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Last Updated on January 12, 2021

The Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Stress

The Healthy and Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Stress

Stress: It’s an issue that everyone deals with but not an issue that everyone knows how to cope with. When we’re dealing with massive amounts of pressure, some of us may choose to turn to meditation or a friendly chat while others may opt for a cheeseburger or a drink.

How we choose to deal with stress has a major impact on both our mental health and our physical well-being. Are you making the right choices when it comes to coping with stress? Do you know what some of the wrong choices may be?

Regardless of which choices you are currently making to deal with your stress, let’s take a look at some of the unhealthy and healthy coping mechanisms for stress:

Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

In order to identify some of your unhealthy behavioral patterns and foster awareness around them so that you can create change, we are going to tackle the most commonly used unhealthy coping mechanisms first.

People who are not coping properly may be found taking part in behaviors such as:

Excessive Drug/Alcohol Consumption or Abuse

Let me make it clear that “excessive consumption” and “abuse” are the key terms in this section. Enjoying an occasional glass of wine every now and then to unwind is not an unhealthy habit.

Binge drinking, chain smoking, or using drugs as a form of escapism to cope with your current stress levels is, however, unhealthy and dangerous. These coping mechanisms could lead to a path of addiction, severe health problems, and even death.

If you’re using any of these coping mechanisms, reach out to your primary care physician and a mental health specialist immediately to work through your issues.

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Turning to Large Amounts of Junk Food for Comfort

It’s not unnatural for people to turn to sweet or sugary foods when they’re experiencing high stress levels. In fact, you can blame cortisol for your cravings for these junk foods.[1]

No matter what you may feel, however, it is important that you fight these urges to feed your stress. Excessive junk food consumption can actually increase stress levels and negatively impact your health. You may also develop an eating disorder as a result of using food to cope with your stress.

Pay attention to these urges and take preventative measures to ensure that you reach for healthier foods instead of ones that will harm you down the road.

Oversleeping or Sleeping Very Little

Much like using drugs or alcohol to numb out the situations in your life that are causing your stress levels, oversleeping is another form of escapism that allows you to avoid the stress in your life.

What you’ll find, however, is that your stressors are still there when you wake up and they will continue to get worse as you continue to avoid them.

On the other hand, there are those who may stay up in order to cram more work into their day and become dependent on caffeine to do so.

Either way, neither of these coping mechanisms work to take care of the problem at its root.

Retail Therapy

It is okay to purchase things that you would like to use that will help you to unwind. Feel like a relaxing bath tonight? Purchase that bath bomb! Need a good laugh? Go ahead and get that copy of your favorite movie! Self-care is necessary.

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However, too much spending becomes a problem when you are shopping to deal with your stress rather than just occasionally treating yourself. Not only will this have a major impact on your finances, but it will also cause extra stress that you won’t be capable of handling when you run out of funds to use on your shopping sprees.

Cut yourself off as soon as possible if you notice this habit forming and seek help.

Personal Punishments

In some cases, individuals may turn to harmful behaviors in order to cope with a stressful situation.

For example, someone feeling as though they are out of control of their lives due to stressful situations may decide to begin harming themselves or starving themselves in order to gain some form of control over their current direction.

If you can relate to the above, seek help immediately and call the local authorities if you believe that you may be a danger to yourself.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the harmful coping mechanisms that commonly manifest in those dealing with high levels of stress, let’s take a look at some healthy coping mechanisms that you could use in place of the methods listed above:

Develop a Solid Support System

Everyone needs that someone or several people who are willing to listen and support them.

Simply talking about your problems is very therapeutic and if your friends are good listeners, they may have some helpful advice to provide you with.

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Develop a solid support system so that you have people to vent to when things become a little too stressful.

Incorporate Some Movement Into Your Day

Exercise is an amazing stress reliever and the best part is that you don’t have to engage in hardcore workout sessions in order to reap the benefits!

All you have to do is make an effort to incorporate some movement into your day. Whether it’s walking, using the stairs, dancing around, or cramming some pushups into your work breaks, movement will help you better cope with high stress levels.

Find Time for Joy

You may be feeling high levels of stress because you are not getting enough “you” time in your busy schedule. The solution? Find creative ways to squeeze in activities that you enjoy.

