In the last 20 years, two concepts have dominated mental health: trauma and coping.
Increasingly, trauma is being used by professionals and non-professionals alike as a way to explain the origins of just about every form of mental or emotional struggle, from severe depression and substance abuse to mild social anxiety and low self-confidence.
At the same time, the concept of coping dominates the treatment side of mental health. That is, whatever you struggle with, the solution is increasingly framed in terms of acquiring and utilizing coping skills to alleviate emotional pain or discomfort.
Superficially, there’s a lot to like about coping skills…
- They’re accessible and non-threatening
- There are a nearly infinite number and variety of them to choose from
- They’re usually positioned as simple and easy to use
- And unlike pharmacological treatments, they are (we’re told) free from side effects
Of course, appearances can be deceiving…
Despite their intuitive appeal and mass support among both professionals and lay people, coping skills and the approach to mental health they embody are profoundly unhelpful and anti-therapeutic.
But before we dive into why, let’s take a quick moment to define our terms and get on the same page about what we mean exactly by coping and coping skills…
What is coping, exactly?
Coping means that you use a specific behavior with the intent to immediately lessen or eliminate an uncomfortable emotional experience.
- As you board a plane, you start feeling anxious and panicky. To calm down, you start doing some mindfulness meditation in your seat as the plane takes off.
- You see an old friend at the grocery store who reminds you of your recently deceased partner. A wave of grief and sadness hits you. To cope with this feeling, you immediately call up a friend to distract from the sadness.
A coping skill (coping mechanism and coping technique are often used interchangeably with coping skill) is simply the idea that you can become especially proficient is a specific way of coping and use that to address a recurrent emotional struggle.
Importantly, it’s the intent behind the behavior—to immediately avoid or get rid of an uncomfortable feeling—that makes it coping, not the behavior or technique itself.
Mindfulness meditation, for example, can be used as a form of coping if it’s done with the intent to immediately eliminate or distract from a painful feeling like anxiety. But it doesn’t have to be… You might do mindfulness meditation as a regular practice with the intent of strengthening your attention, achieving spiritual insights, or expanding your self-awareness. In that case, it is not coping.
In short, just about any behavior can be used as a coping skill, but no behavior is one necessarily.
With this definition and distinction in mind, let’s briefly look at 3 specific reasons why coping does far more harm than good to your emotional health.
1. Coping skills don’t work
Okay, that’s not true, exactly… Sometimes coping does “work” in the short-term:
- A couple deep breaths might lower your stress in the moment
- Asking your spouse for reassurance after a rough day at work might temporarily give you relief from your anxiety
- Exercising as soon as you start feeling sad might distract you from your grief in the moment
The understandable appeal of coping skills is their short-term effect of alleviating emotional pain. But to claim that this immediate emotional relief is evidence of effectiveness is misguided.
Precisely because coping is aimed at the most superficial manifestation of your problem (how it feels in the moment), it can’t do the substantive work of addressing the problem itself…
- When you use deep breathing as a way to reduce stress in the moment, you’re avoiding the real problem, which is—for example—that you’re afraid of confrontation and can’t set healthy boundaries.
- When you ask your spouse for reassurance as a way to reduce anxiety in the moment, you’re not addressing the real problem, which is—for example—your habit of anxiety avoidance and chronic worry.
- When you use exercise to distract from sadness in the moment, you’re not addressing the real problem, which is—for example—not doing the work of grief, part of which requires the acceptance of sadness.
In other words…
Coping addresses the symptoms but not the cause of emotional suffering.
This is why the never-ending search for newer and better coping skills is ultimately so frustrating—each new coping skill seems to work initially, but in the long-run, the problem persists and typically grows because the root cause is never addressed—and often avoided.
This makes sense if you think about it: the more time and energy you spend coping, the less time and energy you have to confront and address the real causes of your difficulty.
So, while the emotional relief that comes with coping skills is not in and of itself a bad thing, the dependence on coping as a way of addressing emotional suffering never really works in any meaningful sense because it treats emotions as problems and ignores the true cause of the suffering.
2. Coping skills are addicting (and confidence-killing)
Addiction shows up in many different shapes and sizes… There are classic forms of addiction like dependence on alcohol and narcotics. But there are far more subtle forms of “everyday” addiction we all fall into like stress eating, overworking, or people-pleasing.
Despite this variety, works the same underneath the hood:
- Feel bad emotionally
- Get immediate relief from feeling bad with a problematic behavior
- Feel worse later because the negative effects of the problematic behavior far outweigh the short-term benefits
- And the cycle continues (and usually gets worse)….
Now, addiction has all kinds of costs, from physical health problems to broken relationships. But an underappreciated cost of addiction is how confidence-killing it is. Because all addictions are avoidance mechanisms for painful emotion, any kind of addiction quickly erodes confidence in your ability to manage difficult emotions well.
