Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/8/2022
We all face ups and downs in life. When things just don’t seem to be going your way, knowing how to cope with your thoughts and emotions can help you to stay focused and avoid allowing the stresses and frustration of life to get to you.
A coping mechanism is any kind of technique that you use to deal with difficult situations. You may need to cope after suffering a setback, losing a person close to you or missing out on an important opportunity.
While some coping mechanisms are healthy and productive, others can make problems worse and prevent you from effectively dealing with stressful events.
Below, we’ve explained how coping mechanisms work. We’ve also shared eight healthy coping mechanisms that you can use when you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, as well as several unhealthy coping mechanisms that are best avoided.
Everyone faces stressful situations from time to time. As humans, we deal with the stressful or difficult aspects of daily life by mobilizing thoughts and behaviors -- a process that’s referred to as coping.
Coping can occur reactively or proactively. Reactive coping occurs after a stressful event. For example, you may engage in reactive coping by accepting the end of a relationship or the loss of your job.
Proactive coping occurs in anticipation of a future stressful event. For example, you might look at stress as a form of productive arousal and take action to improve yourself to deal with issues that may occur in your future.
Problem-focused coping. This type of coping addresses a problem that causes or contributes to stress. For example, you might cope with workplace stress by leaving your current job and replacing it with one that’s less harmful to your mental well-being.
Emotion-focused coping. This type of coping addresses the negative emotions that can develop in stressful situations. For example, you may cope with the loss of a friend or family member by trying to accept the situation.
Meaning-focused coping. This type of coping involves finding meaning in stressful or difficult situations. For example, you might view a negative situation as one that offers you an important lesson or provides the opportunity for personal growth.
Social coping. This type of coping involves seeking emotional or instrumental support from other people, such as your friends, family or other members of your community.
There’s no shame in coping with difficult situations. Everyone does it, and it’s an important part of keeping yourself mentally healthy.
However, it’s important to cope with the difficult aspects of life in a way that’s good for your well-being.
Because people’s lives, personalities and priorities can vary dramatically, there’s no single best way to cope with every difficult situation.
However, research does suggest that certain common coping mechanisms are more likely to produce beneficial outcomes than others.
Below, we’ve listed eight healthy coping mechanisms that you can use to successfully deal with stress, anxiety, depression and other difficulties that can occur in life.
Exercise is one of the best methods for dealing with anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness.
Not only can exercise distract you from troubling emotions and prevent rumination -- it can also promote the release of natural chemicals called endorphins, which improve your mood and help your mind and body more effectively cope with stress and discomfort.
Regular exercise is also linked to improvements in brain function, as it promotes the release of special proteins called neurotrophic factors that stimulate nerve cell growth.
When you feel stressed, try going for a run, working out with weights or training at home. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and two muscle-building workouts per week, which is the amount of exercise recommended by the CDC.
Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that involves training your mind to enter a state of positivity and calmness.
It’s a simple but effective form of emotion-focused coping that you can use to deal with stress, anxiety and other negative feelings.
Meditation is something that you can do at home, usually in just a few minutes a day. To practice mindfulness, find a quiet place and direct your attention to your breath. If your mind wanders, try to bring it back to your breath, all while accepting your feelings without judgment.
Mindfulness meditation offers numerous benefits, with research showing that it helps to reduce anxiety, stress and depression. It’s also helpful for preventing relapse in people who’ve treated mental health disorders.
Since meditation is something you can do by yourself at home, it’s a helpful coping mechanism for dealing with the stresses and frustrations of life.
It’s common to cope after a personal setback, such as missing out on an opportunity or failing to accomplish something.
One healthy way to cope with a personal setback or failure is to create a set of measurable, realistic goals for you to work towards in the future.
Goal setting is a form of proactive coping. In response to a previous stressor, you may set goals for yourself to help you accomplish the tasks you recently failed or avoid dealing with similar life setbacks or negative situations.
Your goals can be as modest or as ambitious or as you like, as long as they’re measurable. Try simple things such as creating a daily to-do list or giving yourself certain objectives for the week, then aim towards achieving them.
When you’re feeling anxious or distressed, one way to cope with your feelings is to focus on a specific task in your life.
This can mean cleaning your home, reading a book, doing your daily workout or something as simple as preparing a meal.
Or, it could be a relaxing activity like watching a movie or TV show, doing yoga or writing in a journal.
Focusing on one task at a time, or a series of tasks that take up part of your day, can keep your mind busy and may stop you from feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed.
If you’re going through a difficult time, you might feel a desire to isolate yourself from others and limit your social life.
Instead of spending time by yourself, it helps to reach out to your friends and family members to spend time together.
Not only can other people improve your feelings -- they can also act as a valuable support network for when you’re feeling unhappy or anxious.
Try to meet up with your friends and family members on a regular basis. Even simple things like an occasional coffee together or a weekly meetup can help to distract you from stressful parts of life and improve the way you feel.
In addition to improving your mental health, research suggests that spending time around other people may also reduce your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Sometimes, the best way to cope with stress or anxiety is to focus on relaxing and taking good care of yourself.
During difficult times in your life, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Try using relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery or visualization to calm your mind and release pressure.
