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  • Writer's pictureRyan Wilson

Can Healthy Coping become Unhealthy?

A few weeks ago we talked about 5 Ways We “Deal” With Our Emotions

The main point of the post was that, as human beings, we often use unhealthy coping strategies such as externalizing (e.g., alcohol/drugs/cigarettes, overeating), self-sabotage, and “what-if world”. All of these strategies have an immediate payoff, they allow us to avoid thoughts and feelings that we might be unwilling to face in the present moment.

So, if these are unhealthy coping strategies, what are healthy ones??

Take a moment and reflect: what healthy strategies do you use to cope with powerful emotions and thoughts? Here are a 2 commons strategies that I use (though perhaps not as often as I could).


Exercise – For myself, I know there is nothing quite so stress relieving as heading to the rugby pitch for the Saturday game. I get to vent all my frustrations on some poor unsuspecting soul who just happened to pick up the ball at the wrong time in the wrong place. If that’s not quite your pace, then I suspect that going to the gym for a good workout, or going for a run can do wonders for your mood. Quite apart from the general mood enhancement physical fitness and activity provides, exercising at moderate intensity releases endorphins – it just makes you feel good.

Meditation – Mindfulness meditation has become quite popular in recent years, and with good reason. Though the techniques vary, the ultimate goal (in my view anyway) of meditation is to be able to make contact with the present moment without judgement, and allow yourself to fully experience whatever is happening “right now”! Practically, what is often taught is to “notice” all of the thoughts that enter your mind, and to just notice them, and then let them go. This can be particularly useful when we are feeling down, or anxious, as it is common for us to beat ourselves up with unhelpful thoughts (e.g., “I’ll never get this dissertation done”, “I’ll never lose the weight”).

Hopefully, both of these strategies seem pretty appealing. They have plenty of health benefits, physically and mentally, and can take as little or as much time as you want. So, how can these strategies possibly be unhealthy?

The question to really ask yourself is this: How is avoiding my feelings and thoughts in service of my values?   Granted, we can’t spend all of our time just “sitting in our feelings”, its not practical, and not necessarily helpful…

But.. if exercise is your go-to coping strategy, it can be just as emotionally damaging as relying on other forms of externalizing such as over eating, IF YOU DON’T TAKE THE TIME TO FACE YOUR FEELINGS. As an example, and acquaintance of mine lived 12kms from work, and he ran to and from work every day. He was “dealing” with a lot of personal difficulties, and he claimed that the running offered time to clear his head. All well and good, but my friend also had long work days and a family. By choosing to run to work everyday he was out of the house before 6 am and often not back until after 8 pm. That didn’t leave a lot of time for him to engage with his family, and he very clearly loved and valued his family very much. So here’s an example where an otherwise healthy coping strategy had some profound negative effects!

It should be no surprise where I’m going with this, but Meditation can also hinder our ability

to face our inner demons. One of the aspects of mindfulness that is taught is the ability to “just notice” our thoughts and feelings… perhaps even give thanks for them but to not engage with them (e.g. “thank you mind for that fearful feeling when I think about my job interview tomorrow”). The reason to do this, imho at any rate, isn’t so that we never engage completely with our thoughts, rather, it is to mindfully choose which thoughts we will invest in, and when we will invest in them. However, we’ve often gotten feedback that, after the first few sessions of mindfulness, people start to use the “observer stance” as a way to AVOID FEELINGS. Any time a strong emotion, particularly those perceived by the individual as negative, comes up they employ mindfulness practices to disengage from the thoughts or feelings. And again… in some situations this is a completely legitimate and helpful tactic. It might not be prudent to  engage with your feelings of rage towards your boss for hanging you out to dry with a customer while you’re in a meeting with them to discuss your upcoming contract negotiations. On the other hand if you never allow yourself to experience those emotions (and perhaps express them), in a healthy setting, you are setting the stage for festering resentment and an unhealthy work environment.

So, that leaves us with two questions to help guide our daily actions:

1) What are my healthy coping strategies?

2) When I notice I am using them: Am I using this strategy in service of my values or am I using it to avoid feelings and thoughts that I have no intention of dealing with at any point in time? 

As always, we’d love it if you could share your questions and comments on twitter @DrAdrianaWilson or @kryanwilson, by email, or leave a comment. See you next week!

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