The Problem with Coping Skills

While coping skills can make you feel better now, their long-term side effects may not be worth it


When people first start therapy, I usually ask them what they hope to get out of our work together.

Nine times out of ten, their answer is some version of this:

I want some tools and coping strategies to deal with my anxiety/depression/anger/etc.

This is understandable. When you cut your finger chopping vegetables, you put a Band-Aid on it. When you get a headache, you take some Tylenol. And when you feel stressed, you take a hot bath or do some deep breathing exercises.

It makes sense, then, that when people develop more significant emotional struggles, they would show up to therapy asking for the bigger, stronger version of their coping strategies.

Because we’ve been trained to think of health as the absence of disease, we don’t really think about our health until something’s wrong—at which point we expect a pill, technique, surgical intervention, mantra, or some other coping strategy to make things better.

While this may work for the occasional scraped knee or headache, I’d like to suggest that coping is not an optimal approach to health—physical, emotional, or otherwise. But more than that, the overarching attitude of coping often leads to the exact opposite of its intended effect—emotional fragility and increased long-term suffering.

Of Gunshots and Paper Cuts

Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with a Band-Aid per se. If your problem is a simple scraped knee, coping with it by applying a bandage is a perfectly reasonable path toward health.

Unfortunately, most health problems—especially mental health problems—are rarely as simple as a scraped knee.

Suppose you wake up one morning feeling anxious and on edge. There’s no obvious cause or trigger for anxiety, so you brush it off and hop in the shower. But 30 minutes later as you’re making coffee, you realize the anxiety’s still there, and maybe a tad worse than it had been earlier.

So you reach into your “tool belt” of coping strategies and apply one: Maybe you pop a Xanax or throw a few shots of whiskey into your coffee; maybe you do a deep breathing technique or some mindfulness meditation for a few minutes; or maybe you flip through your notes from your last therapy session trying to recall that insightful quip about anxiety from your therapist.

Any one of these coping strategies may well “work” to alleviate your anxiety. But whether it genuinely works or not in the long-run depends on the nature of the problem itself.

Is your morning anxiety a random occurrence, like the occasional headache or paper cut? Perhaps. In which case, your coping skill may be a fine solution.

But what if it’s more than that? What if your anxiety isn’t a problem itself, but instead, a symptom of a deeper problem?

What if by trying to fix the emotion with a coping skill you’re actually shooting the messenger and ignoring the message?

Paper cuts and gunshot wounds are superficially similar in the sense of bleeding. But you don’t have to be an MD to realize they are actually completely different problems requiring completely different solutions.

While a little burst of nervousness or low mood doesn’t necessarily point to deeper emotional issues, it would be foolish to assume that they never do. Unfortunately, the coping skills approach to mental health encourages us to do just that.

The problem with coping skills is the mindset they foster.

To see the problem with coping skills, you have to look beyond the obvious and start to see second-order effects.

Superficially, a little deep breathing may help you feel less anxious. But the longer-term effect of coping with your anxiety is the message you’re reinforcing: that the solution to feeling bad emotionally is to do something that makes you feel good now.

Unfortunately, this is almost never the case.

The most effective treatment for most anxiety problems is exposure therapy, which means deliberately exposing yourself to the thing you’re afraid of in order to recalibrate your brain’s threat-detection mechanisms.

One of the most effective treatments for depression is behavioral activation, which means forcing yourself to do pleasurable or meaningful activities despite not feeling motivated to do so.

Much like addressing a gunshot wound means doing a painful surgery before the wound can truly heal, most emotional struggles require feeling worse before you can feel better.

Digging into the root cause of your morning anxiety may be painful. Perhaps your morning anxiety before work is actually a symptom of spending years and decades of your life doing something you don’t like and don’t find meaningful?

Coping with that anxiety with a little mindfulness meditation is like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It might stop the bleeding for a minute or two, but at best you’re just kicking the can down the road. Unfortunately, it’s actually worse than that.

The more we therapists and mental health professionals push coping skills as a solution to emotional difficulties, the more we engender a coping skills theory of mental health in our clients. The second-order effect is that we train people to avoid searching for underlying root causes of their suffering. By emphasizing coping skills and the alleviation of short-term emotional pain, we ironically lead out clients toward emotional ignorance and long-term suffering.

How often do you use your emergency brake?

To be clear, I think coping skills have their place.

My concern is that precisely because they’re often an effective way to feel better now, they will lead to feeling far worse in the future.

Put another way, I think we easily become addicted to coping skills. And like most forms of addiction, while they feel good in the moment, the self-deception they can engender often leads to tragic long-term effects.

Like your car’s emergency brake, coping skills are good to have but should be used sparingly—and rarely relied upon.

29 Comments

Jen June 29, 2020 Reply

Solid Gold

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Thanks, Jen!

Thomas Kane June 29, 2020 Reply

Nick, I have suffered from Depression and anxiety for most of my life but once again you are right on the mark. Thank you for your thoughtful approach to the issues I deal with daily.

