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How to Overcome Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Woman practicing mindful yoga near a beautiful lake.

Do you find yourself reaching for chocolate when life feels overwhelming?  Do you reach for the ice cream carton when stress builds?  Many of us have unhealthy coping mechanisms.  A coping mechanism is “an adaptation to environmental stress that is based on conscious or unconscious choice and that enhances control over behavior or gives psychological comfort” (  What happens when our coping mechanisms are hurting our health?  Learning how to overcome unhealthy coping mechanisms was an important part of my wellness journey.

Why Do We Use Coping Mechanisms?

In her article, “The Midlife Unraveling,” Brene’ Brown explains, “All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.”

Armed with the knowledge of what a coping mechanism is, and why we use them, we can now intentionally replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with positive coping mechanisms that help our health.

Identifying Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Do you reach for social media when stressed out?   Do you online shop after a fight with your husband?  Do you hide from your kids in the pantry, eating their Halloween candy, when being a mama feels too hard?  Do you binge watch “The Real Housewives” when living with chronic illness feels too heavy?  Do you compulsively exercise when negative emotions feel too real? 

You Are Not Alone

If your answer to any or all of these questions is yes, you are not alone.  A couple of years ago, my answer to all of these questions was yes.  Now?  My answer to all of these questions is no.  Maybe your answer to all of these questions is no, but you have other unhealthy habits to address instead.

Create Space and Be Mindful

Coping mechanisms are based on either conscious or unconscious choice.  Meaning, you may need to take a step back, and create some space to identify what your coping mechanisms are. 

Be mindful of your feelings throughout the day, and identify your behavior in relation to your feelings.  What do you do when feelings of stress or overwhelm arise? 

Further, you can record your coping mechanisms as you identify them.  Try not to judge your behavior; simply observe your behavior.  Offer yourself love, grace, and understanding.  Looking in the mirror and owning up to unhealthy coping mechanisms is not easy.  Give yourself major props!

Like most habits, coping mechanisms have an addictive quality to them; we feel some degree of compulsion toward them, and we experience some level of difficulty in resisting them. We tend to use a coping mechanism as a distraction, a crutch that we lean on as a way of avoiding stress.

“Identifying Coping Mechanisms,” by Paul Huljich (

Replacing Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Once you identify the coping mechanisms that are hurting your health and worsening your chronic illness, the next step is to replace them with positive coping mechanisms.  Years ago, I tried to eliminate my coping mechanism of eating sugar cold turkey.  I did not know to replace it with a positive coping mechanism.  The result?  An increase in stress which increased until I finally gave in, in the form of binge eating chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.  Then I felt horrible about myself, and ended up repeating the whole cycle again and again.

How did I finally break the cycle?  I replaced my unhealthy coping mechanism with healthy coping mechanisms.  Since then, I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve eaten a dessert over the past year.  No, my super power is not self-control.  I simply found new ways to cope with stress that help my health, and help me live well with chronic illness.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Believing in bio-individuality, I personally feel that each of us have unique food and lifestyle needs.  Even while those of us living with chronic illness may find wellness in similar ways, I believe what works for me may look a little different for you, and vice versa.  Likewise, the healthy coping mechanisms that work for me may not work for you.

As you experiment with healthy coping mechanisms, be sure to ask yourself questions to identify what may or may not work. 

How do I feel before doing (insert habit) versus after doing (insert habit)?  Does “fill in the blank” help me shift my mindset and feel less stressed?  Do I feel better or worse after “fill in the blank?”  Is (insert habit) something I can do anywhere, anytime I feel stress? 

Where to Start

I hesitate to give examples of healthy coping mechanisms in fear it will limit your creativity.  Really, the most important part of this process is creating new habits that will help you in your life during times of stress or feelings of overwhelm. 

I encourage you to skip over my list of ideas for healthy coping mechanisms for now.  Then, after reading the rest of this post, writing down your own list of potential healthy coping mechanisms.  If you need more ideas, you can always come back to this post to read the following list.