- If you “outsource” your stress to a bottle of wine each evening, your confidence in your own ability to manage stress (and the sources of that stress) well is going to deteriorate.
- If you “outsource” your shame to smoking weed every day, your confidence in your own ability to manage and overcome that shame is going to plummet.
The same dynamic happens when you get addicted to using coping as a way to deal with emotional pain:
- If you “outsource” your anxiety to mindful breathing any time you get anxious, your confidence in your own ability to deal with anxiety is going to crash.
- If you “outsource” your sadness to exercise any time your grief pops up, your confidence in your ability to manage sadness (and work through your grief in a healthy way) is going to tank.
Keep in mind, it’s not that mindful breathing or exercise (or even alcohol) are bad intrinsically. It’s the way you use them… If you use them to avoid a painful feeling, you’re eliminating the opportunity to practice tolerating and accepting that feeling. Consequently, you become less confident dealing with that feeling in the future and end up “needing” your coping mechanism even more—that’s addiction.
The key insight here is that, despite how they feel, painful emotions are not an enemy to be avoided or fixed. But the more you treat them that way—by compulsively coping with them—the more they will feel like it, and the more fearful and emotionally fragile you will become.
3. Coping skills interfere with emotional strength
Emotions are not bad…
- No matter how acute, anxiety will not hurt you.
- No matter how painful, grief is not dangerous.
- And no matter how intense, anger is not toxic.
Of course, emotions like fear or sadness don’t feel good. But to assume that because something feels bad means it is bad—that it needs to be avoided, minimized, or “fixed”—is a recipe for suffering…
- What would happen to your primary relationship if you avoided every difficult conversation because it felt bad to bring it up?
- What would happen to your physical health if you didn’t exercise because to do so felt uncomfortable?
- What would happen to your finances if you never saved money because it didn’t feel good?
In every aspect of life, there is the temptation to sacrifice long-term health and happiness for short-term pleasure and relief. And that’s precisely what happens when you adopt a coping mindset—you sacrifice future emotional strength for present emotional relief.
- If you constantly avoid your anxiety by coping with it, you teach your brain that to feel anxious is dangerous, which only leads to anxiety about anxiety, and as a result, much more anxiety overall in the future.
- If you habitually try to “fix” your shame by coping with it, you teach your brain that shame is bad, which only leads to anxiety and shame about your shame, and as a result, much more shame overall in the future.
The alternative is to use emotional discomfort as an opportunity to build emotional strength and resilience.
- When you are willing to tolerate your anxiety without trying to lessen or eliminate it, you teach your brain that—no matter how painful—anxiety isn’t dangerous. As a result, you become more confident and less anxious in the face of future anxiety.
- When you are willing to accept your shame without trying to fix or avoid it, you teach your brain that—no matter how painful—shame isn’t dangerous. As a result, you become stronger and more confident in the face of shame in the future.
In every aspect of life, health and happiness come from the willingness to do the right thing despite it often feeling uncomfortable. And this is just as true in your emotional life as it is your physical, financial, social, or spiritual life.
But the coping mindset robs you of the opportunity to do this. By convincing you that you shouldn’t feel bad, the coping mindset fragilizes you and deprives you of the opportunity to build true emotional strength and resilience, which, in the long-run, is the only way to begin addressing the real causes of your suffering.
The ability to tolerate and accept painful emotion is a precondition for addressing the root causes of your suffering. But you’ll never get there if you’re always coping.
If coping is such a bad idea, what are we supposed to do instead?
Acceptance is the alternative to coping.
To accept a painful emotion means two things:
- You validate it, which means reminding yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
- You are willing to have that emotion and continue on with life despite feeling that way, a process I call emotional endurance.
While relatively simple, acceptance is far from easy. But it’s much more doable than most people realize. Especially if you treat it like you would the development of any other skill in life: Start small and progressively work your way up to bigger and more challenging goals as you develop competence and confidence.
For example: If you really struggle to accept rather than cope with panic attacks, practice validating and accepting small bits of anxiety—a minor worry about what someone thinks of you at the grocery store, for example, or feeling nervous before speaking up during a meeting.
That sounds good but I don’t know where to start?
If the message of this article resonates—that the coping mindset is actually counterproductive when it comes to your emotional health—and you want to get better at managing difficult emotions in a healthy and sustainable way, here are a few practical recommendations:
- Practice emotional validation. Once you build the habit of validating (rather than avoiding or criticizing) your emotions, it becomes much easier to stop coping with them and start accepting them instead.
- Put together a simple emotional fitness routine. Just like with physical strength, emotional strength comes from consistent exercise. So the more time you spend building emotional strength, the more equipped you will be to manage difficult emotions instead of needing to avoid them with coping skills.
- Work with me. Twice a year, I take a small handful of students through a 5-week program called Mood Mastery where I teach my step-by-step approach to building emotional strength and resilience.