9 Unhealthy Coping Habits That End Up Hurting More Than Helping
Make sure your methods for getting through tough times are actually healthy—not harmful—in the long run.
We all find ways to cope with difficult situations and emotions. Whether we choose them intentionally (pour one more glass of wine to get through Wednesday) or engage automatically (default to pretending you’re fine when you’re really about to break down), our personal coping strategies are natural attempts to protect ourselves.
“As humans, we often choose the path of least resistance by ignoring the cues designed by our bodies and minds to help us learn from our history and each other,” says Paula Pavlova of Pavlova Wellness. “We use substances like drugs, food, and alcohol to drown our worries, pick little fights to avoid feeling our feelings, point out others’ flaws and hold grudges instead of looking closely at ourselves.”
The trouble comes because many of these unhealthy coping habits only provide temporary pleasure or relief. They’re stand-in strategies that stall—rather than solve—underlying unrest. “These tactics are attractive because they’re easy—but they work until they don’t,” Pavlova says. Even when times are at their toughest, avoid getting trapped in these nine unhealthy behaviors commonly used to cope, especially these days—and health and wellness experts walk through how to deal instead.
There’s nothing that can seem more soothing in the moment than a great cocktail or comforting glass of wine. Alcohol consumption in moderation is a pleasant and tasty escape—but during the past few months of physical quarantine and mental unrest, many people have been drinking due to boredom, depression, or as an unhealthy way to cope. Alcohol shouldn't be a crutch you rely on to get through.
“I recommend keeping the drinks to a minimum these days,” says emergency medicine physician Cassie Majestic, MD. “While alcohol makes people feel more relaxed and happy initially, those effects are temporary. Keep yourself busy with other projects, goals, or interactions, and limit the amount of alcohol you keep in your home, so there’s a barrier to drinking in excess.”
Allowing yourself to enjoy and indulge in something—without self-judgement—is an important practice in self-care and decompression. But balance is the key, and self-care is not all about letting yourself run wild. “Do you find yourself getting lost in your phone for hours, watching your 400th episode on Netflix? Eating everything in the fridge? You may want to consume everything to avoid thinking about the uncertainty, difficulty, anxiety, and plenty of other difficult emotions swirling in the air right now,” says Yael Shy, a meditation teacher, senior director at the New York University Center for Spiritual Life, and a writer for Pause + Purpose.
What can you do instead with urges to keep watching, scrolling, or snacking on sweets? As Shy explains, research shows that behavioral changes come not by berating ourselves, but instead by acknowledging and accepting our underlying impulses, without necessarily giving in to them every time. Shy shares four steps for curbing constant bingeing as a coping strategy.
“First, when you feel an urge to binge, pause and take a breath,” she says. “Addiction feeds off mindless behavior.” Even if you do ultimately cave to a craving, taking a pause before the binge reminds you of the agency you have over your own body, decisions, attention, and time. “Second, notice the root of the impulse: Is it loneliness? Fear? Grief? What are you escaping when you get sucked into the next episode or hour of scrolling. Third, with lots of compassion, put a hand on your heart and stomach, close your eyes, and say to yourself, ‘This is really hard. This is really uncomfortable. I know you want to escape.’ Take 5 to 10 breaths repeating these phrases of self-compassion.” Finally, if you’ve tried everything above and still want to binge on something, do it with a sense of control. “Remove the mindless nature of the activity and replace it with some mindfulness,” Shy says.“Set a timer so you don’t do it forever and actually stop when the timer goes off. If you’re eating, eat slowly and mindfully, tasting each bite.”
Letting go of hectic social and professional schedules may have been somewhat of an unexpected relief to many at the start of the pandemic. And for a lot of people, not forcing themselves to stick to any sort of self-imposed schedule during lockdown and work-from-home measures has been a way to console their sense of anxiety and uncertainty (I may be scared about the world, but at least I can work in my PJs and stay in bed until 2 p.m.). But over time, lacking a sense of structure, as well as regular human interactions, will do more harm than good.
“If you’re in charge at work, schedule video meetings or lunches regularly with your team. If you’re flying solo, consider making yourself a schedule (with specific time-blocked slots) on work days,” Dr. Majestic says. “Consider using an old-school planner, since everything involves technology these days. And get out of those sweats! You can look forward to putting them back on when your work day is finished.”
Ever feel like you can’t breathe when you get overwhelmed with tasks, thoughts, or feelings; or find that you’re unconsciously holding your breath while experiencing something stressful? You have to remember to breathe. “With everything going on in the world, it’s completely natural to find yourself on edge more often than usual—you’re not alone,” says Pavlova. “Right now, for everyone, normally hard-to-bear realities seem a billion times heavier, but depriving yourself of much-needed oxygen is not going to help carry that weight.”
