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What are Coping Mechanisms?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Coping mechanisms are the sum total of ways in which people deal with minor to major stress and trauma. Some of these processes are unconscious ones, others are learned behavior, and still others are skills that individuals consciously master in order to reduce stress, or other intense emotions like depression. Not all ways of coping are equally beneficial, and some can actually be very detrimental.

The body has an interior set of coping mechanisms for encountering stress. This includes the "fight or flight" reaction to high stress or trauma. A person perceiving stress has an automatic boost in adrenaline, prompting either action or inaction. People have a variable level of physical reaction to different levels of stress, and for some, merely getting interrupted from a task can cause an inappropriate fight or flight reaction. This can translate to “fight” mechanisms, where a person gets very angry with others for interrupting him. Alternately, flight may include physically leaving, or simply being unable to regain focus and get back on task.

Other unconscious coping strategies can include the way that the mind deals with a constant barrage of stress. People in the psychiatric field suggest that mental illnesses tend to be coping mechanisms that evolve from certain stressors. For example, dissociative identity disorder may result in children who have been severely abused. Panic disorder may be the body’s way of coping for inappropriate fight or flight reactions to minor stressors. Some mental illnesses also have a genetic basis, but stress certainly often plays a role in making these conditions more severe.

People also learn these mechanisms as they progress through life. Some people tend toward reactions that are helpful, while others choose defense mechanisms that can actually increase stress. The person who uses stress as a reason to exercise is learning and expressing a healthy way of coping. The person who turns to alcohol or drugs, eating disorders, or workaholic behavior is using mechanisms that are both dangerous and unhealthy.

Both children and adults can benefit from learning coping mechanisms from mental health professionals, especially when they are suffering from mental illness, or have turned to unhealthy forms of dealing with stress. In this sense, these mechanisms are a set of practiced and learned behaviors that help individuals better respond to stress. People may not always be able to control the amount of adrenaline that pumps through their bodies in stressful situations, but many therapists believe that people can learn to control their reaction to it.

Many times, people who experience high fight or flight reactions actually amp up their own stress by their coping mechanisms, creating more adrenaline boost than is needed. Learning to recognize the body’s tendency toward these highly charged states and altering behavior accordingly can reduce the length of time a person stays in the charged state and reduce the body’s continued need to produce adrenaline to cope with danger that does not really exist. Therapeutic ways of handling stress can involve meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the recognition of the body’s inappropriate response. These are only a few of the mechanisms that can be learned through therapy. They can result in fewer incidences of panic, inappropriate anger, or turning to unhelpful behaviors like using alcohol to dull stress.

People who have developed mental illness as a coping strategy benefit by learning therapeutic methods and by taking medication that can help reduce the symptoms of mental illness. A schizophrenic who hallucinates may be aided by the coping mechanisms provided by anti-psychotic drugs. Anti-anxiety medications can assist the person with frequent panic attacks. The gold standard in treating inappropriate behavior is to gradually replace it with therapy and medication that can help reduce unwanted coping responses.

TheHealthBoard is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By anon121121 — On Oct 23, 2010

Stressors are either under our control or not. The reaction to stress is under our control. There are a myriad of ways to cope with the reactions to stressors given the nature of the stressor.

Often perspective can change the magnitude of a stressor. Perspective is only truly changed by a change in one's outlook. Change is the key. Change in environment is difficult and the perceived threat of that change may be a strong source of stress in itself.

The acceptance that some form of change is required is the first step in dealing properly with stress. Fear of that change is often the strongest and most significant obstacle to overcome.

By anon116404 — On Oct 06, 2010

yeah, but generally people cope from stress in two ways: they either focus on eliminating the stressor or on eliminating the emotion brought about by the stressor.

oftentimes, however, it's easier to get rid of the emotion than the stressor itself.

By anon112341 — On Sep 20, 2010

I have already caused damage in my relationships, my family and myself before discovering that I am an Aspie at age 37. What now?

I have been on a personal truth and growth quest for the last two years. I have let my life come to a standstill and now I need a plan to move forward. David, South Africa

By anon80632 — On Apr 28, 2010

If "drugs" are always a dangerous and unhealthy coping mechanism why do people get prescribed them for stress?

I know you're probably going to say something about the difference between "recreational drugs" and "prescription medicine" but there's a lot of politics around what they allow to be prescribed or even allow extensive research in.

There could be highly effective anti-stress drugs out there which if used in a certain way are helpful; they just haven't approved yet.

By anon79792 — On Apr 24, 2010

I agree. It is hard enough to have relationships with our "special gifts" than with dangerous coping mechanisms. However, the real danger are the people that do not understand and hurt us intentionally or intentionally thus further isolating us from our ability to trust ourselves in social situations.

By ostrich — On Mar 29, 2008

It's really important to consider that, although coping mechanisms can help people during a traumatic experience, they are often detrimental in relationships. Counseling can help with problematic coping mechanisms.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a TheHealthBoard contributor, Tricia...
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