Maybe you can doodle when you have a few minutes to yourself. Maybe you can watch a funny video or two when you need to take a break.

Whatever makes you happy, make time for it in your day.

Try Out Aromatherapy

Reconnecting with the senses allows us to feel more relaxed and ground us when our stress gets out of control. One great way to get back in touch with your senses is to try out aromatherapy.

Scents such as lavender, vanilla, and lemon all help to calm you down when you get too frazzled and put you back into your relaxed state. You can keep these oils on hand, use lotions, or even get an oil diffuser for your workplace so that you can remain relaxed wherever you go!

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Meditate

Speaking of reconnecting with yourself and your sense, meditation is a heavily-recommended coping mechanism.

Meditation allows you to focus on you without having to worry about any of the stresses of daily life. All you have to do is concentrate on your body and on the world around you. Your mind is free of all worries and cares when you are in the meditation zone!

For those who are new to this practice, there are plenty of guided audio meditations that will help you to start your meditation journey. You can also check out this guide:

Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

Final Thoughts

Coping with stress can be difficult but making the wrong choices when it comes to coping mechanisms can add that much more stress to your life.

Using the unhealthy and healthy lists above, you will be better able to identify what’s not working for you and what you can replace it with.

Keep in mind, however, that this is by no means an exhaustive list. There are plenty more ideas floating out there that will help you to healthily cope with your stress.

Stay calm and take care of yourself and you will be able to deal with anything that comes your way!

Featured photo credit: Alexander Mils via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dylan Buckley

Dylan is Lifehack's Motivation Expert specializing in self-development, with extensive experience working for life coaches and startups.

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Published on April 9, 2021

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

What Is Mindfulness And How It Helps Your Mental Wellness

Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry. However, few people truly understand what it is. My aim here is to teach you what mindfulness is and how it helps your mental wellness. By the end of this article, you will understand the meaning and benefits of mindfulness. Additionally, you will develop the ability to integrate mindfulness into your daily life.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is approximately 2500-years-old with deep roots in the Eastern world as a spiritual, ethical, and philosophical practice. These roots are intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation.[1]

Mindfulness continues to be practiced as a cultural and spiritual tradition in many parts of the world. For Buddhists, it offers an ethical and moral code of conduct. For many, mindfulness is more than a practice—it is a way of life.[2]

However, mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for wellbeing. The evolution began around 1979 when Jon-Kabat Zinn developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).[3] Since then, mindfulness has emerged in the health and wellness industry and continues to evolve.

It is important to recognize the distinctions between mindfulness as a clinical practice and mindfulness as a cultural practice. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.

Many researchers have integrated aspects of Buddhism and mindfulness into clinical psychiatry and psychology. Buddhism has helped to inform many mental health theories and therapies. However, the ethical and moral codes of conduct that drive Buddhist practices are no longer integrated into the mindfulness practices most-often taught in the Western world.[4] Therefore, Western mindfulness is often a non-spiritual practice for mental wellness.

Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment.[5] However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.

The only necessary condition for mindfulness to occur is non-judgmental acceptance and awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It does not need to be complex even though structured programs exist.

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How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Wellness

Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).[6]

Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. The following is not a comprehensive list of all its benefits, but it will begin to uncover how mindfulness helps mental wellness.

Benefits on Your Mental Health

Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Competence
  • Empathy
  • Optimism

Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood. Overall, people who practice this appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.

Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. It also helps to reduce rumination, which is a repetition of negative thoughts in the mind.

MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain. It has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with:

  • Reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life
  • Decreased risk of relapse in depression
  • Reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders
  • Prevention of major depressive disorders
  • Reducing substance-use frequency and cravings

However, more research is needed before these clinical studies can be generalized to the public. Nevertheless, there is promising evidence to suggest MBSR may be beneficial for mental health.[7]

Benefits on Your Cognitive Health

Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.[8]

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To explain this another way, practicing mindfulness can improve the ability to shift from one task to the next, increase attention span and increase awareness of bodily sensations and the environment. Therefore, it has the potential to literally change your brain for the better.

