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Week 6, Session 2: Unhelpful coping mechanisms.

Hello everyone! Welcome back for Week 6 Session 2. 

If this is the first session you are reading, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

This is our week on coping mechanisms. Last time we learned about positive coping mechanisms, as well as when positive coping mechanisms turn less healthy,  so today, the goals for this session are:

  • Learn about unhelpful coping mechanisms
  • Identify when our coping mechanisms are creating more problems
  • Learn about Internal Family Systems framework for understanding coping mechanisms

And as always let’s start with our grounding exercise. If you can, please join in. 

**Today’s first grounding exercise will be…
**Pick up an object and describe it in detail. Describe its color, texture, size, weight, scent, and any other qualities you notice.
Fun question: What’s your favourite piece of clothing? So if you were a cartoon, what would your character wear? (As an example, think of the Simpsons and how they wear the same clothes each episode).

Last session we learned about some helpful coping mechanisms, as well as about how helpful coping mechanisms can turn into unhealthy ones if we are overusing them. This latter point is particularly important for today: coping mechanisms are about helping us manage the stresses of everyday life. That is clearly an important need that we should address.
However, some of our coping mechanisms are unhelpful. What do we mean by unhelpful? It’s a coping mechanism, inasmuch as it helps you manage those demands on our energy and time we had discussed. However, just because a technique is helping you endure your stress or pain, it does not necessarily mean it’s healthy. Some coping strategies can be unhelpful and lead to more problems in our lives. We’re avoiding the word ‘bad’ or ‘negative’, which we’ll address a little bit later, as it’s still something that helps us manage stress which we shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about, but its effects may also still be negative overall. 

Now, as we go through this list, please remember that your trauma is not your fault, and neither is whatever coping mechanisms you use. The purpose of describing these coping mechanisms is not to shame anybody but might just bring your attention to behaviours you may or may not have been using to manage difficult emotions like stress, fear, and anger.

  • Drinking alcohol or using drugs: Substances may temporarily numb your pain, but they won’t resolve your issues. Substances are likely to introduce new problems into your life. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant that can make you feel worse. Using substances also puts you at risk for developing a substance abuse problem and it may create legal issues, financial problems, and a variety of social issues, each of which can be very difficult to deal with themselves.
  • Overeating or undereating: like we discussed last time, this is a positive coping mechanism that has turned less healthy. Food can be a real source of comfort when we are feeling low or anxious. However, we need to watch that our relationship with food does not become an unhealthy one. Binge eating or undereating will not serve your body and mind, if you are struggling with these please seek advice from a doctor.
  • Sleeping too much: another positive coping mechanism turned less healthy. Sleeping is a key part of our wellbeing and creating good sleeping routines is very important to stay healthy and well. However, if you feel you are using sleep to disconnect from the world and not face reality, this will not help.
  • Overspending: treating ourselves to buying or enjoying something we want can make us feel great, and there’s nothing wrong with some self-indulgence. However, if you are spending more than you have, or you feel you should spend a lot of money in a short amount of time or as a way of coping, you are probably trying to use this as a way of disconnecting to your problems and focusing on physical items that bring a temporary sense of relief and fulfillment.
  • Self-harm: self-harm is when someone intentionally hurts themself, usually as a way of managing emotions. Perhaps the most well-known form of self-harm is ‘cutting’, but there are other kinds too. While self-harm can be used as a kind of self-punishment, self-harm is also used to manage feelings such as fear, anxiety, and stress, which may be caused by a particular situation or memory. People who self-harm often report a sense of ‘relief’ after they self-harm, and because of this self-harming can become a difficult habit to break.
  • Unsafe or risky sexual encounters: There’s no ‘right’ way to have sex. However, when we’ve experienced trauma, particularly if that trauma was related to sexual violence or intimate partner violence, we might develop a habit of responding to stressful situations -- maybe when our traumatic experiences are triggered -- by engaging in risky sexual encounters, such as unprotected sex with a stranger in an unsafe environment. This isn’t a behaviour that we need to be ashamed of, but noticing patterns in our sexual behaviour can be useful in figuring out if we’re having sex because it’s something we enjoy, or more because it helps us ignore or banish uncomfortable feelings. 

If you need to take a pause after that list: please do. It can be very difficult to think about some of these coping mechanisms if we realise we identify with them to some extent, so if you want to go away from this session and come back, please do. Do a grounding exercise, get a glass of water, maybe walk around a bit: whatever you need to do. When you get back, we won’t be going into any more details of specific unhealthy coping mechanisms, but rather why we use them.