Nick Wignall June 30, 2020 Reply

You’re very welcome, Thomas!

Vivienne Wray June 29, 2020 Reply

I have been long-term depressed but your advice is always nail on the head type and as I am feeling receptive to clear instruction I’ve decided to set myself the challenge of completing at least 1 exposure task and 1+ behavioral activities daily..Thankyou.

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

You’re very welcome, Vivienne. Glad it was helpful!

Jason Jones July 1, 2020 Reply

Vivienne, thank you for sharing this. I plan to try this as well.

Ronny Whaley June 29, 2020 Reply

Thank you, I needed to read this

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

You’re welcome, Ronny!

Devendra June 29, 2020 Reply

The root cause after prolonged anxiety morphs into a habit pattern despite root cause losing its vitality.

Stephen Pearce June 29, 2020 Reply

I have to say, Nick your writings are thought provoking and helpful. So many counsellors do what you are warning against ie they suggest an over-use of sticking plasters like mindfulness. I suppose the question is what else to do? To that end it might be useful for people to know about behavioural activation.

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Thanks, Stephen. Yeah, this was more of a Think-different piece than a how-to.

I think the basic answer, though, is habits.

For example, mindfulness meditation as an occasional coping strategy is not all that helpful. But mindfulness meditation as a daily habit can be immensely beneficial for mental health.

Mike June 29, 2020 Reply

This was unique and excellent.

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Thank you, Mike!

Pat June 29, 2020 Reply

I find that once we just get and do; the anxiety subsides. Thank you for reminding me.

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

You bet, Pat!

Annie K June 29, 2020 Reply

Would you conflate or differentiate coping skills and “self-care”? I’m thinking of exercise, hobbies that (for a depressed person) might constitute behavioral activation but also distract from and take time from sitting with ourselves.

I still look forward to every Monday! Thank you.

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Thanks, Annie! And yeah, to me, self-care is a set of regular activities that promote one’s mental health.

I think the consistency part is key.

It’s consistent habits and exercises that have the most benefit to our mental health compared to one-off strategies that we implement only when we need them.

Lynda June 29, 2020 Reply

Hi Nick,
I like the way you think …. regarding removing the bullet rather than put a band aid on the problem.
My anger problems have never been resolved.. my anger has turned into rage… the montra from friends and family is .. oh “ just let go of it “
When a great injustice has been done to you by a parent … it can seem impossible to “ just let go” after years of therapy….. I have just given up…
I feel rage on a daily basis….. awful huh? And yes I use coping Strategies
Daily.

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Hey Lynda,

Yeah, I don’t love “let it go” as advice because it implies that a single decision or action should suffice to lessen our suffering.

In my experience, if something awful happens to you, you will always feel some amount of hurt and anger over it.

Chloe Park June 29, 2020 Reply

I appreciate your messages! What would be some examples of “behavioral activation” that we should force ourselves to do? Thanks~

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Thanks, Chloe. With behavioral activation, the specific activity is less important I think than the concept behind it which is that we should do healthy things regularly despite how we feel—motivated or unmotivated, energetic or lethargic.

The question is, what are the activities that normally “fill my tank” and how can I design a system that ensures that I continue to engage in those activities even when I don’t “feeel it.”?

Alyssa June 29, 2020 Reply

Hi Nick – I just came across your blog a few days ago and wanted to let you know that reading your articles has already helped me so much with my getting my anxiety under control. I am so grateful – thank you for making the world a little better 🙂

Nick Wignall June 29, 2020 Reply

Awe, thanks Alyssa! So glad they’ve been helpful 🙂

Patty Carlson June 29, 2020 Reply

One of the challenges I face as a therapist is that people want you to alleviate their suffering quickly, so the “tips and tricks” approach is what they are pleading for. It is hard to break it to them (as I often do) that there are truly no shortcuts to mental health. We all have to do the work, including confronting fears, building healthy habits and staying with (mindfulness) our experiences. Once they get that, we can make real progress.

Nick Wignall June 30, 2020 Reply

Right! In some ways it a philosophy problem… Thinking clearly about mental health and how it works is often a precondition for making meaningful changes. Thanks Patty!

Jeab kelln June 30, 2020 Reply

Thank you Nick!

Nick Wignall June 30, 2020 Reply

You’re welcome!

Karan July 2, 2020 Reply

Your quote: “The question is, what are the activities that normally “fill my tank” and how can I design a system that ensures that I continue to engage in those activities even when I don’t “feeel it.”?”

What happens when all your daily “feel good” activities no longer work? I have done everything I have been told to do. I try to “fill my tank” everyday with things I enjoy. Within 30 minutes of finishing them I am back at either 12/10 hyper-vigilance or -12/10 depression. My activities include things I have always loved and some new stuff I find interesting too.

BTW. Not criticising. I love your blogs.

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