What do you do when you cut your finger? You instinctively reach for the first aid box and apply a little antiseptic cream to stop the injury from getting infected and perhaps stick on a band aid to offer protection until you heal. But what happens when you are in pain on an emotional level? Does your mind react in a similarly defensive way to help you cope? After all, if the body is so amazing at healing physical pain then surely your subconscious can do the same. Right? Yes it can, and does, but sometimes this can lead to maladaptive coping skills.

An emotional band-aid on pain

Your internal coping mechanisms are activated when faced with a psychological upset in a protective bid to block out or numb emotional pain. These coping strategies effectively put a band aid on a problem that often needs more in-depth attention. This can lead to the development of negative behavior to pacify the symptoms while the underlying issue is ignored and left to fester. The danger then is that the malaise spreads and the problem can actually get worse, leaving the psychological band aid to struggle to cover up the extent of the injuries. Coping mechanisms go into overdrive as destructive behavior increases until it becomes a threatening secondary ‘infection’.

Exiles and firefighters

Think of your mind as being made up of lots of different components, or sub-personalities, that each play a role to help protect and guide you in some way- kind of like a team of people in your own head. Trauma, shame and emotional hurt are the parts that are hard to face and that you try to banish from your thoughts. These ‘exiles’ are often dealt with fairly swiftly by ‘firefighters’ that you employ to put out the fire of your emotional pain. These are maladaptive coping skills that serve as a distraction or quick fix for hurt feelings, such as drinking, impulsive behavior like shopping sprees or attention-seeking, etc.

Blocking out the pain

Unfortunately, good intentions aside, the distraction techniques the ‘firefighters’ use can lead you towards chaos, confusion and ultimately a bigger problem in the long run. This distraction from real concerns can be difficult to identify, as it can often start off in a subtle way. It is also not so easy to gain perspective or be able to immediately analyze and identify maladaptive coping strategies, often because their very purpose is to mask a problem, steer you away from it psychologically or put up a barrier so you do not even see it. However, recognizing when you are not coping in the best way possible is essential if you really want to heal internal pain and move forward.

7 signs of maladaptive coping

  1. Dissociation – You may be socially withdrawn, feel numb inside and not connected either to yourself or other people. This can lead to social isolation and becoming independent to the point of shunning activities and situations with other people as well as relationships in order to not get hurt.
  2. Self-soothing – You look for ways to feel immediately better, and this quest for a haven in which you can retreat can lead to physical addictions such as alcohol or drug misuse or eating disorders like bingeing.
  3. Impulsive/compulsive behavior – You are looking for instant gratification, similar to self-soothing, but rather than trying to dull the pain you engage in activities that are exciting and risk taking. This might include gambling, shopping sprees, or jumping into any new experience without any real thought of the risks.
  4. Obsessive behavior – When you are threatened you want to feel that you are in control. However, when you are not coping well this can lead to a lack of balance. This might include over-focusing on one aspect of your life, be it relationships, a hobby, or work. It can also involve obsessive routines and rituals, as well as hypervigilance due to trying to find ways to avoid difficult situations.
  5. Excessive behavior – When you are running so far and fast from your emotional pain, you can fall into exaggerated behavioral patterns such as overcompensating to counter what you feel deep down inside. Examples range from aggression and abuse to excessively asserting yourself through attention-seeking behavior. This can result in a person becoming a dominant, bullying force that will not take personal responsibility.
  6. Overcompensation – When you are trying to fight the pain you can begin to feel an internal sense of rebellion. This fight against perpetrators can result in externalizing your problems and blaming others for your situation, creating manipulative and dishonest behavior. When this overcompensation is internalized you may find yourself striving to reach a goal at the expense of your health, wellbeing and the concern of others.
  7. Overdependence – If you do not fight, avoid or run away from pain you may decide to psychologically surrender to it, perhaps to lessen the blow. This can take away your sense of independence so that you are overly-reliant on other people and fear losing them. You may try and please everyone, not be assertive or be too submissive or clingy in relationships.

What is healthy coping?

In essence, coping, whether reactive or proactive, is about reducing stress while dealing with a threat or potential threat head on. Coping is equipping your emotional and subconscious first aid box with healthy skills and effective strategies in order to face your problems. With Internal Family Systems Therapy you can address maladaptive coping mechanisms and also find strategies that enable you to deal with issues in a healthier way.