So let’s address why we use unhealthy coping mechanisms. If they can be so bad for us long term, why would we ever use them? It’s a good question. For one perspective on this question, we’re going to introduce you to a particular framework from the field of psychology, which will hopefully help you reflect on this question in a useful way.

One way of understanding why we use unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage our emotions is the Internal Family Systems Framework, which was created by Richard Schwartz in the 1980s, and has been implemented by many psychotherapists around the world. This framework or theory suggests that we can think about our “Self” as a collection of many parts working together to make up a “family” - resulting in how we are and behave.

The main parts of this family are:


This part of us that is neglected, abused, hurt, scared, and damaged by the experience of trauma. This is part that carries the weight of these experiences and so is the most vulnerable. 


Like the manager of a café, this part runs our ‘day to day’ abilities. The manager cares about everything going smoothly so it will control things to stop “exile” from exerting its influence. 

If you have a loud inner self-critic or have a perfectionist attitude to work, or maybe engage in a healthy coping mechanism to an excessive level like exercise or working -- that might represent your manager working. 


Finally, we have the firefighter. The firefighter’s job is to put out fires: that is, to do whatever it takes to extinguish the negative feeling or thought that is threatening us. This might be where some of our negative coping mechanisms come in -- self-harm, substance abuse, extreme eating habits. The firefighter is doing damage control but doesn’t necessarily care about what it damages while it’s working.

As mentioned, this framework can also help us understand how healthy coping mechanisms can become unhealthy coping mechanisms if we think of the ‘manager’ of the Internal Family System. Putting excessive effort into aspects of our lives that we can control, at least to some extent -- our work, our physical fitness, what we eat -- is that manager micromanaging our lives as a way of maintaining control and keeping the exile out. 

As people who have experienced trauma, we try hard to separate ourselves from all the negative feelings and sensations that are associated with our trauma. These sensations can be overwhelming for our systems, and it’s exhausting going through cycles of hyper-focus and dissociation. Sometimes we need a break from the task of managing our emotions -- and that’s where our firefighters and our managers step in. We may even be worried that our exile will take control of us -- and that all of the negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences associated with our traumas will become too overpowering, and our ability to ‘function’ will come to a standstill.

Whether our unhealthier coping mechanisms represent our manager or our firefighter, understanding them can bring us to a new self-awareness. And ultimately, this understanding can be used to recognise that part of ourselves that is scared, fearful, and anxious; that part of us is vulnerable and needs love and care. Recovering from trauma isn’t about banishing any one of these three parts of ourselves, not even the firefighter. It’s about restoring balance in the relationship between these components of our emotional wellbeing, a balanced working relationship that might have been set off kilter by trauma, so that they’re able to function in harmony without one of them taking over. 

The point of this explanation wasn’t to say that you have to be familiar with the Internal Family Systems framework to analyse your coping mechanisms, or to change them. This framework is just a useful way of understanding that the point of identifying our coping mechanisms isn’t to be ashamed of them or even to immediately stop them. It’s to give ourselves space to recognise what they are, and what aspects of our emotional needs they are addressing. There might be negative emotions, or anxieties, or bad memories, that we just haven’t given ourselves permission to deal with, or that are too difficult to deal with at a particular time. 

This is how coping mechanisms are linked to traumatic experiences. We may look to more extreme ways of managing our feelings, and may even seek to numb them, because those feelings are even stronger as a result of the trauma. For example, the rate of self-harm is higher amongst survivors of childhood trauma than amongst people who haven’t experienced early trauma. That doesn’t mean that people who’ve experienced trauma necessarily use unhelpful coping mechanisms, and people with none or few experiences of trauma have the healthiest coping mechanisms. No. But when we’ve been exposed to an extreme situation or environment which was out of our control, as in a traumatic experience, it can influence our sense of safety, the ways that we interact with our environment, and therefore the ways in which we are able to look for comfort in our environment. But using unhealthy coping mechanisms doesn’t make us bad. You can look at coping mechanisms, even ones that are less healthy, as evidence that you are resilient. Your body and mind are working together to look out for you, trying to manage a whole host of difficult trauma-related emotions. Identifying the ways in which you are coping can be a powerful first step in recovery. But know this: you have already been resilient. And you are not alone. 

The homework for this week is… To get ready for next session! Next week will be a more dynamic session: we will be working on a little project called "storylines". The idea is to look back at some important moments in our journey and build a narrative that goes beyond our trauma. So, for the next session, you will need some paper (the bigger the better) and colour markers, crayons and pencils. Also, try to start thinking about the following: 

  • The people and places that have been important to you.
  • The different events that have helped make you who you are.
  • All of the places and houses you have lived in.

And get ready to get creative - and reflective, of course. 

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