Emotional problems have been understood to stem from a wide range of sources including stress, trauma, early attachment experiences, interpersonal struggles, biological vulnerabilities, and more. But the reasons behind why we feel pain may be less important than the way we cope with it. Our capacity to cope in difficult times may be a key determinant in whether an emotion becomes problematic or remains just another part of life.
Because the experience of pain is such a pervasive part of the human experience, we each learn ways of coping from an early age when we first experience distress. Our coping behaviors are either adaptive or maladaptive, the latter of which can be disastrous in the long-term. It must be intercepted and adjusted.
In their book, “Mind and Emotions: A Universal Treatment for Emotional Disorders,” psychologists Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, and Patricia Zurita Ona write that there are seven maladaptive coping behaviors that contribute to turning pain into full-blown, chronic disorders.
Coping Behaviors Turn Pain to Chronic Disorders
These transdiagnostic factors have been shown to lay beneath a number of diagnosable mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Experiential avoidance is a way of coping with difficult thoughts and feelings that involves avoiding it entirely. Avoidance can present in many different ways and can be categorized as cognitive, somatic, situational, protective, and substitutive.
People who use experiential avoidance as a coping behavior tend to suppress, reject, numb, or otherwise push away internal experiences that they do not like; sometimes at all costs. The results can show up as substance abuse disorders, eating disorders, interpersonal problems, social anxiety, and the list goes on.
It may be difficult to believe that worry is actually a coping strategy because it feels so uncomfortable. What could be worse? In fact, McKay and colleagues write that obsessive thoughts serve to “blunt the fear of uncertainty.”
“Rumination tries to prepare you for every bad thing that might happen. But these efforts never work. Ultimately, rumination keeps you focused on what’s bothering you, so its net effect is that you feel more anxious, more angry, or a greater sense of loss and disappointment,” write McKay, Fanning, and Ona.
3. Emotional Masking
We all know people who are always laughing, cracking a joke or otherwise appearing unfazed by the ups and downs of life. It’s probably not that these folks don’t feel pain, it may be more likely that they have learned to use emotional masking as a way to cope with their struggles. People who use emotional masking do so based on a fear that if others were to see their true emotions, they would be judged or rejected for them. As a result, the mask stays on.
“The price for this maladaptive strategy is that real you remains invisible, lost in the effort to look good. You can’t show what you need or feel, so you remain helpless and possibly unfulfilled in your relationships. No one knows what hurts or what needs to change,” write McKay, Fanning, and Ona.
4. Short-term Focus
People with an excessive focus on the short-term tend to reach for short-term solutions to internal challenges as well. Especially in the face of particularly intense emotions, choosing a quick fix that will offer immediate relief is an understandable response. The trouble with short-term coping strategies is that while many are highly effective in the short run, they tend to be unworkable and even unlivable in the long run. One of the most common examples is substance use, which may provide temporary numbing but tends to have an amplifying effect on the problems that the user was hoping to avoid in the first place.
5. Hostility or Aggression
Getting angry may not look like a coping strategy, but it often is one. It may be a way of emotional masking, covering up grief, hopelessness, powerlessness, or stress.
“Anger is big lid that covers a lot of pain and keeps it out of your awareness. This solution is often effective in the short term, but research shows that the more you use anger to cope, the angrier you get. Hostility begets even more hostility in a vicious circle that poisons lives,” write McKay, Fanning, and Ona.
6. Negative Appraisal
Expecting things to go wrong and focusing excessively on all that’s already gone wrong is another maladaptive coping behavior that tends to lead to emotional disorders. Focusing on the negative is often about trying to prepare for the fact that unwanted events are bound to happen in life. But, it tends to make people feel more negative emotions than necessary in the long run. Insistence on focusing on the negative means people miss out on the positive, and on opportunities to feel better.
7. Response Persistence
There is a saying that doing something over and over again and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity. Response persistence is essentially responding the same way to similar situations, even when the response has proven ineffective and even harmful. Sometimes sticking with the same old response patterns is rooted in fear of trying something new, or based on rigid internal rules that limit available actions. Regardless, refusal or inability to try a new way of responding can lead to chronic emotional problems.
For more about emotional problems and maladaptive coping behaviors, check out “Mind and Emotions: A Universal Treatment for Emotional Disorders.”