When you’re in a dark place, you will do anything to make yourself feel better – even just for a few minutes. You aren’t thinking about the long-term consequences of your actions; you are solely trying to make it through the hour, day, week, month… And the things that make you feel better can vary from not ideal to extremely dangerous. Personally, I have used unhealthy coping mechanisms in desperate attempts to sit an exam or get over a bad week, but it wasn’t until my therapist explained the dangerous nature of these things that I understood I had to change.
Examples of Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms:
- Disordered eating
- Alcohol/Substance abuse
- Avoidance behaviour
- Self harm
Avoidance behaviour is something I really have struggled with – it’s just so easy to make excuses for. It seems so simple – avoid an uncomfortable situation to prevent any anxiety, however, this is the completely wrong thing to do. If you avoid everything that makes you anxious, your world will get smaller and smaller and you don’t want to exist amongst so many limitations. I still avoid the train and being alone but I am using Graded Exposure Therapy to gradually get rid of this behaviour, as I found it too difficult to suddenly go back to normal. There is no shame in taking things slow – any progress is progress.
Alcohol and substance abuse is a really common way of handling stress, but when the stress gets too much and you change from a glass of wine on a friday, to vodka on a monday morning, it can really ruin your life. Although the potential dangers are obvious (fired, imprisoned or illness), since drinking is such a socially acceptable thing you can do it with no judgement until it’s obvious that you are spiralling. For me, I avoided alcohol until I felt a bit better and then slowly reintroduced it into my life, however, for others it may be safer to stay off of it. Substance abuse comes with a lot more dangers since it is illegal and if you are purchasing drugs from dealers, you can’t be sure what and how much you are taking which increases your risk of death. There is a lot of support available for quitting alcohol and substance abuse and don’t shrug this off – take a long hard look and see if this applies to you.
I’ve used the term “disordered eating” as there are many different ways we can use this essential part of our life to give us the feeling of control. A lot of people find that they overeat when they are stressed and this provides comfort for them, however, I struggle with the exact opposite. I felt “safer” if I didn’t eat, as it was much less likely for me to be sick, I wouldn’t get as nauseas and it was hard to force myself to eat anyway. If you are overeating or under-eating for a substantial period of time your weight will fluctuate outside of the healthy range, which may potentially cause additional health problems.
Another food related unhealthy coping mechanism is making yourself vomit, this has a wide range of health risks and if you do this you need to inform not only your doctor but also your dentist, as it degrades your enamel. In times of very high stress, since I was already nauseas, I would make myself sick to prevent myself from obsessively worrying about it. I didn’t see any harm in doing so as I believed vomiting was inevitable but my therapist quickly ended this behaviour. She was concerned that the two minutes of relief I felt after being sick would lead me to developing bulimia, and thankfully I was able to cut it out before it went too far.
Identifying that you are using an unhealthy coping mechanism is a scary thing and you may go into denial – I did – but it’s the first step to changing it for the better. Once you recognise that it’s a problem, you can cut it out of your life slowly or abruptly and I recommend you inform your doctor. It might seem too difficult, but you can replace alcohol abuse with positive coping strategies.