Another way to relax and care for yourself is to spend time away from sources of stress. Try to spend your free time doing things that calm you down and help you de-stress, such as listening to music, spending time in nature or focusing on your hobbies and interests.
If you’re struggling to cope with stress, worry and anxiety, one technique that you can use is to identify your anxiety triggers, then take steps to avoid them.
Common anxiety triggers include excessive caffeine consumption, lack of sleep, uncertainty or worry about the future, rumination about past events or just spending too much time on social media.
If you have a phobia-related disorder, you might feel anxious when you’re in a specific situation, such as around other people or performing in front of a crowd, or when you’re close to a certain animal or object.
By identifying your anxiety triggers, you can plan ahead to avoid situations, people or items that make you feel anxious or uncomfortable.
If you feel like you need some extra help coping with a stressful experience or the symptoms of anxiety or depression, don’t feel hesitant to reach out for professional help.
Many mental health issues improve with psychotherapy, or talk therapy. By talking with a mental health provider, you’ll be able to learn new methods of thinking that can limit stress and help you gain more control over how you feel.
Mental health professionals use several different types of therapy to help people cope with life’s difficult side, including cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression (CBT) and supportive counseling.
Our guide to the types of therapy goes into more detail about the approaches used in therapy to help people cope with stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues and illnesses.
Not all coping mechanisms are positive. While some can provide a mix of short-term relief and long-term well-being, other coping mechanisms can make you feel better in the short term only to harm your mental or physical well-being in the future.
If you’re going through a stressful situation or dealing with the symptoms of a mental illness, try to avoid using the maladaptive coping mechanisms below.
Ruminating is a form of repetitive thinking, usually about things that make you feel depressed or anxious.
When you ruminate, you might spend almost all of your time obsessively thinking about a specific problem, person or issue.
While you might think that ruminating can help you gain insight into your situation, it all too often makes the symptoms of depression worse.
Research has found that ruminating can cause people to become depressed and worsen issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People who ruminate also report lower levels of confidence than their non-ruminator peers.
Not only can ruminating negatively affect your problem-solving skills and thinking, but it can also make other people less likely to provide you with the support you need in life.
One way to kick the rumination habit is to focus on problem-solving, rather than thinking about a specific issue at length. Another is distraction, whether in the form of exercise, meditation or just spending time with friends and family.
Denial is a common defense mechanism that’s used to avoid dealing with unpleasant thoughts, feelings or life setbacks.
You might do it on purpose in order to avoid thinking about something that upsets you, or subconsciously in order to avoid depression or anxiety.
While denying problems might feel good in the short term, it can have a negative effect on your physical and psychological well-being in the long run.
For example, if you’re in denial about depression, anxiety or a physical health issue, you might delay seeking treatment, allowing your symptoms to worsen.
Instead of denying your problems, try to solve them. Forms of therapy such as psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy focus on identifying unconscious processes and using new methods of thinking to overcome them and make progress in life.
When you’re feeling depressed, anxious or simply overcome by challenging thoughts, it can feel tempting to drown your sorrows with alcohol or escape reality with drugs.
While illicit drugs and alcohol can provide temporary relief from depression and anxiety, neither are good for your mental health over the long term.
Research has found that substance abuse and mental health issues are closely linked, with an increased risk of mental health issues in people who abuse drugs or alcohol and an increased risk of drug or alcohol abuse in people with mental health issues.
Try to avoid using alcohol or drugs to cope with stress and negative feelings. Instead, focus on using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with your emotions in a more constructive way.
Changes in appetite and eating habits are common symptoms of several mental health issues, including major depressive disorder.
When you’re depressed, anxious or just stressed about life, you might start to overeat in order to cope with your symptoms. Some people have the opposite experience and start to undereat -- an issue that may worsen their symptoms and health.
While it’s okay to indulge in junk food in moderation, it’s important not to hide negative feelings with food too often.
By all means, enjoy that pizza or takeout every now and then, but don’t let yourself use food to numb yourself to pain, stress or mental illness.
If you’ve ever felt depressed, anxious or just unsure about life, you might have calmed yourself by engaging in a little retail therapy.
It’s okay to spend money on things that you need or enjoy, but doing so compulsively can be a coping mechanism.
In a report published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers noted that shopping is associated with an alleviation of sadness.
However, when you spend money compulsively or excessively to make yourself feel better, it’s easy for it to become a problematic behavior.
In some cases, this behavior may be recognized as compulsive buying disorder (CBD).
Instead of turning to spending to distract yourself from anxiety and depression, it’s better to use healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation or therapy.
Life has a habit of giving us stressful situations when we least need them. By developing good coping skills, you’ll be able to bounce back from life’s hurdles and become a stronger, happier person in the process.
Developing healthy coping mechanisms is a process. Try practicing the techniques listed above when you feel stressed, anxious, depressed or overwhelmed. Over time, they’ll become a more natural part of your coping response.
If you feel like you need professional help coping with something, you can connect with a mental health provider from home using our online mental health services.
You can also learn more about improving your coping skills, resilience and mental well-being with our free online mental health resources.