Maintaining Practicing

Your Coping Mechanisms Have An Expiration Date

If you typed the words “uncharted territory” into your nearest search engine, you’d probably get only one result: 2020. A lethal global health crisis, widening social strife and divisions, a major economic downturn moving towards deep recession, and blistering reminders of unaddressed structural racism. We are patently unprepared to manage this level of psychological strain. Even the most well-intentioned among us are left to navigate life without a roadmap, in search of skills to help us cope.

The Role of Coping Mechanisms

Under any stressful circumstance, we naturally seek to cultivate new tools to assist us in dealing with the situation. Basically, we need something, anything to help us manage problems we are not equipped to solve. Coping skills blend adaptations in emotion, behavior, and thought patterns — all in the name of maintaining some level of wellbeing during a crisis. In 2020, we’re combining this useful process with the addition of some very specific practical steps, like widespread pandemic mitigation tactics.

Coping mechanisms are conscious choices made to serve a temporary purpose. Some mechanisms can be inherently unhealthy (alcohol or substance abuse, comfort eating, sleep disturbances, retail therapy, and self-harm) but even healthy survival strategies will eventually outlive their usefulness.

From Healthy to Unhealthy

In desperate times, we must conjure up healthy methods to deal with our pain. There is no need to feel guilty about this. Drastic circumstances may require shot-in-the-dark measures — like shutting down an economy to avoid the spread of a novel virus. On a more micro level, we may opt to embrace “keeping busy” during the acute phase of our own grief. In both cases, the “solution” is far from ideal. It will no longer serve us after a very brief time period. An obsolete coping mechanism can rather quickly morph into a dysfunctional one.

The quarantine may have quelled our anxiety about catching Covid-19. It soothed us amidst the contradictory and inflammatory headlines and became our new comfort zone. Surrendering this armor — even long after it becomes no longer necessary — can feel illogical until we’re able to surrender our outmoded lens. The problem lies in our perception.

Again, on a more personal level, the same dynamic can play out. Your never-ending to-do list may shield you from having to process some very, very difficult emotions. But the whole busy-busy thing is not serving you anymore. To hang onto it is to expedite this coping mechanism’s transition into the realm of “counterproductive.”

How to Let Go of Expired Coping Mechanisms

Accept their existence

Own up to the reality that you’ve patched together a survival quilt. Once you’ve accepted the existence of your coping strategies, they become more malleable and replaceable. It also becomes possible for you to honestly gauge their value as time passes. Suggestion: Keep a journal. It will help organize your recovery process and may also come in handy if/when you choose to speak with a health professional.

Recognize that coping mechanisms never address the underlying issue

The purpose of survival skills is survival. Rarely, if ever, do they get anywhere near the root cause of the crisis. But rest assured, the root cause is still there… waiting for you. Like a life jacket, a coping mechanism may prevent you from drowning. However, you still have to find your way to shore and figure out how the heck you wound up in the water in the first place.

Practice basic self-care

Pro tip: This suggestion is valuable 365/24/7, in good or bad times. When in the throes of a dilemma — personal, global, or both — self-care can become your foundation. The basics include:

  • Regular sleep patterns
  • Healthy eating habits
  • Daily exercise and activity
  • Stress management and relaxation techniques
  • Solitude
  • Technology breaks

Create a few new temporary skills, if needed

Crises evolve, take twists and turns, and sometimes… they re-emerge in one form or another. Thus, the process of developing coping mechanisms never ends. The trick is being able to release them when you’re finished with them — even if it’s only to temporarily replace them with something more functional.

Through It All, Stay Connected

Cultivating a support system is not, by definition, a coping mechanism. It’s more of a way to safeguard your wellbeing, regardless of life’s circumstances. In times of crisis, your support system grows in importance. Whether it’s one person, a therapist, or an entire village, you’ll need outside input. You’ll need someone to gently point out your expired coping mechanisms — just as others will inevitably need you to do the same for them.

While periods of solitude are an important part of anyone’s self-care regimen, social withdrawal can work against you when you feel under siege. Social distancing is merely a temporary coping mechanism during a pandemic. In the bigger picture, some form of community is a non-negotiable requirement as we grow, learn, evolve, and prepare for the next emergency.

-Mickey Z

Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

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