Person sitting and thinking to help cope with what is happening in their life

What Are Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms?

8 min.

Understanding what unhealthy coping mechanisms are can help you develop healthier ones. Keep reading to learn more.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

May 24, 2023


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Table of Contents

Unhealthy coping mechanisms refer to often-harmful strategies that individuals adopt in an attempt to deal with stress, challenges, and difficult emotions. These coping mechanisms often provide temporary relief or distraction from the underlying issues, but they fail to address the root causes and can lead to negative consequences in the long term.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms are characterized by their ineffectiveness in promoting emotional well-being and their potential to exacerbate distress. They often perpetuate a cycle of negative emotions and contribute to a worsening of the situation. While these coping mechanisms may provide short-term relief, they tend to create additional problems and prevent individuals from finding sustainable solutions to their challenges.

What are some common and harmful unhealthy coping mechanisms?

Some common examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms include:

Substance abuse

Turning to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb emotions and escape reality can lead to addiction, physical health problems, and worsening mental health.

Excessive alcohol consumption

Relying on alcohol to cope with stress and difficult emotions can lead to dependence, impaired judgment, and a host of physical and mental health issues.

Emotional eating

Using food as a source of comfort or distraction from emotional distress can lead to weight gain, poor nutrition, and an unhealthy relationship with food.

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Engaging in self-injury, such as cutting or burning oneself, is a harmful coping mechanism that can provide temporary relief but poses serious risks to physical and mental well-being.


Withdrawing from social interactions and isolating oneself can prevent individuals from seeking support and exacerbate feelings of loneliness and despair.

Impulsive or risky behaviors

Engaging in impulsive actions or risky behavior, such as excessive spending, reckless driving, or unsafe sexual practices, can temporarily distract individuals from their problems but often lead to negative consequences and increased stress in the long run.

These unhealthy coping mechanisms are detrimental because they do not address the underlying issues that cause distress. Instead, they offer temporary relief or avoidance from intense emotions, which can further intensify emotional turmoil and hinder personal growth. It is important to recognize these unhealthy coping mechanisms and seek healthier alternatives to effectively manage stress and difficult emotions.

What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms?

The difference between healthy coping mechanisms and unhealthy coping mechanisms lies in their long-term effectiveness, impact on well-being, and ability to address the underlying causes of stress and difficult emotions.

Long-term effectiveness

Healthy coping mechanisms are sustainable strategies that provide lasting benefits and help individuals navigate challenges in a constructive manner. They promote emotional well-being, resilience, and personal growth. Unhealthy coping mechanisms, on the other hand, offer temporary relief or distraction without effectively addressing the root causes of distress. They tend to perpetuate a cycle of negative emotions and often lead to additional problems.

Impact on well-being

Healthy coping mechanisms contribute to overall well-being by reducing stress levels, improving emotional regulation, and fostering a sense of empowerment and control. They promote self-care, self-awareness, and healthy relationships. Unhealthy coping mechanisms may provide momentary relief, but they often result in negative consequences such as increased distress, physical harm, strained relationships, and worsening mental health.

Addressing underlying causes

Healthy coping mechanisms focus on understanding and addressing the root causes of stress, challenges, and difficult emotions. They encourage individuals to develop insight into their uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and actively work towards resolving or managing the underlying issues. Unhealthy coping mechanisms, in contrast, tend to avoid or suppress the underlying problems, offering temporary distractions or numbing effects. This avoidance prevents individuals from finding sustainable solutions and can prolong emotional distress.

Adaptive versus maladaptive

Healthy coping mechanisms are adaptive in nature, meaning they enable individuals to adapt to stressors and challenges effectively. They promote problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, and resilience. Unhealthy coping mechanisms, on the other hand, are maladaptive, as they hinder personal growth, exacerbate distress, and create additional problems.

Examples of healthy coping mechanisms include practicing mindfulness and meditation, engaging in regular physical exercise, seeking social support and talking to trusted individuals, journaling, pursuing hobbies and creative outlets, setting realistic goals, and adopting problem-solving techniques. These strategies help individuals address the underlying issues, build resilience, and develop healthier ways to manage stress and difficult emotions.

Someone isolating themself as a coping mechanism

What are some examples of adaptive coping strategies?

Adaptive coping strategies are healthy and effective ways to manage stress, challenges, and difficult emotions. These strategies promote emotional well-being, resilience, and personal growth. Here are some examples of adaptive coping strategies:

Mindfulness and meditation

Engaging in mindfulness practices, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, helps individuals focus on the present moment, cultivate self-awareness, and reduce stress levels. It promotes emotional regulation and helps individuals develop a calmer and more centered approach to challenges.

Physical exercise

Regular physical activity, such as jogging, yoga, or dancing, has numerous benefits for mental and emotional well-being. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood enhancers, and reduces stress and anxiety. It also promotes better sleep and overall physical health.

Seeking social support

Reaching out to trusted friends, family members, or support groups can provide a valuable source of comfort, guidance, and perspective. Sharing one’s thoughts and feelings with others can help alleviate stress, gain insights, and foster a sense of connection and belonging.


