How To Remove Harmful Coping Mechanisms

Identifying Coping Mechanism

Ever thought about why you might react a specific way in certain situations? Can you recognise your coping mechanisms? Read through and see if any bells are ringing. One way to identify survival tactics is to reflect on past experiences, behaviours, and thought patterns. A helpful tool is journaling, which helps you easily track particular behavioural patterns and habits. Read “Your Guide To Journaling” for more information.

These behaviours can manifest in a wide range of ways, some of which are common and others that are less well-known. Here is a list of survival behaviours that people tend to exhibit in general or after a difficult period or traumatic event:

  • Denial: Refusing to acknowledge or accept the reality of a situation
  • Avoidance: Refraining from confronting a crisis or emotion
  • Suppression: Pushing down or ignoring emotions or memories
  • Disassociation: Mentally separating from one’s feelings or physical body
  • Substance abuse: Using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or trauma
  • Self-harm: Inflicting physical harm on oneself as a means of coping
  • Negative self-talk: Engaging in self-critical or self-deprecating thoughts
  • Perfectionism: Setting unattainable standards to avoid failure or disappointment
  • People-pleasing: Overextending oneself to please others and avoid conflict
  • Isolation: Withdrawing from social interactions and relationships
  • Hyper-vigilance: Being overly alert and watchful for potential threats
  • Rumination: Replaying negative thoughts or events over and over again
  • Catastrophising: Imagining the worst possible outcomes of a situation
  • Regression: Reverting to childlike behaviour to feel safe and secure
  • Emotional numbness: Feeling disconnected from one’s emotions
  • Hypersensitivity: Being easily triggered by stimuli or situations
  • Anger: Expressing frustration or rage in response to stress or trauma
  • Control-seeking: Attempting to exert control over problems or others
  • Religion or spirituality: Turning to religious or spiritual practices to find comfort and meaning
  • Physical activity: Engaging in vigorous exercise or sports as a means of coping
  • Creative expression: Using art, music, or writing as a means of processing emotions
  • Humour: Using humour to cope with difficult situations
  • Rituals: Creating or participating in rituals as a means of finding stability and structure
  • Rejection: Rejecting support from others to maintain independence or control
  • Self-care: Prioritising self-care activities such as meditation, yoga, or taking a bath

Be aware that this is not an exhaustive list, and just because something is similar does not necessarily mean you possess these behaviours to cope with specific situations. In addition, there is a considerable difference between maladaptive coping mechanisms and healthy survival behaviours. Continue reading for more information to avoid any misconceptions that may arise.

Development of coping mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are the strategies individuals use to manage stress, adversity, and difficult situations. These mechanisms range from healthy, adaptive behaviours to maladaptive or destructive habits. Coping mechanisms develop throughout an individual’s life, starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood.

Coping mechanisms develop early in life as children learn to manage stress and emotions healthily. For example, infants learn to self-soothe by sucking on their thumbs or pacifiers. In addition, children develop various coping mechanisms to deal with stress and adversity as they grow. These may include seeking support from parents or other caregivers, engaging in physical activities, or engaging in imaginative play.

As children enter school, they face new challenges and stressors, so they develop more complex coping mechanisms. For example, they may use problem-solving skills to address academic challenges, seek support from friends or teachers, or engage in extracurricular activities to relieve stress.

During adolescence, coping mechanisms continue to evolve as individuals navigate the challenges of growing up. For example, teens may use social support, creative expression, or physical activity to manage stress and experiment with unhealthy coping mechanisms such as substance use or self-harm.

As individuals transition into adulthood, some develop coping mechanisms that help them manage anxiety and adversity. Healthy coping means may include seeking support from friends or family, engaging in physical activity or mindfulness practices, or engaging in hobbies or creative pursuits. Unhealthy coping mechanisms may include substance use, compulsive behaviour, or avoidance.

Various factors, including genetics, environment, and personal experiences, influence the development of coping mechanisms. For example, individuals who have experienced trauma or adversity may be more likely to develop maladaptive coping tools to manage stress and emotions. This applies to all ages and can start at any time.

When behaviour becomes harmful.

Coping mechanisms are intended to help individuals manage stress and difficult situations, so it is good to have them. However, as mentioned, they can become harmful when used excessively, inappropriately, or interfere with daily life. Here are some ways in which coping mechanisms can become harmful:

Overuse: Coping mechanisms that are overused can become harmful. For example, using food or alcohol to manage stress may become a habit, leading to addiction or other health problems.

Inappropriateness: Some coping mechanisms may be inappropriate for specific situations. For example, using humour to cope with a severe issue may be seen as insensitive or inappropriate, leading to negative consequences.

Avoidance: Coping mechanisms that involve avoiding or ignoring problems can be harmful, as they can prevent individuals from addressing and resolving underlying issues.

Negative Consequences: Some coping mechanisms may have negative consequences. For example, self-harm or substance use may provide temporary relief but can lead to long-term harm or addiction.

Interference: Coping mechanisms can become harmful when they interfere with daily life. For example, excessive time engaged in a coping mechanism, such as video gaming or compulsive exercise, can lead to neglect of other vital areas of life.

Unwillingness to change: Refusal to acknowledge or change maladaptive coping mechanisms can also be harmful, as it can prevent individuals from addressing underlying issues and seeking help.

