Anxiety, Bipolar, Depression, Mental Illness, PTSD

3 Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms to Avoid

By Caitlin B. 

Living with mental illness can be difficult, particularly if you aren’t receiving treatment. To get through the day, many of us develop a variety of strategies for coping with our mental illness. These strategies help keep our pain at bay and let us perform everyday tasks as best we can.

Unfortunately, these coping mechanisms are often unhealthy. They may even be self-destructive. A critical part of getting treatment for mental illness involves learning to let go of these unhealthy coping mechanisms. Then you learn to replace them with safer techniques.

That can be harder than it sounds! But it’s work that’s worth doing.

The dangers of unhealthy coping mechanisms

A friend of mine once compared her unhealthy coping mechanisms to having a broken leg. She had become used to this “broken leg” and had learned to avoid doing anything that put pressure on it.

That’s a coping strategy that seems sensible in the short term. After all, using a broken limb hurts. It’s easy to tell yourself that you’re just not using that broken limb because it’s injured. You want to avoid damaging it further.

But what happens if you leave the bone broken and get in the habit of ignoring it? The leg only gets weaker and weaker. In time, you might not be able to walk on it at all. Some of the damage could even be irreversible.

That’s why it’s so important to get proper treatment for mental illness. A doctor or therapist can help “set” your broken limb. They can also offer healthy, productive strategies for rehabilitation. Remember that the goal in treatment isn’t just to repair any catastrophic damage, like that “broken bone.” The true goal of mental health treatment is to get you back up on your feet and moving around again.

Part of this rehabilitation may involve learning to reuse your “broken leg” in a way that’s painful. Letting go of the coping mechanisms you’ve been using as a crutch can be difficult, too. But if you’re serious about treatment, you’ll need to take a close look at your coping strategies. You must decide whether these strategies are truly helping your recovery.  

How can you know if your coping mechanisms are healthy? The easiest thing to do is to ask your therapist or medical provider. But check out these three common unhealthy coping mechanisms, and see if your strategy made the list.


Pain isn’t fun. Neither is embarrassment or insecurity or fear. We all instinctively avoid anything that hurts or frightens us. It’s no surprise, then, that many of us put off dealing with mental health issues for as long as we can.

Recovery takes time and effort. It demands supreme patience. No doubt about it: it’s hard to do things that are painful and uncomfortable. It’s particularly discouraging when you’re putting in the work but you don’t see an immediate payoff. But real recovery only happens when you take action to change your circumstances.

As I pursue my own recovery, an idea that’s been helpful for me is the concept of “swallowing the frog.” In this colorful metaphor, suppose that you have to swallow a frog sometime during the day. When is the best time to do this?

As soon as possible, of course! Once you’ve got the unpleasant task out of the way, you can enjoy the rest of your day. To put this technique into action in your life, figure out what task you’re tempted to avoid or put off. Then make a commitment to perform that task as soon as you start your day. I’ve been amazed to find out how much more relaxed I am when I don’t have an awful “frog” hanging over me all day long!

Substance use

Substance abuse issues and mental health conditions have a high comorbidity. That means that people who suffer from one are more likely to suffer from the other.

It’s difficult for researchers to know why this is. It’s possible that the neurochemical imbalances in the brain which cause mental illness can also cause addiction. But it’s also true that many people with mental health issues report using drugs and alcohol to self-medicate.

It can be tempting for a person with anxiety to use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves down or to feel less fearful. A person with depression might also turn to drugs as a way of improving their mood or easing their unhappiness. 

But this is a coping mechanism that can have serious consequences for your health. If you’re mixing medications with drugs or alcohol, you might even be risking your life.

Just as critically, substance use isn’t a permanent solution to any problem. It may provide temporary relief from unpleasant symptoms but it doesn’t do anything to address the underlying causes. Addictive substances are also difficult to quit. The more you use them, the more you need to use them to achieve the same feelings of relief.

Giving up alcohol, cigarettes, or any other type of substance can be challenging. If you suffer from mental illness, it can be particularly difficult to learn to manage your mental illness without your “crutch.”

But remember, there comes a time where you have to start exercising that broken leg if you want it to heal properly. If you think that your substance use may be interfering with your recovery, a doctor or therapist can help you figure out what steps to take.

Overeating or overspending

When we’re not feeling very good about ourselves, it’s tempting to seek out something we know will make us feel better. That’s why so many people turn to alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs.

But pleasure-seeking behavior doesn’t always take the form of substance use. Many of us splurge on expensive shoes or reach for a double cheeseburger for exactly this reason. Pleasurable experiences cause our brains to release neurochemicals and hormones that can cheer us up…temporarily. But the high doesn’t last forever. Most of us wind up feeling worse than ever once we check our bank balance or toss another empty pizza box in the trash.

Many people in recovery for substance abuse issues are familiar with the acronym HALT. It encourages them to ask themselves if they are about to use because they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. By using this technique, individuals learn to ask themselves why they want something. They also reflect on whether there’s a healthier way to satisfy that craving.

This technique can be tremendously helpful even for those without substance use issues. If you find yourself itching to splurge your way out of a bad mood, consider the other ways you might help yourself feel better. Try calling up a friend, going for a walk, taking a hot bath, or simply getting a good night’s sleep.

The hard work of healing

Learning to re-think your lifelong coping strategies is hard work. Often, we don’t realize how deeply entrenched our bad habits are until we try to change them. It can also be tempting to stick with what we know: even if our current coping mechanisms aren’t making us very happy or healthy, they’re familiar. Letting go of these behaviors and adopting new ones is scary stuff!

But recovery requires leaps of faith. Once you take steps to heal that “broken leg,” you may realize you’ve spent years hobbling around when you could have been running free. Learning new and healthy coping strategies is the first step toward a brighter future.

What tricks, strategies, or coping mechanisms do you rely on? Are there any unhealthy coping mechanisms you’ve struggled to give up? Let us know in the comments below!

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