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What Are Unhealthy Coping Skills?

Unhealthy coping skills –sometimes referred to as poor coping skills– are coping skills that are used but do not help to improve the way someone is feeling about – or managing – a particular situation. Unhealthy coping skills cause the situation to worsen because the coping skills used only serve to exacerbate the initial problem or situation instead of solving the problem or resolving the situation.

Simply put, unhealthy coping skills are coping skills that are used to resolve a situation or problem and appear to be working in the short-term but only worsens the situation/problem in the long run.

What Are Coping Skills?

Well, you might be wondering, what are coping skills? And by extension, what are unhealthy coping skills? Let’s get into it.

Healthy Coping Skills

Coping skills are thoughts, practices, routines that are used to help a person manage or work through a difficult issue, problem, or situation. Examples of healthy coping skills (also called coping mechanisms, coping strategies) are exercising, cooking, going for walk, meditating, yoga, breath work practices, sleeping, talking with a friend, having a glass of wine with dinner, and going to therapy. As you can see, there is a wide breadth of things to do to help you cope. These are examples of healthy coping strategies.

However, things that are done with no boundaries can quickly get out of control and go from being healthy to maladaptive or destructive. An example of this, using exercise, is instead of working out to help manage stress and to build a healthy lifestyle, without proper boundaries, the focus can quickly shift to become obsessive where someone starts working out 2-3 hours a day every day while neglecting other responsibilities or becoming obsessed with the weight loss or muscle gain to the exclusion of everything else.

Unhealthy Coping Skills

Consequently, maladaptive coping skills – poor coping skills – appear to help in the short term but in the long term, they cause further damage. For example, smoking. A person may smoke a cigarette when they feel stressed. If they begin to experience consistent difficulties in their lives, the number of cigarettes they smoke will quickly increase daily, further exacerbating the situation they are experiencing and increasing the risk to their health.

Other examples of poor or unhealthy coping strategies include excessive drinking, binge eating, excessive comfort eating, excessive junk food, excessive and unnecessary eating restrictions, self-harming behaviors, suicidal tendencies, high-risk behaviors that include risky and unsafe sexual encounters, going to risky/unsafe places, gambling, and illicit drug use.

Applications to Therapy

Why are coping skills so important? Coping skills are important because life is full of stressors. Each day, we all face different types of situations that test our limits in various ways. It is imperative that we have different tools in our toolboxes to know how to cope. One type of coping skill or one specific coping practice will not work for every situation. We must also acknowledge that sometimes crises happen in our lives and our environments that overwhelm our normal coping practices.

Hence, we may need to rotate our tools daily, create new practices, or remove old coping methods that no longer work for us. We must be vigilant about building habits and practices that help us relax, replenish, restore, and revitalize ourselves.

And so, in therapy, clinicians will always talk with clients about what kinds of practices they engage in to help them manage the stressors in their lives. Stress can quickly compound and become overwhelming. And as noted above, coping skills can be overwhelming. Hence, clients cannot be dependent on just one thing, like listening to music as many teens will say.

Prolific Life works with teens and adults to teach them healthy coping skills. We specialize in working with teens who self-harm and support the parents who are trying to cope with the self-harm and the changes in their teens. We also specialize in trauma. In all these areas, it is essential to build healthy coping skills to work through the experiences. When poor coping skills are present, individuals become stunted emotionally, disconnected from their emotions, engage in destructive behaviors, and become drawn into a harmful loop of maladaptive behaviors to avoid dealing with the true underlying painful experiences. Contact us today for any questions or to schedule an appointment for yourself or for your teen.


So, to sum up…what are unhealthy coping skills? Unhealthy coping skills are coping skills used to manage or work through a problem, situation, or issue and appear to be working in the short term but does not resolve the problem in the long term and may even cause further damage or worsen the original problem. Healthy coping skills to help you to manage and work through the specific issue and keeps you calm and stable enough to resolve the problem.

Contact a therapist for assistance. Mental health professionals will be able to evaluate the client and identify additional resources that maybe helpful for your child/teen. You can check directories such as Psychology Today, Therapy For Black Girls, and or utilize your insurance provider directories, or if you feel comfortable, ask a friend or relative without necessarily divulging the details of your particular situation.

Photocred: Markus Spiske/

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