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