Survival tactics can impact an individual’s mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Individuals who suppress their emotions as a coping mechanism may struggle with expressing themselves and forming meaningful connections with others. Similarly, individuals who use negative self-talk as a coping mechanism may struggle with low self-esteem and self-worth. Need a hand improving low self-esteem and self-worth? Read: “Discover” and “Self Esteem”

Controlling coping mechanisms

Individuals can change their coping mechanisms by developing new, healthy strategies for managing stress and adversity. This can positively impact their well-being by reducing the negative consequences of maladaptive coping mechanisms and promoting resilience.

Here are some positive impacts of changing maladaptive coping mechanisms:

Improved Mental Health: Developing healthy coping mechanisms can improve mental health by reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

Increased Resilience: Healthy coping mechanisms promote resilience by helping individuals manage stress and adversity more effectively.

Better Relationships: Healthy coping mechanisms can improve relationships by reducing conflict, improving communication, and fostering empathy.

Improved Physical Health: Some coping mechanisms, such as exercise or mindfulness practices, can positively affect physical health, reducing the risk of chronic illness and promoting overall well-being.

Increased Self-Awareness: Changing coping mechanisms can promote self-awareness by helping individuals identify triggers and recognise harmful behaviour patterns.

Changing maladaptive coping mechanisms can positively impact mental and physical health, relationships, resilience, and self-awareness. Individuals have choices regarding coping mechanisms and can take control of their well-being by developing healthy coping strategies that promote healing and growth. Seeking support from a mental health professional can be a helpful first step in this process.

Why Replace Survival Tactics with Personal Growth Strategies?

Survival tactics are often rooted in fear, anxiety, or trauma. While they may have helped us in the past, they can also limit us in the present. For example, if you grew up in a household where expressing emotions was discouraged, you may have learned to suppress your feelings to cope. However, this can lead to problems later in life, such as difficulty forming intimate relationships or expressing yourself effectively in the workplace.

On the other hand, personal growth strategies focus on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and intentional action. Understanding what is happening to you, knowing how it affects you and then setting a goal to change this behaviour is a recipe for success. By working with a coach, you can identify the areas where you want to grow and develop new habits and behaviours that support that growth. This can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life, personally and professionally.


Due to harrowing events, I developed a compulsion to apologise for everything. I was made aware of this habit a few years ago. At first, I thought it didn’t matter; it was only two words. But in the workplace or certain social circles, I realised that by always apologising, people never took me seriously or were unwilling to change their negative behaviours towards me. I now know that by always being the one to apologise, I will automatically be the one at fault, regardless of the situation, thus harming my reputation and any chance of improving my life. I still struggle to this day, it is deeply ingrained, but now I have friends that understand why I constantly apologise. In addition, I practise replacing the “I’m sorry” with something else entirely or stopping myself from completing the sentence. It is a struggle, but it has been rewarding to experience a positive change in how I handle situations and how people react towards me. If I can make this change, everyone can, and I would be happy to facilitate your journey to positive change. Click here for a consultation.

Tips for Replacing Survival Tactics with Personal Growth Strategies:

Recognise your survival tactics: The first step in replacing them is to recognise them. What behaviours or thought patterns do you use to cope with difficult situations? Write them down and reflect on how they may be holding you back.

Identify areas for personal growth: Once you’ve identified your survival tactics, think about the areas where you want to grow. For example, do you want to improve your communication skills? Develop better self-care habits? Work on your confidence? Make a list of the areas you want to focus on.

Set goals: Once you’ve identified the areas where you want to grow, set specific goals for yourself. For example, if you want to improve your communication skills, set a goal to have at least one meaningful conversation daily.

Work with a coach: A coach can help you identify your survival tactics, set goals, and develop new habits and behaviours. They can also hold you accountable and provide support as you work towards personal growth.

Practice, practice, practice: Changing old and developing new habits takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and celebrate small victories along the way.

How can coaching help?

Coaching can be a helpful tool in changing coping mechanisms and providing support, guidance, and accountability as an individual explores new coping strategies and works to develop healthier habits. 

Identifying Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms: A coach can help someone recognise maladaptive coping mechanisms and explore new strategies for managing stress and adversity.

Developing New Coping Skills: A coach can help someone develop new coping skills tailored to their unique needs and preferences.

Providing Accountability: A coach can provide accountability and support as someone works to implement new coping strategies and break old habits.

Building Resilience: A coach can help someone build resilience by exploring the underlying causes of stress and developing strategies for managing it more effectively.

Changing coping mechanisms can be challenging to do on one’s own, as it requires self-awareness, motivation, and a willingness to try new things. Coaching can provide the support and guidance needed to make lasting changes and overcome possible obstacles. A coach can also offer encouragement and celebrate successes, helping to build confidence and momentum towards achieving long-term goals. 

If you decide against a coach, make sure you get support elsewhere and are changing the coping mechanism for the right reason. Although personal growth is always an important step and a good thing to start, changing the wrong survival tactics, overseeing the domino effect or developing a habit that does more harm, in the long run, will cause mental or emotional damage. I advise taking things slow and discussing things with a trusted person to gain other perspectives and insights.


While survival tactics may have helped us in the past, they can hold us prisoner and obstruct personal growth and success in the present and moving forward. This journey holds no place for hostile criticism towards oneself and “Perfectionism”. Instead, identify these old habits and develop new ones that support growth and development. Be kind to yourself, practise patience and enjoy newfound freedom. As a result, we can create a more fulfilling and successful life by recognising our survival tactics, setting goals, and practising new behaviours. It’s time to learn how to control your past experiences, not have them control you.

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