Turn Your Bad Habits into Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress - Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

I ask all new clients what they do to take care of themselves.  Do they believe they have any healthy ways to cope with stress? How have they gotten through tough times in the past? Some people journal, some have a gratitude practice, some work out.

It’s a great thing when people show up to therapy as a coping strategy, but since they’ve been able to show up to the office we already have some proof that there are coping strategies at work in their life. It’s important sometimes to just explore that.

But I like to talk to people about how they handle stress. There are some very negative ways to do this and one of my main jobs is then to support them in changing that behavior. And there’s always at least one, great, positive coping skill that is in there.

Coping Skills Are Not the End of the Conversation

Coping skill. It’s a definite, concrete term and has moved out of mental health offices into the wider world. It’s not threatening and it’s not hard to define like many things are in therapy-speak. It’s just what it says it is: a way to cope.

Breathing, meditating, listening to music, writing, drawing, taking a walk—all of these are good, healthy coping skills. I find talking to others to be helpful and I have a friend who likes to take long baths when feeling stressed.

Most people can easily tell the the difference between healthy ways of coping from unhealthy ones, but it’s important to note that any method shows that you have a natural desire to “cope” and that’s an important and healthy sign.

Coping skills are meant to get you through tough times. They don’t need to become a habit, or a superstition (meaning, if I don’t do this coping skill then something bad will happen). Healthy coping skills, when combined with mindfulness, intend to put you back in control. Not in a perfectionist, need-to-have-control-of-the-world way, but in a I-don’t-have-to-wallow-in-the-tide-of-my-difficult-time way.

They may also be a way to help you be ok with not being in control.

I’ve written a couple of times on the coping skill (never called it that, though) of over-thinking. This is the process where you keep yourself stuck by re-examining possibilities again and again in your head (or out loud as many people do, driving their partner nuts.) It’s often the case that we’re not allowing emotion in so we perseverate with our thoughts.

So along those lines, if your coping skill is covering up a problem, the coping skill itself is not going to make things better in the long run and it’s not one of your healthy ways to cope with stress. That’s fine. There are times when coping skills can positively be used as “distractions.” If you are aware that you are doing that, that can be okay.

Coping skills are not meant to get to the bottom of things. I mean coping skills no disrespect when I say that they are like a band-aid. That’s fine, band-aids are helpful and important. They’re a way of managing while other healing work is going on underneath.

If you’re in the midst of a breakup and you go to The Chocolate Room and have the Black Bottom Butterscotch to drown your sorrows, that’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world—as long as it doesn’t become your main means of dealing (or if you’re diabetic.)

Unpack the Coping Method to Discover Some Coping Skills

Is the brownie a coping skill? Ehh, it’s a means of coping, so it’s not one of your healthy ways to cope with stress. But can you turn something like this around and make it a skill? Why, I’m glad you asked.

If you take this coping method and unpack it a bit we can look at what it is about this that is so soothing.

  • Is it the sugar?
  • Is it the forbidden-ness?
  • Is it the treating yourself?
  • Is it a comforting regression to childhood?
  • Does it give you freedom to “be bad”?
  • If you’re doing it with a bunch of friends, is there a celebration of being able to do what you want, untethered by your ex?

All of these reasons can help you turn your night of id energy (there’s some therapy jargon for you) into a coping skill. Once you discover what you’re actually “feeding” you can invent healthier options.

If it’s literally the sugar (and I would put some money down that’s probably not the full story) there are lots of ways to get healthy sugars.

If it’s one of the other reasons, just knowing that will put you in the right direction.

Being “Bad”

Let’s take on example from above:

The freedom to “be bad” challenges your beliefs of what is acceptable behavior for yourself.

Did you set these rules or were they installed by an overprotective parent, perhaps? Are there hard and fast rules in place in order to keep control in an uncontrollable world? Maybe it would be helpful for you to find little pockets of ways to go against your own grain. Take small moments and see how the world doesn’t collapse if you push at the boundaries.

The “bad” is in quotes because something that one person may see as a great thing to do appears overly indulgent to someone else. If you have a strict schedule in the evening when you need to get everything set up for your day tomorrow does it seem horribly selfish to take 20 minutes of your night and take a hot bath? How about challenging yourself to leave your desk during your lunch break, go down the street and sit in a Starbucks for an hour with your work phone off? Worried you’ll get in trouble for taking care of yourself, for not being available? Maybe in the evening taking a half hour to watch a TV show—not a half hour when you’re walking all over your apartment or trying to catch up on other things while you’re doing this, but time spent just with watching the show.

My point is that flirting with a healthy experience of debauchery can be freeing. Even moreso if you know that you’re doing it and what you’re doing it for.

Back to eating, let’s set the stage for being “bad”:Healthy Ways to Cope with Stress with Chocolate

I bought this expensive piece of chocolate and I am going to sit on my couch and I am going to slowly eat it. The whole bar. But I’m going to break off the pieces one by one (maybe two) and I’m going to let some just melt in my mouth. I’m turning off my phone and the TV. I’m not responding to anything while I eat this chocolate.

I’m doing this because I’m sad. My mother, whom I love, said something incredibly hurtful to me yesterday and I’ve noticed that it still stings. I’m not binging on chocolate, but I am eating emotionally, in fact I’m going to be very certain that with this chocolate I am feeding this emotion in what could become an unhealthy way. But I’m aware of the sadness and the hurt, and I only have one bar of chocolate and the bodega is too far away since I’m now sitting in my robe on my couch.

This situation is very different from buying a pint of Chunky Monkey and eating it as fast as you can while blasting music and binging on youtube videos of cats.

We’ve taken the first situation and adapted it into a healthy, positive regression. It may not be time to examine why this particular jab by mom cuts as deeply as it does. It may not be time to make any big decisions. It’s allowing you to not have to “keep it together” during a stressful moment. It’s allowing you to not just “manage” or “deal” or “handle it”—all the codes for: Don’t have an emotion, you’re supposed to be strong.

This becomes a concern when it morphs into a habit or when you remove the mindfulness from it. But hey, I’m fine if you’re like, I’m going to do this thing for a short period of time and I’m not going to fully examine my feelings. If you are going to be mindful about your un-mindfulness, well, that can a be a nice regression for yourself as well.

If you’d like to dig deep and discover some coping skills what will work for you or explore how you manage stress, feel free to be in touch by phone or email.

Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working in family and men’s counseling for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.