According to the National Institute of Health, “coping is defined as the thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations.”1 Coping mechanisms are the thought and behavioral patterns used to deal with stress. While there can be good and bad types of coping mechanisms, coping mechanisms themselves are true neutral on the moral alignment chart. They’re just another tool to manage our mental health like medication, breathing exercises, therapy, etc. Problems arise when coping mechanisms are destructive (e.g. self-harm, violence toward others, etc.) or used inappropriately (e.g. excessive indulgence in fantasies, denial of responsibilities, substance abuse, etc.)
The types of coping mechanisms people use are so varied, that there's no way to give a blanket list of good or bad coping mechanisms. Generally speaking, when the behavior that's being used results in harm to oneself or others—especially if it is long-lasting—then that is not a healthy coping mechanism.
When in doubt, ask God for wisdom (James 1:5), talk to a trusted adult, or consult a trusted medical professional for their observations and opinions. These are just a few common but destructive behaviors that some use as coping mechanisms.
Substance Abuse. Whether it's use of illegal drugs, alcohol, vaping, or inappropriate use of prescription meds, none of these methods are healthy ways to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression. "Self-medicating" cannot make the problem go away. Instead, abusing substances only increases stress due to the consequences that could result. Mix in the fluctuating changes of existing in a teenage body, and you have a recipe for disaster.
The Bible speaks against drunkenness many times (Ephesians 5:18; Proverbs 23:20-21; Isaiah 5:11), and we can easily extend that to using substances that cause us to lose our ability to make good decisions about taking care of ourselves or others.
Self-harm. We have an entire article on self-harm due to the tragic persistence of this coping mechanism. In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control reported over 27,000 visits to the emergency room due to self-harm injuries of those ages 5-24 in the US.2 Suicide by self-harm was listed as one of the 15 leading causes of death in the US in 2021.3
Sometimes the inside pain is just so strong that sufferers hurt themselves, using physical pain to distract from the emotional pain. But, like substance abuse, this doesn’t solve anything long-term.
If you are considering “trying” self-harm to see if it helps, please, PLEASE don’t. Self-harm is an addictive behavior which will escalate into more problems than the temporary relief suggests. And if you are already caught in the addiction of self-harm, please talk to a trusted adult about it immediately. If you don’t have a trusted adult in your life, reach out to one of the sources we have listed at the end of this article—there IS help for you.
Sex. Yep. We need to talk about this. Sex was designed by God to be pleasurable, which makes the temptation to experience intimacy as a coping mechanism even more alluring. But sex was designed for marriage alone (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5), and any sexual behavior outside of marriage is considered immoral (1 Corinthians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5)—including premarital sex, masturbation, and the use of porn.
Abusing sexual intimacy may seem like it makes us feel better in the moment, but again, it is a destructive and dangerous coping mechanism. Even outside of the Christian faith, sexual promiscuity is considered a “high risk behavior" and increases the risk of unintended health consequences like STIs, HIV, and teen pregnancy.4 During high states of distress, it is much harder to consent in full clarity of mind and much harder to identify when someone is taking advantage of our fragile and vulnerable state.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:23 (NASB), “all things are permitted, but not all things are of benefit.” Even good, pleasurable things can become unhelpful at best or harmful at worst. In addition to substance abuse, self-harm, and sex, people may choose to cope by eating or sleeping too much or too little, overworking themselves, chronically denying reality, and more.
The key question is this: Are your coping mechanisms helping you or hurting you?
Don't worry, there are a LOT of behaviors that can be used as good coping mechanisms. One of our 412teens questioners said they used childhood cartoons and a stuffed animal to regulate stress, and that's wonderful! (I’m in my 30s, and I do this too!) Sometimes coping mechanisms just look like emotional rest. Some may take an hour to just exist in whatever emotionally safe place they have—whether it's a bedroom or playground, within the pages of a book, in front of a canvas and paints, dissolved into a favorite movie or show, or surrounded by the music that calms their racing hearts and minds.
So many different things can help different people regulate their anxiety and empower them to face the next day, hour, or moment. Comfort entertainment, the support of friends, and crying can release the pressure inside. Breathing exercises can help the body's nervous system remember that we're still alive and OK. Schedules, routines, or even reminder alarms can help some people stay on track.
What sort of stress do you need to release? What coping mechanisms work best for you?
Maybe you haven't seen your personal coping mechanism here, and you're afraid that it might be "bad" or you honestly don't know. That's OK! Remember, coping mechanisms may look very different from person to person.
To assess if your coping mechanisms are helping or hurting you, there are three important questions to ask yourself:
If the answer is clearly “no,” then your coping mechanisms are likely healthy ones. If you’re not sure what the answer is, then here are some additional assessments:
Sometimes, when we’ve been under sustained stress for a long time, the feeling of comfort in and of itself can be addictive. If you’re not sure if your mechanism is healthy or not, ask a trusted friend or adult. Ask them if they've noticed a troubling change in your behavior or if they have any concerns about how you’re managing your stress load. Ask God for wisdom on how to manage stress in the best way for you (James 1:5). No question is too small for God, He will not shame you, and He wants to be a part of your life (Psalm 34:4-5; Hebrews 12:2; Romans 10:11).
If you find yourself under sustained, constant stress, you may also want to seek counseling. Talk to your school counselor about stress management tips or advice on dealing with whatever is causing you distress. You may want to talk to your guardians about getting you a professional therapist—they aren’t just for trauma recovery, they’re for teaching healthy life skills too.
You are a unique and beloved child of God. You are so loved and valued as a human being—even if you don't feel that way right now. It's OK to use healthy coping mechanisms to help you get through rough periods of time. Using coping mechanisms doesn't mean you aren't trusting God. Coping mechanisms are NOT inherently sinful. Be aware of your own behavior and learn to recognize the things that can be unhealthy or dangerous. Bring trusted adults and friends into your support circle, and don't be afraid to ask for help. Whatever's going on, know that God sees you and cares for you more than you can possibly imagine.
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows." —Matthew 10:29-31
REFERENCES: 1. Algorani EB, Gupta V. Coping Mechanisms. [Updated 2023 Apr 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559031/. 2. "Fast Stats: Suicide and Self-Harm Injury." [Last Reviewed: May 17, 2023]. CDC/National Center for Health Statistics, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/suicide.htm, Source: National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2020 National Summary Tables, table 15. 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Mortality 2018-2021 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2021. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 2018-2021, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10-expanded.html on Jun 19, 2023 10:00:10 PM. 4. "Sexual Risk Behaviors." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/index.htm. [Last Reviewed: March 16, 2023]. Source: Division of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.
Coping mechanisms are NOT inherently sinful. They are simply tools, and they can be used poorly or wisely. Healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms look different for each person depending on their lifestyle, personality, and unique struggles. To assess if your coping mechanisms are helpful or harmful, ask: Is this behavior hurting me? Is it hurting my relationships with others or God?
Be aware of your own behaviors and learn to recognize the things that are unhealthy or dangerous. Bring trusted adults and friends into your support circle, and don't be afraid to ask for help. You may even want to seek a school counselor or therapist. Whatever's going on, know that God sees you and cares for you more than you can possibly imagine (Matthew 10:29-31).
September is an avid film nerd from growing up on weekend trips to Universal Studios Hollywood. She is passionate about the intersections of Christian spirituality, faith, and storytelling in popular culture. Outside of 412teens and digging up obscure horror flicks from the 2000s, she works as a freelance developmental editor and acquisitions consultant while comforting her clingy feline floof, Faust, from the anxiety of existence.