I attended a workshop several years ago and the presenter said "every behaviour serves a function". This phrase has stuck with me since then, particularly when discussing with clients during therapy some of the more unhelpful behaviours they may be using in order to cope with distress or symptoms of anxiety or depression. These unhelpful behaviours can be extreme or obvious such as using drugs and alcohol, or self-harm; to less obvious behaviours such as never voicing an opinion with friends, not going for a promotion at work, avoiding social functions, procrastinating, or working excessive hours. Unhelpful behaviours are not restricted to particular disorders or mental health issues, and can be seen across the spectrum of reasons why people seek out help. At some point in time, the way we have coped with a stressful event made sense or served a purpose. Unfortunately, it either no longer makes sense or it is no longer helpful.
Have a think about a recent stressful event - perhaps a stressful week at work. Imagine that you've got deadlines coming, your boss is grumbling at you, you're waiting on data from another department before you can get started on your project....whatever it may be. Now think back about how you coped with that stressful week. What did you do during the day? Did you perhaps engage in a bit of procrastination, aimlessly scrolling on Facebook? Did you come home and have a couple of beers/glasses of wine? Perhaps you went over the top and clocked in more hours, spent more time making sure the report was perfect? Now think of other times you've felt distress in your life. Have you used similar types of coping behaviours? It is possible that if there is a trend in the way that you cope with stress, it may be a way of coping with how you tend to think about yourself eg I'm not good enough; I'm not worthwhile; I can't trust others to be reliable etc. If you've chosen a strategy similar to the ones mentioned, chances are they fit in the 3 types of coping strategies described by Dr Jeffrey Young: avoidance, compensation and surrender. Rather than go into detail here in this blog, Dr Young has written a self-help book called Reinventing Your Life that explains in details what he calls lifetraps.
So you've worked out that perhaps you have a tendency to use an unhealthy coping behaviour - what next? Well the first step is acknowledging that these behaviours made sense at one point but are no longer helpful or healthy. Now we need to consciously choose different ways of coping. However, one of the biggest difficulties is that the new, healthier behaviours, often are not as fast in changing our mood compared with unhelpful or unhealthy ways of coping. For example, imagine feeling anxious about attending a party and a way of coping is to have a few "pre-drinks" to steady the nerves. This coping strategy will work and quickly - but perhaps there are problems with this strategy over time. Perhaps a "few" drinks turns into several and that by the time you arrive at the party, you are too drunk and make a fool of yourself. Or you start needing a few drinks to steady the nerves for other activities, may be even activities in the past you coped with really well. Now you have an unhelpful coping strategy that originally made sense, but has got out of hand and even drifted away from the original problem. The alternative is to learn strategies such as mindfulness - less likely to give the same immediate result in the short term, but more effective in the long term - when practiced regularly and coupled with therapy to address the anxiety around meeting new people.
Other helpful and healthy coping behaviours include:
joining a social club
ringing a friend
planning a holiday
writing a journal
engaging in a hobby
learning a language
having a bath
However, these new coping behaviours won't be effective if they are done as a one-off or occasionally. If you choose to do meditation, you need to practice regularly, even daily. The aim is to commit to a new way of coping with stress, to consciously choose to cope in a different way, rather than the old way. This means riding through the pain at the start when the new strategy doesn't work as well, knowing that in time, you will start to feel better, to cope better. With new, healthier coping strategies, you might be able to address some of the issues you have been avoiding or over-compensating. To go for that promotion, to speak to someone new at a party, to put your opinion to your friends and so on. You may also need some help with this last part, and that is where a psychologist can help.