Ideas of Healthy Coping Mechanisms

  • Dance! – Crank up your favorite jam and break it down. Or slow the music down, and dance barefoot in the kitchen with your sweetheart.
  • Call or text an uplifting loved one. – Sometimes simply admitting out loud, “I feel overwhelmed” is enough to start to shift stressful feelings.
  • Journal. – Writing out your feelings, or making a list of things you are grateful for, or a list of your daily victories
  • Meditate. – I recently tried out the Headspace meditation app and love it!  Truly an amazing resource with free meditations as well as a paid subscription.
  • Practice yoga. – my favorite is yogawithadriene’s free 7 minute stress relief (available on her website or YouTube).
  • Get a massage. – While this is most likely unreasonable every day, occasional reflexology massages can be a game changer to help relieve built up stress and reset emotionally.
  • Go for walk. – A quick walk outside or on a treadmill; with loved ones or alone.
  • Sit outside. – Getting out in nature, and simply being.
  • Pray. – Rely on your faith to anchor you during turbulent times.
  • Spend time with your pets. – I have two boxers who are always ready to snuggle, play, or make me laugh.
  • Scream into a pillow. – I admit it, this was what I needed for a period of time to combat stressful feelings. 

Trial and Error

Remember, replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones is a personal process full of trial and error.  When you try a new coping mechanism, and it does not work, do not give up!  Do not let one or two or three failures stop you from trying again.  You will figure out what works for you, and it will be life changing.  It will be worth every effort.

Likewise, if you fall off the wagon and revert to unhealthy coping mechanisms, do not quit altogether.  Recognize the difficulty in what you are trying to accomplish.  When a baby is learning to walk, and falls down, what do we say?  We say things like, “It’s okay, you can do it,” “Try again,” and “Great job!  You almost got it!”  Sometimes we even reach down, and help lift the baby back up.  Offer yourself the same grace. 

Spoiler Alert

You are going to fall down.  You are going to fail.  What you do when that happens will determine your ultimate success.  So, when you are having an usually tough day and you find yourself hiding in your pantry eating a package of Oreos, please do not beat yourself up.  Instead, offer yourself unconditional love, grace, and forgiveness.  Tell yourself, “Try again, I believe in you!”  Lovingly help yourself back up off the floor.  Just keep trying, no matter how many tries it takes to get it right.   

Baby Steps

I encourage you to look at overcoming unhealthy coping mechanisms as a journey.  Take baby steps as needed, and celebrate each little step.  The first step to celebrate?  When you identify one of your bad habits.  Even before you think about trying to change it, celebrate that you identified it!  Then, take another little baby step, and start to think of what you can replace it with.  Give yourself permission to take this journey slowly.

Calling It Out

One trick I heard about months ago, and love, is what I think of as “calling it out.”  You know how Babe Ruth would get up to bat, and he used to hold his bat in the air, and point it out toward the outfield, calling his home run? 

What I call “calling it out” is kind of like that.  You can use it  in one of two ways. 

Owning It

First, when you feel tempted to fall back on an unhealthy coping mechanism, you can call it out first.  For example, saying “I feel like I cannot handle life right now, so I am going to eat this entire tub of mint-n-chip ice cream.”  Then one of two things will happen.  You will either go ahead and eat the mint-n-chip ice cream, or after hearing yourself say the words, you will choose not to eat the ice cream.  Even if you choose the first outcome, at least you are consciously acknowledging what you are about to do.  You are owning it.

Calling It

The second way you can use calling it out is when you are going to try a new positive coping mechanism.  It would sound something like, “I feel overwhelmed right now, so I am choosing to turn on my favorite song, and shake my booty until I start laughing at myself.”  Then, do it!  Crank up the music, and shake your booty until you laugh.

Pressing Forward

Life is full of trials, heartache, and pain whether we are living with a chronic illness or not.  Thankfully, life is also full of joy, hope, and love.  Sometimes our minds and bodies choose to focus on the former, and we simply need to find ways to redirect ourselves to the latter.  Keep in mind that as we change, we may need to revisit and change up our healthy coping mechanisms as needed.  Just because dancing to your favorite song helps you cope with stress today, does not mean it will tomorrow.

As you press forward and develop healthy coping mechanisms, I am sending you love and support.  I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences, and welcome comments.  I love to connect with readers!

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