Next time you feel your heart race, stomach churn, and jaw clench (all involuntary physical reactions to stress), Pavlova says to plant your feet firmly into the ground—or lie or sit down—and close your eyes. “Take a deep, slow, steady breath all the way in (like you’re breathing into your legs and feet), hold it for a moment, then let it out just as slowly." Do this at least three times before returning the task at hand. Only once you feel reconnected to your breath and more anchored in your body, "respond to the text, to call, to challenge, to moment, with grace rather than force or fear. Apply this to everything that you do," Pavlova says.
We get it, life is overwhelming enough as it is without trying to squeeze in a workout. Plus, gyms are either closed or tentatively safe, if open at all, so the easy thing to do is give up on exercise. But don’t take the easy route—you’ll thank yourself in the long run! You need heart-pumping activity in your life for everything from heart, bone, and muscle health, to regulating mood, increasing energy, and improving sleep quality.
“Even if you don’t have a Peloton or weights at home, there are so many at-home workouts to choose from on platforms like YouTube or Instagram,” says Dr. Majestic, who loves HIIT workouts because they rarely require equipment. And she’s right: Stream great fitness videos from home, practice yoga for free, run the stairs in your building, and use that full jug of laundry detergent as your heavy kettlebell. “If nothing else, get outside for a walk and keep your body moving throughout the day in short intervals,” Dr. Majestic says.
“A common way stress manifests itself is as a creeping mentality of lack,” Pavlova says. “We feel as though we ourselves are not enough, or that there’s never enough time, money, energy, talent, support—you fill in the blank.” While in some cases this might be true, harping solely on what there is not enough of, or what isn’t working, isn’t going to change it.
“When you find yourself mentally spiraling about what is lacking, create more awareness about the opposite: abundance,” Pavlova says. “Abundance mentality empowers you to believe in your ability to conquer any circumstance (seen or unforeseen) by believing in yourself, no matter how long it takes.” This doesn’t mean leaning into the idea of more stuff (money, power, goods); an abundance mindset is one of optimism and agency, rather than negativity and helplessness. Despite the negative things—of which there will always be some—what do you have? What is there plenty of in your life? What good things have you accomplished today, even if they’re small?
“The concept of ‘not enough’ is a construct in a system that we ultimately create: We agree to the deadlines, we vote in our leaders, and we feed our fears with rhetoric that makes us feel powerless,” Pavlova says. “Instead, think of yourself as the hero, ask a neighbor for help and ask how you can help them. When you believe in yourself, you begin to make an impact on the world around you, rather than the other way around. Life happens because of you, not to you.”
Good food and mealtime rituals are absolutely something to look forward to. But eating way too often or disproportionately unhealthily shouldn’t become your regular strategy for coping when things aren’t going well. “When it feels like there’s nothing else to do or be happy about, we order takeout and binge,” Dr. Majestic says. Food becomes a distraction, a treat, or a pick-me-up—like giving a kid a lollipop at the dentist. “This leads to further bad habits and puts you at increased risk for medical problems such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.” She recommends trying out a new recipe every day—nothing fancy, just something new. “Choose breakfast, lunch, or dinner depending on your schedule, but the more home cooking you do, the better,” she says. “It will give you a sense of responsibility for your health. Use the weekends to reward yourself (in moderation) if you’re feeling it, but I bet you’ll prefer home cooking in no time.”
“When we feel unsafe or triggered, our nervous system is designed to protect us, and sometimes we can get caught in the trap of thinking that [repressing] our true feelings—by dropping out of a conversation, tailoring our feelings, or keeping opinions to ourselves—is an act of self-preservation," says Pavlova. In the moment, this strategy helps avoid conflict, shields you from discomfort, or caters to someone else's feelings. But Pavlova insists this coping mechanism is actually an act of self-denial that can build, potentially creating a pattern of self-sabotage and low self-esteem. “We often curb our true feelings, deny our worth, or shift our opinions to fit in with the status quo, all at the expense of our health and wellbeing. Alternatively, being yourself, fearlessly, is the greatest act of self love,” Pavlova says. “Failure and rejection are guaranteed, but they don’t have to rule your life. Guarantee yourself love, respect, and forgiveness even, and especially, when others can’t.”
“With the information overload and controversy in the world, you may feel like nixing social interaction all together, but this can lead to depression and anxiety,” Dr. Majestic says. It’s paramount to keep your loved ones close and interactions regular, but don’t push it. Dr. Majestic suggests keeping friend circles small and manageable to avoid social anxiety, overstimulation, and conflict. Finally, “don’t forget about therapy,” she says. “Many therapists are working via telehealth and you can open up about your feelings from the comfort of your own home.”