How To Avoid Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms For Trauma

You may have heard the saying, “You can’t control what happens. You can only control how you respond to what happens.” The effectiveness of your response to a challenge or setback can be determined by what type of coping mechanism you choose. If you select unhealthy coping mechanisms, even a small problem can become a catastrophe.

What are Coping Mechanisms?

Difficult moments and unpleasant situations are inevitable parts of life. The challenges we encounter can range from minor annoyances (like getting stuck in traffic) to tragic losses (such as the death of a loved one). The common thread among all these experiences is that they are sources of stress, conflict, and sadness. 

The term “coping mechanisms” refers to how we respond to these types of events. They are the ways we manage stress, resolve (or escalate) conflicts, and deal with sadness. Our coping mechanisms can influence the impact of problems and setbacks in life. These actions can also alter how others are affected.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Here are a few general differences between healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms:

  • Healthy coping mechanisms promote growth, introspection, and healing. They can help you minimize the damage or resolve the problem.
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms compound problems. These types of reactions can take bad situations and make them significantly worse.

Let’s say you had a bad day at work. You made an error on a project, and your boss criticized you in front of your colleagues. You feel embarrassed, upset, and angry. Unless you’ve somehow acquired a time machine, there’s nothing you can do about the error or your boss’s reaction. But you have a significant role to play in determining how this experience affects your mental health and your future performance at work.

Some unhealthy responses include getting drunk, calling in sick and spending the day in bed, and lashing out at a friend or family member. The results of these choices can include an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, consequences for missing work, and straining or ruining a personal relationship.

Some healthier options include driving past the bar and going to the gym instead, calling a trusted friend to talk through what happened, and making a plan to prevent the same type of error from occurring again. These options can help you channel your energy in a productive direction, gain valuable perspective on the problem, and develop a solution that will benefit you and your colleagues.

What are Common Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Trauma?

People whose lives have been impacted by trauma may attempt to deal with their distress in a variety of ways. Three of the more common unhealthy coping mechanisms for trauma are projection, denial, and self-medication.


Projection occurs when a person takes characteristics that they don’t like about themselves and applies them to someone else. For example, a person who is dissatisfied with their body size or shape may mock or criticize others about their appearance.

Projection is a way for people to protect themselves from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. As an unhealthy coping mechanism in the aftermath of trauma, people may direct their disdain toward another person instead of acknowledging that they are struggling with emotional pain.


People who engage in denial simply refuse to admit that a problem exists. A person who has been drinking too much after a traumatic experience may deny that they have a problem with alcohol. Someone with a serious illness may refuse to admit there’s anything wrong. 

When a person denies the existence of a problem, they may think they don’t have to find a solution or process their complex emotions. Of course, denial does not actually make difficulties disappear. It only delays (and compounds) the pain of facing the problem when it becomes too severe to ignore.


Self-medication in the aftermath of trauma can take many forms. This unhealthy coping mechanism may include misusing prescription pills, abusing alcohol, and using illicit drugs such as heroin or cocaine. No matter how a person self-medicates, the goal is typically to numb themselves, so they are temporarily free of psychological torment. 

In other words, self-medication represents a failed attempt to escape. Because once the effects of the substance have worn off, the person is once again confronted with the feelings or memories they were trying to avoid. In many cases, self-medication can also cause a host of additional problems. The many potential dangers of self-medicating include organ damage, addiction, overdose, and death.

How to Avoid Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms for Trauma

The best way to avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms for trauma is to develop healthier ways of responding. Though this may sound like a simple solution, it can take considerable effort. It may also require professional assistance.

When a person enters a trauma treatment program, they can safely address their hopes and fears with the guidance of a trained professional. Therapy sessions are supportive forums where people can talk about difficult topics without fear of judgment. Therapy participants can also gain essential insights into trauma and recovery, then use this information to develop and practice healthy coping skills.

Effective Trauma Treatment in South Florida

Neuroscience Institute is a premier source of compassionate care for adults with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other effects of trauma. At our trauma treatment program in South Florida, you will work with a team of dedicated professionals who truly care about you. With our help, you can overcome your traumatic past and achieve a healthier and more hopeful future. Visit our admissions page today to learn more.

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