Harvard researchers are also interested in studies of the brain and mindfulness. One researcher studied how brain changes are sustained even when individuals are not engaged in mindfulness. Their research suggests that its benefits extend beyond the moments of mindfulness.[9]

Another study found that the benefits of mindfulness training lasted up to five years. In this particular case, individuals participating in mindfulness activities showed increased attention-span. Mindfulness has also been shown to increase problem-solving and decrease mind wandering.[10]

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?

Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements:

  • An object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds)
  • Awareness of the present moment
  • Openness to experience whatever comes up
  • Acceptance that the mind will wander
  • The intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders

A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.[11]

There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.

Four Mindfulness Meditations and Their Benefits

Not all forms of mindfulness are created equal. Each practice has unique goals, structure, and benefits. The following four mindfulness meditations are linked with improved mental wellness related to vitality, happiness, and attention.

The results come from a study designed to explore the benefits of these four practices. All of these stem from traditional Buddhist practices.[12]

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1. Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.

The study found that eight-weeks of loving-kindness meditation increased feelings of closeness to others. However, it did not reduce negative feelings towards enemies. Additionally, one week of loving-kindness mixed with compassion training increased the amount of positive feelings participants experienced.[13]

2. Breathing Meditation

Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath.

In many different mindfulness and yoga practices, specific breathing (pranayama) practices are taught. However, for beginners, simple diaphragmatic breathing that focuses on each inhale and exhale is sufficient.

The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed. Buddhist monks who practiced breathing meditation were able to process a greater amount of information than monks who practiced compassion meditation.

3. Body Scan Meditation

A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax.

When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.[14]

4. Observing Thoughts Meditation

In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment.

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Within the study, participants practiced structured observation of thoughts. First, they brought their attention to their thoughts and labeled them within several categories: past, present, future, self, or others. Then, they practiced observing their thoughts without an emotional reaction.[15]

The benefits of this practice were robust. First, participants showed great improvement in the ability to observe their thoughts without judgment. Second, the practice greatly reduced rumination. As a result, participants had fewer emotional reactions to their thoughts and developed greater self-awareness around their thinking patterns.

In summary, there are many different ways to practice mindfulness meditation. The choice may be determined by the benefits each practice offers. For example, body scanning can increase bodily awareness. Thought-observation can increase self-awareness and decrease rumination. Regardless, every practice may increase positivity, energy, and focus.[16]

Considerations Before You Begin Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is still a relatively new concept in clinical research. Critics worry that its benefits have been overstated. There is also concern that the Western world has changed it into something most Buddhists would not recognize.[17]

Mindfulness is a state of mind that builds self-awareness. As a result, it may force individuals to face difficult emotions, memories, and thoughts. In a study of long-term, intense mindfulness practices, 60% of participants reported at least one negative outcome. Some cases are related to depression, anxiety, and psychosis.[18]

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to mental wellness. Mindfulness offering promising results but there are also risks involved. Working with a therapist may be a great way to start a mindfulness practice while monitoring for risk.

Final Thoughts

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that has deep roots in Buddhism. It is a practice of present-moment awareness, acceptance of the present moment, and non-judgment of thoughts, emotions, or circumstances.

It has many benefits that may increase mental wellness. However, there are also some risks to consider. Overall, you should consider your unique profile before beginning a practice or consider working with a therapist at the start.

More About Practicing Mindfulness

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[2] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[3] Greater Good Magazine: What is Mindfulness?
[4] Sage Journals: Mindfulness in Cultural Context
[5] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[6] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[7] NCBI: Mindfulness Meditation and Psychopathology
[8] NCBI: Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies
[9] The Harvard Gazette: When Science Meets Mindfulness
[10] Greater Good Magazine: The State of Mindfulness Science
[11] NCBI: A Perspective on the Similarities and Differences Between Mindfulness and Relaxation
[12] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[13] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[14] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[15] ResearchGate: Phenomenological Fingerprints of Four Meditations: Differential State Changes in Affect, Mind-Wandering, Meta-Cognition, and Interoception Before and After Daily Practice Across Nine Months of Training
[16] Greater Good Magazine: How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
[17] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?
[18] NCBI: Has the Science of Mindfulness Lost Its Mind?

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