance use also exacerbates mental health issues and can lead to addiction. 
  • Negative self-talk. Negative self-talk happens when you constantly criticize or put yourself down. Doing this lowers your self-esteem, increases depression symptoms and maximizes stress. 
  • Avoidance and denial. Avoidance and denial involves ignoring or suppressing uncomfortable emotions and situations to protect yourself. However, avoidance and denial prevent you from dealing with your problems head on. 
  • Self-harm. Behaviors like cutting or burning yourself are considered self-harm. This can offer a temporary sense of control, but it can lead to dangerous physical injuries. 
  • Emotional eating. Some people use food to cope with unwanted emotions, as it offers a sense of comfort. However, emotional eating can create a cycle where you overeat, beat yourself up for it, lose weight and start all over again. 
  • Isolation. People thrive off social connections. This is why group therapy and family therapy are included in most addiction treatment programs. Cutting yourself off from meaningful relationships can make it more difficult to cope with life’s challenges. 
  • Overworking. You may find yourself self-medicating with work to avoid addressing certain problems in your life. Overworking doesn’t just prevent you from facing your problems, but it can also lead to burnout and a decrease in overall life satisfaction. 
  • Excessive screen time. It’s easy to get wrapped up in social media and online games, but be careful about the time spent on your devices. You may be using online platforms to distract yourself and avoid unpleasant feelings. 

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Healthy Coping Mechanisms 

Healthy coping skills are important because they help you tolerate, minimize and deal with stressful events in your life. Remember, the goal isn’t to avoid stress but rather have tools for dealing with it. Here are some examples of healthy coping mechanisms and why they work:

  • Exercise. Being physically active pumps up your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, lifting your mood and making you feel better overall. This is where the term ‘runner’s high’ comes from. Exercise also reduces the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. 
  • Professional therapy. Talk therapy is an excellent tool for managing stress, as it teaches you new and helpful ways to cope, such as by identifying negative thought patterns. It can also help you heal from anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental health problems. 
  • Eating healthy. A healthy diet is something you should prioritize every day, as it provides you with the energy needed to cope with stress and keeps your mood lifted. Certain foods also reduce stress hormones, boost the immune system and lower blood pressure. 
  • Relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques involve things like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, focusing on the present and progressive muscle relaxation. When you're feeling stressed, you can use these techniques to lower blood pressure and heart rate, taking back control of your emotions. 
  • Engaging in activities. Creative or athletic outlets can stimulate the mind and body while also being therapeutic. Make sure to set aside time to participate in your favorite hobbies and activities. 
  • Understanding triggers. When you’re struggling with substance use or mental illness, it’s helpful to know what your triggers are. Keeping track of them allows you to change your responses to stress. For example, when you’re feeling stressed after a phone call with Mom, you can practice yoga instead of reaching for a drink. 
  • Talking about your problems. When you have meaningful relationships with others, it makes it easier to talk to them about your challenges. Doing this clears your mind, strengthens your connections with others and helps you cope with stress. 
  • Facing the problem. Sometimes, the best way to deal with stress is by facing it head on. Identify what is making you feel this way and find solutions that will help you feel better, such as attending a meeting, talking to a friend or going for a run. It might not make the problem go away, but it will help you deal with it in a healthier way. 

Develop Healthy Coping Skills 

Since each person is unique, it’s important to experiment with different coping skills. For instance, you may find that creative outlets like painting, listening to music or journaling offer you the most relief. Someone else may benefit more from being outdoors and physically active. This is why it’s best to keep an open mind and try a variety of healthy coping techniques to see which ones work for you. 

At Recovery Cove, we offer both evidence-based and holistic therapies to help individuals heal from substance use disorders. Stress is a main trigger for substance use, which is why it’s important to manage it successfully. Between evidence-based therapies and holistic therapies, our clients are able to build resilience and self-esteem before transitioning to everyday life. 

To learn more about starting your path to healing and recovery, contact Recovery Cove at 484-549-COVE.