Writing down thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a journal can be a therapeutic and reflective practice. It allows individuals to process emotions, gain clarity, and identify patterns or triggers. Journaling can also serve as a creative outlet and a way to track personal growth.

Engaging in hobbies and creative outlets

Pursuing activities that bring joy and fulfillment, such as painting, playing a musical instrument, gardening, or cooking, can be excellent coping mechanisms. These activities provide a sense of accomplishment, relaxation, and distraction from stressors, allowing individuals to recharge and find inspiration.

Setting realistic goals

Breaking down overwhelming tasks or challenges into smaller, manageable goals can help reduce stress and increase motivation. Setting realistic and achievable goals provides a sense of direction, progress, and a feeling of control over one’s life.

Problem-solving techniques

Developing problem-solving skills enables individuals to approach challenges in a structured and strategic manner. This includes identifying the problem, brainstorming potential solutions, evaluating their effectiveness, and implementing the most appropriate course of action. Problem-solving techniques empower individuals to take control and actively address the underlying issues causing distress.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s coping strategies may vary, and it’s essential to find what works best for you. Experimenting with different adaptive coping strategies and tailoring them to your needs and preferences can help build a toolbox of effective methods for managing stress and difficult emotions.

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The importance of developing positive coping mechanisms

Developing positive coping mechanisms is vital for maintaining emotional well-being and navigating life’s challenges. Positive coping strategies provide healthy ways to manage stress and promote resilience. By engaging in these strategies, individuals can regulate their emotions effectively and prevent them from overwhelming their lives.

Positive coping mechanisms contribute to improved mental health outcomes. Activities like mindfulness, exercise, and creative outlets release endorphins and foster a positive mood. Seeking social support and practicing self-care activities enhance connection and self-worth, reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Engaging in positive coping mechanisms helps individuals develop problem-solving skills. They learn to assess situations, identify solutions, and make informed decisions, addressing the root causes of stress rather than resorting to avoidance or temporary fixes.

By actively practicing healthy coping strategies, individuals build resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity and adapt to change. Strengthening emotional resilience empowers individuals to face future challenges with confidence and resourcefulness, fostering personal growth.

Positive coping mechanisms also enhance relationships through seeking social support and effective communication. Nurturing supportive connections and expressing emotions constructively promote empathy, understanding, and improved conflict resolution skills.

Developing positive coping mechanisms empowers individuals to take control of their emotional well-being and personal growth. It fosters a sense of agency and self-efficacy, as individuals realize their ability to cope with challenges and make positive choices. This process supports personal development, insights, and cultivates a resilient mindset.

How do I know if my coping skills are healthy or unhealthy?

Assessing the healthiness of your coping skills is crucial for your overall well-being. To determine whether your coping skills are healthy or unhealthy, consider the following indicators.

Firstly, examine the effectiveness of your coping mechanisms. Healthy coping skills are effective in addressing the root causes of stress and difficult emotions. They provide genuine relief, help you navigate challenges, and promote emotional well-being in the long term. Unhealthy coping skills may provide temporary relief or distraction, but they fail to address the underlying issues and can perpetuate a cycle of negative emotions.

Secondly, evaluate the impact of your coping mechanisms on your well-being. Healthy coping skills contribute to improved mental and emotional health. They promote resilience, reduce stress levels, and enhance your overall sense of well-being. Unhealthy coping skills, conversely, may lead to negative consequences such as increased distress, impaired physical health, strained relationships, and worsening mental health.

Next, consider whether your coping mechanisms address the underlying causes of your distress. Healthy coping skills involve facing and processing difficult emotions, seeking resolutions to problems, and actively working towards personal growth. Unhealthy coping skills tend to avoid or suppress underlying issues, providing temporary relief without addressing the root causes. This avoidance prevents you from finding sustainable solutions and can perpetuate the cycle of distress.

Additionally, reflect on the long-term consequences of your coping mechanisms. Healthy coping skills promote personal growth, resilience, and improved relationships. They empower you to face challenges and develop effective problem-solving skills. Unhealthy coping skills, however, often lead to negative consequences, exacerbate distress, and hinder personal development.

Finally, trust your instincts and listen to your emotions. Pay attention to how your coping mechanisms make you feel. Healthy coping skills generally bring a sense of empowerment, relief, and improved emotional well-being. Unhealthy coping skills may provide temporary relief but leave you feeling empty, guilty, or trapped in a negative cycle.

It’s important to note that everyone may engage in both healthy and unhealthy coping skills from time to time. The key is to recognize any patterns of unhealthy coping and make a conscious effort to replace them with healthier alternatives. Seeking support from a mental health professional can also provide valuable guidance and insights into improving your coping methods. Remember, developing and practicing healthy coping skills is a continuous journey towards emotional well-being and personal growth.

Overcoming unhealthy coping mechanisms with Charlie Health

When it comes to overcoming unhealthy coping mechanisms, seeking professional support can be incredibly beneficial. Charlie Health is dedicated to helping individuals overcome these challenges and develop healthier coping strategies. 

Our team of expert, licensed clinicians is here to support teens, young adults, and families struggling with mental health. You are not alone. Charlie Health is here to listen to your needs and find a personalized treatment program that is right for you. Get started on your healing journey today.

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