We all have our ways of coping with stress and taking care of ourselves when we’re feeling a bit off-- a brisk run, a warm cup of tea, a yoga class, a plate of comfort food, a long conversation with a partner, grabbing happy hour drinks with coworkers. But what happens when the things that make you feel good veer into unhealthy territory, and end up being more harmful than helpful? Below, learn a bit more about how four unhealthy coping strategies -- over-exercising, overeating, fighting, and drinking -- can set you further back on your path for peace, and how therapy can be a part of the puzzle that gets you back on track.
For many, exercise is an excellent outlet for the feelings that come up when things aren’t easy -- it’s been shown to decrease stress levels, ease anxiety, and boost confidence. By shooting endorphins to your brain, it can give you an instant rush of feel-good energy.
But, when you work out, make sure to take care of yourself; when it becomes excessive, exercise can hurt more than it helps, through muscle tears, dehydration, and decreased appetite. The potential negative effects can go beyond the physical, as well, and can include fatigue, irritability, fitful sleep and drowsiness, and even anger and inability to concentrate. Your best bet is to listen to your body, and, if it feels like a step that can help you, address both the physical and the psychological symptoms with trained professionals.
Raise your hand if you recently got your shipment of Girl Scout cookies from a coworker’s daughter and devoured it all in one crummy sitting. Eating the foods you love can be oh-so-comforting, but when it goes overboard, it can cause serious damage. Overeating, even over short periods of time, can lead to metabolic dysfunction, and your body may lose its ability to know when it’s hungry. Long-term, it can also lead to weight gain, diabetes, and insulin resistance. Recently, it's been suggested that many of the individuals who overeat may be unknowingly afflicted by binge eating disorder (BED), which affects as many as one in 35 adults and tends to be very treatable through short-term therapy. Keeping a food diary can be a helpful step to be more mindful about what you’re taking in and how it makes you feel, and working regularly with a therapist can help you relieve stress consistently, better understand the root of your pattern, and have an accountability buddy throughout your journey.
I can’t be the only one who’s more likely to be passive aggressive when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Like clockwork, it happens: I become stressed at school or work, feel like I don’t have enough time to take care of myself, and then begin acting snarky and short with the people I care the most about, jonesing to pick a fight. When I bring these feelings up in therapy, the thread starts to unravel, and each time, I learn something new about myself and the way my feelings and thoughts operate. Sometimes, understanding those patterns is enough of an accomplishment in itself; other therapists may find it useful to work on interrupting those patterns and creating new ones in their place. A skilled therapist will know which direction might be most valuable for you in the moment.
Alcohol is a coping strategy that many of us know all too well. Alcohol’s ability to transport you, numb you, and make you forget can be an appealing escape when things feel overwhelming. But you’re also probably aware of the potential negative effects of drinking too much, either over time or on one or more occasions. Alcohol can erode away many of the organs that help us function, including the liver, pancreas, and heart. It can worm its way into your brain function, making it tougher to concentrate and balance, by impeding the neurological communication pathways that make our brains so powerful. Surprisingly, even one incident of binge drinking can impact your immune system -- making you more vulnerable to getting sick -- for up to 24 hours.
A therapist can be many things. Any therapist you meet will want to create a safe space, where it’s okay to think through things that might not feel alright to share anywhere else. A therapist can be a container for the things you aren’t sure about, the things you aren’t proud of, or the things you wish weren’t true. When an unhealthy coping mechanism feels like your only option, consider that a skilled therapist might be just what you’re looking for.
Alyssa Petersel, Co-Founder and CEO of My Wellbeing and author of Somehow I Am Different, graduated from Northwestern University in 2013 with dual BA degrees in psychology and international studies, graduated summa cum laude from New York University in May 2017 with her Master's in Social Work, and graduated from The Writer's Institute non-fiction program at CUNY Graduate Center in May 2017. A native New Yorker, Alyssa now lives in Brooklyn and enjoys running, coffee, community, and social justice.
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