Unhealthy Stress Coping Strategies

Updated: Apr 11

The Webster’s definition of “coping” is to deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties (aka stressors). People can cope with problems and difficulties in a few ways: in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way. The healthy behavior uses positive coping strategies like cognitive restructuring to manage stress. The unhealthy alternative uses negative coping strategies to manage stress like abusing alcohol. Negative coping strategies oftentimes leads to more negative behaviors like cognitive distortions, depression and/or destructive behaviors.

In another post, Cognitive Distortions Explained, What You Need To Know I broke down the Big-Ten cognitive distortions that most people fall victim to. This post will identify the ways individuals use unhealthy coping strategies to exacerbate stress and will further define the Big-Ten distortions.

I think that one of the biggest mistakes that individuals make when coping is that their response to stress typically perpetuates more stress. This process most likely begins in the brain. In a modern society our brains crave routine (we already have too much going on in our days). Our mental bandwidth has been filled by work, chores, debt, drama and media overload! As a sheer act of survival our brains run the same mental script in the background to help get us through our day (even if this response is destructive to our present and future self). This process is cleverly described by Dr. Ellis’s ABC Model (Negative event (A) → Irrational belief (B) → Unhealthy negative emotion (C). Unfortunately, the bad doesn’t stop there. Negative response may lead to a never ending cycle of negative responses as described by Dr. David Burns Lethargy Cycle:

Dr. Burns Lethargy Cycle

My goal with this post is to share these brilliant ideas with you so that these negative mental scripts are no longer operating in the background of your brain. If we want to overcome cognitive distortions and unhealthy coping strategies than we have to first comprehend that they exist. Once you become aware that you too have been living life in a negative and reactive way you can start deploying healthy coping strategies (link to another post) to manage your stress and improve your well-being. We call this an “A-ha!” moment of stress relief!

Okay, so let’s begin with unhealthy coping strategies. An unhealthy coping strategy can be best described as a behavior to deal with stress that negatively affects your health and well-being.

Examples of Unhealthy Coping Strategies

  • Avoidance of the problem

  • Smoking Cigarettes, Vaping

  • Drugs

  • Drinking and abusing Alcohol

  • Drinking too much caffeine (coffee, energy drinks, etc)

  • Overspending and buying material things

  • Overeating, or under eating

  • Oversleeping

If you find yourself doing one of the above, or more to manage your stress you may have fallen into the hamster wheel of unhealthy coping strategies. Often times these strategies create short-term relief but at the expense of your long-term mental and physical health. Unhealthy coping strategies can drive people into worse and worse thoughts, behaviors and patterns. If you find that your world is slipping away from you and you start abusing one or more of the above unhealthy coping strategies, I would recommend consulting with a mental health professional.

Unhealthy coping strategies can become a monster to your personal and professional life. These negative coping strategies are fueled by distorted thoughts and behaviors. After a decade of fitness and wellness coaching I can usually guess how a new client copes with stress after a quick evaluation process. When I hear the client overgeneralize their weaknesses, jump to conclusions as to why they can’t reach their goals or label themselves as a loser because of their present accomplishments it is usually safe to say that they are not managing their stress well.

In other words, cognitive distortions are great signals of problem thinking. Let's better understand these negative thinking patterns be exploring the Big-Ten of cognitive distortions. In this breakdown I will provide a definition of each distortion with relatable examples. I hope that after reading this post you may better understand how cognitive distortions may sneak into your own life so you can start catching these negative slips before they perpetuate into something worse like unhealthy coping strategies. Once you increase your awareness to your own cognitive distortions and biases you can then start implements corrections.

Cognitive Distortions Explained

All-or-Nothing Thinking

Summary: You view the world as absolutes: Yes/no, black/white, up/down. I like to think of All-Nothing Thinking as perfectionism.

Example: You get one negative comment on your quarterly work review and you feel like a total failure.

Over Generalization

Summary: You see one mistake or problem as a never ending cycle of negativity.

Example: You are driving home and someone rear-ends your brand new car. You think that this event is proof that you always have bad luck.

Mental Filter

Summary: You pick out one negative event and dwell on it so much that it consumes your thinking.

Example: You are completing a 30 min presentation in front of your colleagues and you miss pronounce one word. After the presentation you get stuck on the fact that you messed up and can’t stop talking about for weeks on end.

Disqualifying the Positive

Summary: You reject positive experiences because you think they don’t count or you don’t deserve them.

Example: You win a $1000 amazon gift card from a work raffle and you still think that nothing good happens to you.

Jumping to Conclusions

Summary: You form a negative interpretation even though you have no facts or data to support your conclusion.

Example: You don’t have the best relationship with your co-workers and you think that they are always talking Sh#t about you.

Magnification and Minimization

Summary: You over or under emphasize situations.

Example: You go on a first date with someone you really like and you trip and fall. After the fall, you think that your date with never want to go out with you again Or you under emphasize your qualities like getting straight A’s in college and thinking that you are not smart.

Emotional Reasoning

Summary: You think whatever you feel must be reality or truth.

Example: You feel overwhelmed so you think that your problems are impossible to resolve.

Should Statements

Summary: You try to motivate yourself through should and shouldn'ts statements.

Example: I should be able to be social, friendly and confident without drinking alcohol or I shouldn’t be jealous of my boyfriend's EX-girlfriend.

Labeling and MIslabeling

Summary: Instead of admitting to making a mistake, you attach a negative label to yourself.

Example: Labeling is when you call yourself a loser because none of your friends invited you to the holiday party. Mislabeling is when you describe a person or event with emotionally loaded and untrue language like saying that “Marissa is fat, ugly and dresses like my grandmother” even though Marissa is slim, beautiful and dresses with taste.


Summary: You blame yourself for the cause of a negative event or result even though you were not responsible for it.

Example: Someone scratches your car in a parking garage and you think it is your fault for parking in that spot.

In conclusion, I hope that by bringing unhealthy coping strategies and cognitive distortions to your attention you will be more capable to recognize the negative, reflexive way most people respond to stressors. Once you can identify “Hey I do this and it’s unhealthy and unhelpful” then and ONLY then can you resolve it!

Check out our post on 3 Exercises to Overcome Distorted Thinking.

#kopely #stress #unhealthycoping

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