Coping Mechanisms – Healthy vs Unhealthy

When I was a kid my mom would take me into bars with her and drink. She didn’t really give much thought that I was 10, or 12, or whatever age. Sometimes she took my sister and me both, mainly because she didn’t want to find a babysitter and didn’t want to leave us alone the days my dad worked. Other times she’d stop at the liquor store when we came home from grocery shopping or from school. No matter where we were, she just drank and talked about all the bad things that happened to her when she was my age, always forcing someone to listen. There was no shortage of things she talked about from her own childhood. Things she experienced in her neighborhood. Things my grandparents did to her. Things that happened at school. All of them were traumatic.

All of them I was emotionally unprepared for — because I was not a therapist. I was a child.

Memories have a way of worming themselves back into your head at the weirdest times and they manifest in different ways. Ignoring them and the feelings they bring can also pressurize them, and just like putting a pack of Mentos in a 2-Liter Coke bottle, things explode and present a bigger problem. That’s what my mother did, and she coped by erupting like a volcano and drinking, which made much bigger problems.

Coping Mechanisms

Think of coping mechanisms as strategies to manage an emotional response in your body to deal with the things that trigger you. They can be tied to things we physically do that make us feel like things can be bearable again.

There are healthy and unhealthy ways to cope, and depending on what you do will make feelings manageable or make you feel worse. Remember, if you feel like there are problems that you can’t — or shouldn’t — be dealing with, there is no shame in talking to a trusted adult whether it’s a teacher or a counselor, or just some adult you trust. Even if you feel like you can shoulder the burden doesn’t mean you should. Your teachers and mentors are there to guide you, and sometimes you should help them on how to do that by talking to them about what’s going on in your life.

Examples of Healthy Coping Mechanisms



One of the mechanisms I learned that would help me was a grounding technique when I felt overwhelmed no matter where I was at. Breathe deeply and slowly, then take your hand and list something from the five senses for each finger.

Ask yourself: “What do I…”

Thumb: Hear

Pointer Finger: Touch

Middle Finger: See (colors or textures)

Ring Finger: Smell

Pinky Finger: Taste (particular taste in your mouth etc)

Artistic Expression

Artistic Expression

Another thing that helped me was journaling (or any kind of artistic expression). If I could get my feelings on paper then I felt as if they were purged from me. Journaling would help me manage my emotions as well as keep track of my progress and thoughts. If writing isn’t your style, painting or even singing works just as well. Above all, do something that makes you feel good about yourself. Nurture yourself and be kind to the person inside of you always — whether you had a good day at school or home, or a bad one. Always be kind to yourself. (Playing through the Shadow’s Edge campaign also has great examples of artistic expression with the journaling and artwork expressions).

Healthy Coping

Relaxation Techniques

Activities such as yoga or meditation can also work. You can also listen to calming music or absolutely any activity that you find calming and relaxing. Find your inner happy place.

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Sometimes the weight of the world feels too heavy, and there is a thought of wanting to take that pressure off in whatever way even if it’s bad for us. I strongly advise against it and will be the first to say that unhealthy coping mechanisms never work. You can’t run away from everything and expect things to be fine later. It will pressurize and be worse, and I say that from experience.

Unhealthy Coping

Alcohol / Substance Abuse

Teens are at risk of abusing different substances, especially teens that are hurting inside and want to numb things. They do NOT work. My mother was an alcoholic that defaulted to self-medicating with cigarettes and alcohol to numb her own pain. It made my home life with my sister and dad miserable. All these substances will do is make you feel worse, I guarantee it. I’ve lived it, I’ve witnessed it.

Unhealthy Coping

Negative Thinking

Negative thoughts about yourself and saying things like “I deserved this” or “I am a terrible person” will take their toll. Eventually, you start believing these lies. I want you to remember that you are a person of worth and deserve every bit of respect and amount of love everyone is entitled to. Do not believe the lies. Every ounce of you is worth it. Even if you think you make mistakes. There is no part of you that is undeserving of love and respect.

Unhealthy Coping

Self Harm

If you are at a point where you have already attempted this or are considering it, I urge you to talk to an adult immediately. There is no reason to go down that road and your teachers and counselors can help you. If you have a friend in the same situation, I also urge you to tell an adult. This is a very serious situation, and even if you or your friend think it is betraying them in telling an adult — it is the right thing to do every time.

Understanding how you cope with your triggers and stressors can make all the difference in how you manage your emotions. Remember to be kind and don’t blame yourself for things that go wrong. Sometimes things are out of your control, and how you cope with those situations makes it all the more important. Talk to trusted adults if you feel like the world is too heavy for you. There is no shame, and you’ll most likely feel better afterward knowing someone will listen.

*Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist and am sharing these as examples from my own personal experiences and memories*

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