Every day, whether it’s a fantastic day, a so-so one, a day of crisis, or during a pandemic, life is happening to you. Life calls upon you to decide how to respond, and how you choose to act makes a big difference in the quality of your life: how effective you are, and how happy you are. Would you like to learn to respond more successfully to what life presents? Then take a look with me in the area of coping mechanisms so that you can ingrain the ones that work best for you and let go of the ones that cost you too much.

First, let’s talk about what coping mechanisms are and what we mean when we speak about them. A coping mechanism encompasses the thoughts and actions we use in response to a situation. Examples include: drinking alcohol, using drugs, sleeping, oversleeping, distracting ourselves, raging, crying, shutting down, tantrums, asking for help, avoidance, taking time to get still and recharge, venting feelings verbally or through exercise. Some people feel overwhelmed or confused, even tired, as a way of coping. Amy Morin gives a fantastic rundown here:


From your wee years until now, you’ve developed coping mechanisms. You learned them from your family, friends, coaches, heroes, and you’ve probably developed some of your own along the way. Take a few minutes to think about what yours are. Recall significant events from your past. How did you respond? It may help to write them down. Then assess the past few years. Think about as many experiences as you can: regardless of the level of importance. Notice any patterns that emerge. Be honest with yourself. If there’s a moment you’re not proud of, maybe has you wincing a little, saying, “I didn’t handle that very well,” include it. That’s valuable information for you for the future. Knowing what didn’t work so well is a springboard for you to land on something more productive. Be accepting in this process. There’s no right or wrong. Simply evaluate whether it has worked for you or not. For one person running several miles or having a glass of wine at the end of a tough day may represent success. For another person, that action of running is a way to avoid something like an important task, or being with a spouse because they’re in a troubled marriage; and wine is not a viable means of coping for a person in recovery.

Your self-assessment is the foundation of your coping skill toolbox. Put everything that has worked well into it. Add to it as you learn about, and experience, successful new ones. Doing this will have you more self-aware and informed. So, from now on, you’ll be able to plan and choose how to manage life’s happenings more readily.

Now take a look at a situation, maybe ongoing, where you think what you’ve tried so far isn’t working so well. Let’s use the example of emotional (over)eating as it’s a common one, often done to manage feelings of sadness or anger, or to feel pleasure. Which is pretty human and okay up to a point; when it goes beyond that, the weight piles on, energy drops, you need larger clothing, it starts costing too much. It’s coping, but not most effectively. Now ask, “What other coping mechanisms are available to me to manage these feelings that don’t cost so much?” This makes me think of today’s Moms, working so hard, feeling pulled at by so many people all day to give… to everyone but themselves. They’re wiped by the end of the day, but this may be the only time when they can take time for themselves. The gym at 9 at night: are you nuts? Too tired to even read.

Resentment sets in, why is it that her precious “me time” gets the exhausted woman while everyone else got her at her best. There is a way to get some pleasure. From what I call the “F-ck ‘em” cookie…or cookies. See? The anger is a message from their very wise mind: “You need something for you.” Reaching for food alone to feel good is a coping mechanism that costs too much. A more effective one? Problem-solving: like scheduling into every day time for herself when she has the energy to enjoy it. That will restore a balance of giving and receiving with less resentment.

A note on distractions: not all distractions are created equal. They can be wise if you’re managing a situation that you can’t change, such as the loss of your job or the death of someone. Getting involved in an activity that gives you a break from difficult feelings can be valuable. Engaging yourself elsewhere as a means of avoiding something important, that’s uncomfortable or difficult, is not likely a long-term solution for your highest well-being.

Remind yourself of Temporariness. One of my favorites for managing a difficult time and so timely in the pandemic. It’s easy and powerful. When it gets tough, you’re thinking, “This is so hard,” “I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” “I can’t do this,” just tell yourself that this challenging moment is temporary. It will end.

Reacting vs. Responding: 2 very different types of coping

When we react to a situation, it is typically quick and done without much consideration. Its definition, to act in opposition to a force or influence, dictates that when we react, we are letting the thing we’re reacting to, a person or event, determine our action. So it’s a powerless action. When we respond, on the other hand, our actions are intentional, calm. They come from within us. Because when responding, we take time to choose how we want to manage the situation, it can involve our values, how we want to operate in the world. A response is determined by who we are: not by the event or another person. Responding is powerful. It empowers us and is more effective.

We’ve all had times when we reacted. You might remember a time where you were left saying to yourself, “That wasn’t like me” or “I could have handled that better,” “I stooped to their level.” Moments when you likely reacted. The next time life presents a situation, how would it be if you view it as an opportunity? For you to respond, in a way that leaves you feeling powerful, proud of your choice of action. When something happens, just take a minute, take a few breaths, and ask yourself how you want to handle the situation. If you can, take a step back from the situation to help you focus.

So now what? You have a better sense of what has worked for you. You’re aware of the many options you have to choose coping mechanisms intentionally. Moving forward, pay attention to the coping mechanisms you use and notice the effect they have. Try some new ones to supplement your coping library. You’ll see, through trial and error, that some work well in certain situations, yet not so well in others. Then you’ll learn when to use what. You’ll be mastering the art of coping. I’m excited for you as that’s life management gold!

By Dr. Lee Odescalchi

Author's Bio: 

Lee Odescalchi is a coach and licensed psychologist. She has coached and counseled clients, just like you, looking for more fulfilling lives. Her unique approach uses the most effective methods of personal development and performance strategies. She does this while addressing issues from the past that have led to self-limiting beliefs that get in the way of your success. Lee also empowers people to “get out of their own way” and maximize their strengths so they can produce extraordinary results… in any area of their life.