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Understanding and Choosing Better Coping Skills

You can change your mood without drugs.

ID 39899517 © Konstantin Yuganov |
Source: ID 39899517 © Konstantin Yuganov |

When it comes to better understanding and treating addiction, we can learn a lot by looking at a person’s coping mechanisms.

Conventional wisdom tells us that a certain number of negative experiences are just part of life. Things don’t always turn out like we hope they will; we are sometimes disappointed in ourselves and others. The question is not if you will go through hardship at one time or another in your life, but, rather, how you will handle it.

Coping mechanisms are skills we all have that allow us to make sense of our negative experiences and integrate them into a healthy, sustainable perspective of the world. When life gives us lemons, our coping skills help us see this as an opportunity to make lemonade. Without effective coping mechanisms, we can feel like a "lemon" ourselves, misinterpreting accidents or other people’s bad intentions to be a reflection of our own inadequacy.

Feeling bad about who you are and the world you live in is an especially difficult way to go through life. Anxiety over the future and our own well-being can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We go to an important job interview but are convinced there’s no way a future employer could want to hire us. When we don’t get the job, this confirms our negative perspective of the world and ourselves. Without the coping skills to convert disappointment over one missed opportunity into an increased resolve to land the job of our dreams, it’s easy to get stuck in a revolving door of letdown after letdown.

Like many things that make us human, there are both social and biological aspects to coping mechanisms. Growing up, we watch and learn from the adults around us as they model how to respond to everything from minor annoyances, like a build-up of dishes in the sink, to major crises, like losing a job or a home.

Perhaps the most important aspect of coping skills is that once a deficiency is brought to our attention, our coping skills can be learned and honed, or un-learned and replaced, to help us through even the toughest situations.

One of the most notorious coping mechanisms is substance abuse. Taking a drug is an easy way to prompt your body to dump feel-good neurotransmitters into your brain, creating a strong, but temporary, feeling of peace and security. As any addiction treatment professional can tell you, the long-term, negative effects of abusing substances as a way to cope with stress or numb ongoing pain far outweigh the short-term benefits.

There are other ways to manage moods and stress and deal with situations that are difficult which don’t require you to risk addiction. Physical activities like exercise have been shown to alter the brain’s chemistry for the better. Self-reflection and meditation, too, can create significant changes over time that leave you better prepared to handle disappointments.

Creative work from doodling to collages to making music to performance art can all go a long toward helping you bounce back from depression and anxiety. The key is to engage in activities that improve your overall health and/or relieve stress and help you get a better focus on the real issues at hand.

Healthy coping mechanisms can help you translate fear and ambiguity into a sense of calm confidence and inner peace. By setting yourself straight, you can act as a model for others in your circle of family and friends, encouraging those you love as they go through difficulties of their own.

More from Constance Scharff Ph.D.
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