5 Categories of Coping Mechanisms

Most people have probably heard of the term “coping mechanism,” which can loosely be described as “something to help someone get through a difficult time, experience, or emotion.” Different coping mechanisms work better for some people than they do others, but I’d also like to shed some light on how we might need different kinds of coping mechanisms based on what we need in that moment.

When I think of the different categories of coping mechanisms, there are five major ones that come to mind: physical, processing, relaxation, distraction, and wallowing.  

Physical: This might be for those who feel so anxious they just need to “work it out,” or those who feel so angry they just need to scream. Physical coping mechanisms are best when you need to “get it out” of your system or “shake it off.” Examples may include going for a walk, going for a run, boxing with a punching bag, screaming, or dancing. 

Processing: I would define processing coping mechanisms as the things that allow us to reflect directly upon that which is bothering us. Examples might include talking over the issue (as well as our thoughts and feelings about it) with a friend, family member, or other trusted individual like a therapist. Processing can also be done individually through journaling, talking about it out loud to ourselves (this might seem silly, awkward, or strange to others, but I promise that it can be a very effective way of coping for some people), or just sitting and thinking directly about the issue. 

Relaxation: Sometimes we are stressed and anxious about a situation, and we need to physically (and mentally) relax ourselves. This can be done by various means including yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, listening to calming music, taking a bath, coloring, drawing, or any other positive activity that you find relaxing. 

Distraction: Sometimes you just need a break from whatever it is that is bothering you. In some ways the opposite of processing is distraction. Examples may include binge watching a favorite TV show, going out with friends, watching videos on YouTube, scrolling through the various pages of social media, gardening, shopping, cooking, cleaning… anything that helps you to give your mind a break the current issue/stressor.  

Wallowing: Sometimes, we just need to sit in our sadness or just feel our feelings. This might include being sad, crying, watching sad movies or listening to sad music, laying in bed and doing nothing. It’s important not to get “stuck” in this “mode” for too long, but sometimes it’s important to “feel the feels,” even if they aren’t good ones. 

If you find yourself upset about a situation and in need of a coping mechanism, think about what you need in that moment. Do you need to directly process what’s going on, or do you need a distraction from it? Are you physically worked up about it and need to “get it our of your system” or would you feel better by relaxing your body? Once you identify what you need in that moment, you’ll be better able to identify the best specific coping mechanism that you need in that moment. 

Written by: Lauren Buetikofer, MA, LCPC


Now more than ever, addiction is taking its toll all across the country and world.  It seems impossible to turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without seeing another accident, injury or death attributed to mind altering substances.  In Illinois alone, 5500 people die from the disease of addiction every year (http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=31787). When I say that phrase, the “disease of addiction”, I sometimes get strange looks.  I will get the familiar reply that addiction is a choice and that it’s easy to stop. Many will attribute addiction to moral failures in an individual or a lack of willpower. Scientists and medical professionals have made great strides in the last several decades in identifying addiction for what it is: a disease.  It is not unlike other diseases such as diabetes or certain forms of cancer. Like other diseases, addiction can be attributable to many different factors, such as environment, life choices, genetic predisposition, and peer pressures. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t necessarily matter how an addict or alcoholic got the point they are at, the fact is that they are there.  There are many ways that the symptoms of addiction can be treated and it’s best to “keep it simple”.

In my experience as an addiction counselor and therapist, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be successful in recovery if done alone.  A therapist is a good first step, but ultimately, I insist on my client connecting with either a 12 step program (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.) or through other types of support groups.  What addicts and alcoholics have known for almost 100 years is that talking with fellow addicts and alcoholics keeps them clean. Going further than that, many of these support groups emphasize a connection to one’s “higher power”.  I have met with many people that decline to attend many support groups because they are not spiritual or religious people. What I discuss with my clients is that a higher power does not necessarily have to be based on religion or spirituality.  A higher power is something or someone that is outside of yourself and something that helps you stay clean. I have known people to consider their pets, children and spouses to be their higher power.

Beyond that, an addict or alcoholic can work on boundaries, communication, accountability, and other factors that addiction often erodes in a person's life.  Can a person cease to be an addict or alcoholic? Research shows that for the most part, that’s not possible. Contrary to what some flashy commercials will claim, science has shown that once you have the disease, you have it forever.  Our goal is not to cure the disease, but to treat and manage the symptoms. Treating and managing the symptoms of addiction is what it means to be in recovery. Through treatment and hard work, you can become an addict/alcoholic in recovery and join the ranks of millions of people who have reclaimed their lives from this awful disease.  

As a therapist, my job includes connecting clients to proper support style groups and services as well as education about these services.  Further, education about the disease of addiction as well as learning about what triggers the client to use is incredibly helpful. Ultimately, the goal is for the client to learn coping skills that they can use when confronted with triggers and to maintain links to the recovery community.  As many people in the recovery community say, “It works if you work it!”.


When does "normal" anxiety become a actual mental health illness?

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