Over many years of delivering resilience and wellbeing services, we have helped thousands of people to learn new ways of coping. The skills and strategies that we teach give people the tools they need to survive, recover and thrive, even in the most challenging situations. But teaching new skills is not the whole story. Often our work focuses on helping people to recognise and let go of unhelpful coping.
This may seem like a contradiction in terms. Surely anything we do to cope is a good thing? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. In order to build resilience, we need to recognise when our normal ways of coping are not serving us and find new ways of managing.
What goes wrong with coping
As infants we are born with inbuilt survival mechanisms. These mechanisms have evolved to ensure we have the best chance of enduring through life. They drive us to adapt to our circumstances and to find the best ways of getting our needs met.
As we progress through our lives these inbuilt mechanisms help us to naturally find ways of coping. And when we find a coping strategy that works, whether it helps us to get our basic needs met, to calm our emotions, to feel more powerful or to take back control, we tend to hang onto it.
Unfortunately, whilst these ways of coping may be helpful initially, they can become unhelpful if we overuse them or apply them in the wrong situations. When this happens we can experience more stress and conflict in our lives, create new problems or exacerbate existing difficulties. Our relationships with others can also be affected, leaving us feeling isolated and unable to access the support we need.
As we continue to hold onto old coping strategies long after their use-by date, a block or defence is created. This occurs when we use the strategies to avoid, escape or ignore the difficulties we are facing, or when we overuse coping strategies without reflecting on their impact on our own stress levels and on those around us. In this way our coping becomes unhelpful. And this can undermine our ability to survive, recover and thrive.
Coping as armour
When we feel threatened, we often respond with fight or flight behaviours. We use strategies to protect ourselves from threat just as we might use a suit of armour. Armouring up in this way may reduce the risk of harm to ourselves, but may also lead to some unintended consequences.
In a battle, a suit of armour protects you from attack. However, it may also hinder you in many ways. For example, you might be prevented from moving freely and it might be harder to communicate as the protection shields your face. Your vision and hearing might be restricted, reducing your ability to make an accurate appraisal of the situation. Armour is very heavy, and this will hamper your ability to either fight or flee.
Similarly, our long established coping strategies aimed at protecting us from the challenges and pressures of life, might actually prevent us from responding effectively to these threats.
How to recognise unhelpful coping: Common forms of armour
Expecting ourselves and others to perform at an unrealistically high level. We all want to perform at our best. But when we set unattainable standards, and inevitably those standards aren’t achieved, we feel frustrated with ourselves and annoyed with others. We may criticise ourselves for not being good enough or blame others for getting it wrong. This raises stress levels and reduces our resilience.
Reducing our lives to a list of to-do’s or tasks aimed at preparing for every eventuality. Taking action in the face of a problem or difficulty can help us to feel that we are taking charge. But it is impossible to control everything. If we try to do so we lose a sense of wider purpose and flexibility. We become locked into tasks and lose creativity and interest. Our enjoyment of life and work declines as we continually try to control everything. And when we are unable to keep control of it all, we end up feeling like we are in chaos, causing stress and anxiety.
Engaging in behaviours that numb negative emotions is a form of avoidance. These behaviours might include over-eating, shopping, drinking alcohol, playing video games, using social media or even overworking. In small doses these activities can help us to relax, find enjoyment or feel we are on top of things. But when overused they prevent us from building confidence to manage negative emotions. Numbing also blunts positive emotions over the longer term and can prevent us from connecting with what is really important in our lives.
Withdrawing & avoiding
Cutting ourselves off from our social support networks undermines our ability to cope. When we feel overwhelmed our hobbies and relationships are often the first things to be dropped. It might feel like we are managing, but when we withdraw in this way, we lose touch with the activities that maintain our emotional wellbeing and we end up feeling more stressed. In work we might withdraw from tasks by avoiding, procrastinating and putting things off, but this stores up problems that will resurface further down the line.
Over-focus on the negative
Linked to catastrophic thinking, here we become focused on the negative as a way of trying to control for the ‘what ifs’. We might ruminate, going over and over the same unsolvable problems, asking ‘why me’, ‘why does this always happen to us’. Fearing complacency, we may dismiss successes using phrases like ‘pride comes before a fall’. Commonly this over-focus on the negative feels protective but can cause us to lose sight of our successes. The sense of pride or enjoyment that comes with celebrating the good things is lost as we move from one negative mindset to another.
Cynicism and sarcasm
When we feel out of control, we might use cynicism or sarcasm to try and regain control. This armour often reflects underlying feelings of powerlessness or despair. It can feel safer and more empowering to project difficult emotions onto others by blaming or criticising them, than to acknowledge that we ourselves are feeling threatened. This way of coping, however, destroys trust and pushes others away. It can lead to feelings of isolation, increase our stress levels and leave us lacking support when we need it most.
How to let go of unhelpful coping
- The key to letting go of unhelpful coping is to notice it. Try to identify which coping strategies you are using that are unhelpful. Are you armouring up? When do you do this? What are your triggers?
- Try to understand the unintended negative consequences your normal ways of coping might have. The impact might be on our own stress levels or on the people around you.
- Ask yourself if this way of coping is helping you to stay resilient or making you feel more stressed.
- If it is unhelpful, try stepping back. Take a moment’s time out. Allow yourself to make a full appraisal of the situation and identify whether there are more helpful or adaptive ways of responding.
Taking time to reflect on your ways of coping will help you banish unhelpful behaviours and create a toolkit of strategies that builds strength, wellbeing and resilience.