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Face-it Versus Escapist Coping Strategies

Reducing stress in ways that encourage or discourage seeing straight

No matter how you cut it or how fortunate you’ve been, life is inherently stressful. There’s no stress-free comfort zone for any of us. It’s a rickety ride, this thing called life, and it usually doesn’t end well, which is stress enough for all of us.

So we all find coping strategies. We may not realize that we have them. They may work so efficiently that we don’t notice them. Still, they’re in there, working away for us, keeping us afloat atop life’s choppy seas.

All coping strategies are not created equal. An overlooked distinction worth making is between coping strategies that do and don’t alter our ability to think and see straight, to face our reality without flinching.

There are face-it and escapist coping strategies. Face-it strategies supply us with the calm fortitude to face our reality more realistically. Escapist strategies encourage us to ignore the features of our reality that induce stress.

Drugs and alcohol are commonly viewed as escapist strategies since they alter our outlook and make it easy to ignore our reality. Mostly though, they alter one’s ability to admit the harsh reality that we’re addicted to them.

And not all drugs are created equal either. Some drugs aren’t very addictive and don’t actually inhibit facing your reality. Nicotine, coffee, and pot, for some, can reduce stress in ways that encourage facing life’s ups and downs realistically and with greater equanimity.

The most escapist coping strategies tend to come bundled with optimistic, absolute-faith philosophies, religious, spiritual, political or otherwise. Faith is coping by hoping, embracing an optimistic belief that things will work out the way that your philosophy predicts they will. These reduce stress by narrowing your perspective, coping by hoping, and as a result, by noping, saying “Nope, I won’t look at that. Nope, I don’t have to listen to you. Nope, I’ll cling to my faith and ignore everything that counters it.”

Accentuating the positive means eliminating the negative.

You’ve seen this coping, hoping, noping strategy at play, for example in know-it-alls, fanatics, fundamentalists or cult-members. They reduce stress by already having answers to life’s big questions. Such confident belief makes them feel hopeful about themselves and their prospects. Such people say a whole lot of “nope,” in response to challenges and contradictory evidence.

For contrast, compare coping strategies like exercising, gardening, meditating, dancing, shopping, playing music or video games, watching TV or taking walks in nature. With these, you alleviate stress and lift your spirits but not through a commitment to a belief system that can blind you to inconvenient truths. If they come bundled with a philosophy, for example, yoga classes with a spiritual message, the philosophy is usually optional and fuzzy, not likely to blind you much if at all.

Then there’s togetherness as a coping strategy. Belonging to a community or even just a family or partnership can reduce stress. Is togetherness face-it or escapist? It depends. An honest, safe partner may help you face reality. A mutual admiration society built around commitment to a philosophy will tend to encourage escape. We all know people who have to bite their tongues and therefore close their minds in order to keep the peace within their community. Partnerships can be like that too, the opposite of face-it, peace of mind through a tacit agreement not to touch on the touchier topics.

Feeling like you belong can make you feel like you don’t need anything more. That’s togetherness as a substitute, something to hold on to instead of facing reality. Or feeling like you belong can be like a net under the tightrope of life. You can take risks, knowing that if you fall, there will be people to catch you.

Obviously, there are advantages to face-it coping strategies. They afford us better range of motion, wider peripheral vision which helps us face oncoming threats from any direction.

But they’re not for everyone. Some people are so sensitive or have such stressful lives that they need an escapist strategy. Many people live in places where it’s hard to escape the escapist strategies, for example, countries and cultures where a fundamentalist dogma is everywhere and obligatory.

And all of us are escapist to some degree. It’s not as though anyone can afford to look squarely at every dark feature of reality.

Still, if you’re among the lucky ones who have the freedom and fortitude to choose your coping strategies, you’ll be happier (and healthier company for others) in the long run if you choose strategies that free and even encourage you to face what’s true. Shunning the unpleasant is a dangerous way to live. Shunning it proudly because you have faith that you already know it all is especially dangerous.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D., MPP
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