I grew up thinking uncomfortable emotions like sadness and frustration were something to be feared, fought, and avoided. But in truth, all our emotions come as a package deal with our mortal experience. And they’re insightful teachers and great catalysts for helping us grow. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “Mortality presents us with numerous opportunities to become more Christlike: first, by coping successfully with … life’s challenges.”1
We all need tools to help us deal with the trials of life and the accompanying emotions. Coping mechanisms are patterns of behavior we use to help us face stressful situations and unpleasant feelings. They can include things like distracting yourself from your problems or talking through an issue with a friend.2
For much of my life, I tried to control my feelings, like distracting myself from hard emotions or pushing them away to avoid facing them. Throughout my teenage years I developed negative coping mechanisms like clinging to perfectionism because I thought if I didn’t ever make mistakes, I could avoid being hurt. I also never asked for help out of fear of burdening other people.
But I eventually learned that the habits I engaged in for so long to deal with my stress or anxiety were harming me, not helping me. I realized I needed to learn how to face my challenges and cope with them in healthier ways. It took a lot of self-reflection, research, and practice to unlearn the negative coping strategies I’ve used in the past. I’ve gained a greater understanding of how the Atonement of Jesus Christ can help me change and become “a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17) with Christ’s help. I’m now learning to cope with difficult emotions in ways that help me use my challenges to become more Christlike.
Building Healthy Coping Mechanisms
The problem with unhealthy coping mechanisms is that they may provide short-term relief, but they can make issues even worse in the long run. Avoidant behaviors can all escalate into addictions and distractions that make it even harder to cope with your problems.
Coping mechanisms shouldn’t be about distracting yourself from reality or avoiding an issue you are facing. Instead, they can help you recharge, focus, remind you of your personal identity, and gain the sense of control needed to face the situations and feelings you are presented with.3
In the realm of mental health, there are generally two types of healthy coping mechanisms: problem-based (taking action to solve your problems) and emotion-based (changing your mindset before approaching your problems to avoid a fear-based response). Problem-based coping could look like making a budget if you are experiencing financial stress. Emotion-based coping could be taking time to exercise or listening to calm music to recover from a difficult day.
As a follower of Christ, I find that I rely more on spiritual-based coping mechanisms. When hard times come, keeping an eternal perspective, turning to uplifting resources, and relying on faith in Jesus Christ are just as important as other coping mechanisms in giving you the strength to help you face challenges.
All types are useful for different circumstances and can even be combined.
Here are some examples of healthy coping mechanisms you can try:
- Turning to uplifting resources that bring you closer to Christ, like scriptures, conference talks, and hymns
- Reading your patriarchal blessing for an added eternal perspective
- Praying and pondering about what God might be trying to help you learn
- Serving others through performing temple ordinances, bringing a meal to a neighbor, or doing family history work
- Making a to-do list and getting tasks done one by one
- Establishing healthy boundaries, like saying no to requests that give you unnecessary stress
- Practicing better time management by making to-do lists, setting timers, or setting limits on your devices
- Asking for support from loved ones, coworkers, Church leaders, and trusted friends
- Performing a calming self-care routine like exercising, spending time with loved ones, or taking a bath
- Practicing self-compassion by reminding yourself that everyone has bad days and struggles with hard emotions
- Practicing mindfulness by meditating, making a gratitude list, or writing in your journal
- Calling a friend to talk and help you see things from another perspective
Changing Your Habits
Changing habits doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s worth learning new, healthy ways to cope with challenges. Every time you choose a healthier response, life becomes easier, and you become more emotionally resilient, capable, and Christlike.
Here are a few suggestions that have helped me develop better habits that might be helpful to you:
Rely on Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ for help. Sister Rebecca L. Craven, Second Counselor in the Young Women General Presidency, said: “Through Jesus Christ, we are given the strength to make lasting changes. As we humbly turn to Him, He will increase our capacity to change.”4 God wants to help us learn. Even when we revert to old habits or give in to temptations, we can be comforted knowing that He will not leave us to struggle alone.
We can overcome our bad habits and make lasting change through our Savior. President Russell M. Nelson taught:
“Overcoming the world certainly does not mean becoming perfect in this life, nor does it mean that your problems will magically evaporate—because they won’t. And it does not mean that you won’t still make mistakes. But overcoming the world does mean that your resistance to sin will increase. Your heart will soften as your faith in Jesus Christ increases [see Mosiah 5:7]. …
“… Each time you seek for and follow the promptings of the Spirit, each time you do anything good—things that ‘the natural man’would not do—you are overcoming the world.”5
Remember you engaged in habits for a reason. You wouldn’t cling to bad habits if they weren’t serving you in some way, even if that “service” is a false sense of joy or security. For example, my perfectionistic tendencies used to help me avoid facing my fears about not meeting others’ expectations.
But when I let go of those expectations, I felt so much lighter! When you consciously recognize what problem you’re avoiding with your negative coping mechanisms, you can intentionally make a healthier plan to process your feelings.
Asking yourself these questions can help you become self-aware and respond differently:
- What need is this negative habit attempting to fulfill?
- What emotion is this habit helping me avoid?
- What’s a healthier option I can try in order to meet that need?
Make good habits convenient. Make the healthier coping mechanism the easiest choice to make by removing other temptations or roadblocks. Brigham Young University professor Jason Whiting once shared the story of a young man he counseled who struggled with pornography as a coping mechanism. The man knew he was more susceptible to temptation when he was alone, stressed, or tired, so he avoided electronic devices at those times and strived to turn to journaling, sleeping well, reading the scriptures, and exercising instead.6 Be on your own team and make better choices accessible!
Be kind to yourself. Part of being human is falling short even when we do our best. You don’t have to perfect your coping skills in one day. It’s all about practice! We can be like Nephi, who said, in reference to his efforts to write sacred scripture, “And now, if I do err … because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself” (1 Nephi 19:6).
Change takes time, and I’m still learning about coping with challenges in a healthy way. Yet through faith, patience, and practice, I have already seen great improvements in the way I handle difficulties. I know that by turning to Christ and believing in your ability to grow, you can build better habits that will help you live a more peaceful and intentional life.
Image credit: No Harm Can Befall with My Comforter Near, by Michael Malm, may not be copied
1. Neal A. Maxwell, “Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ,” Ensign, Nov. 1997, 22.
2.nullAllaya Cooks-Campbell, “How Coping Mechanisms Help Us Manage Difficult Emotions and Situations,” BetterUp, Feb. 22, 2022, betterup.com/blog/coping-mechanisms.
3. Amy Morin, “Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions,” Verywell Mind, Sept. 6, 2022, verywellmind.com/forty-healthy-coping-skills.
4. Rebecca L. Craven, “Keep the Change,” Liahona, Nov. 2020, 59.
5.nullRussell M. Nelson, “Overcome the World and Find Rest,” Liahona, Nov. 2022, 96–97.
6.nullSee Jason Whiting, “How We Can Overcome a Lust-Filled World,” Liahona, June 2022, 18–19.