Coping Mechanisms

coping mechanismsCase Study – The Problem

Jim’s father was killed in a car crash. A tragic and sad end to man’s life which was full of promise. People said that it was not only a great and irreparable loss to the family but one that is even bigger for the nation. Jim’s father was a promising scientist working in the area of Nano technology in healthcare. The hardest hit was 10 year old Jim. For days he wouldn’t even speak with anyone. While his 3 year old sister Anne would not even realize what’s wrong, his mother found it difficult to reach out to him and share the grief. Jim suffered from deep depression over the next few months, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing the tragic loss. His mother had to seek psychiatric help in order to break through the defensive coping mechanism that Jim had devised in order to get over the shocking loss of his father.

The Diagnosis

The above is a projection of a reality that at least 4 percent of kids in the western world goes through. It is an alarming reality that has the potential to destroy the lives of countless children. In a study conducted by Nadine M. Melhem, Ph.D. of the University Of Pittsburg School Of Medicine it was observed that children who lost at least one of their parents during their formative years are more prone to depression and post-traumatic stress disorders than those who had both their parents alive. The most alarming point to be noted was that this extended to not only the children but also their surviving parent. This test took interviews of children and young people between the age of 7 to 25, to assess their psychiatric conditions as well as understand any psychiatric conditions that existed in their parents.

The above is just one type of stress scenario. There are countless others that plague most of humanity at one point of their life. Origination of a stressful situation can be at home, at work, at school, in a public place or even when someone is all alone.

Stress can and does affect the very best of humans. Even a baby inside a mother’s womb is affected by stress. It can have heightened breathing and increased pulse-rate or even shudder when a loud sound is heard when someone yells inside the room where the mother is present. It is also a coping mechanism that is employed sub-consciously. Every living being has this ability to deal with stress in one form or the other.

The Solution – Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are the actual process, mental or otherwise which helps an individual to ‘deal with’ a stressful situation. Some coping mechanisms are taught, while others are developed by the individual himself as he goes along, while still others can be activated by the brain sub-consciously and the individual may have no control over the same. Not all coping mechanisms are however productive. There are many counterproductive coping mechanism that do more harm than the reasons for the stress.

Mental disorders, high anxiety, paranoid and other behavioral problems can all be rooted back to some stress inducers. A wide variety of mental / panic disorders are regularly identified by psychiatrists as to be forms of coping mechanisms employed by the body. Even overeating is a stress coping mechanism.

Types of Coping Mechanisms – Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identify disorder is a very serious mental illness and one that is directly related with some sort of abusive behavior sustained by a child during his/her childhood. Such abusive behavior could be sexual exploitation, physical or mental abusive behavior from parents or caregivers. Dissociative mental disorder is widely considered to be a coping mechanism that the patient’s brains adopt in order to counter the traumatic experience that he / she had experienced in his / her childhood.

The symptoms are split personalities that takes over the conscious self at different times. The transition from one self to the other is also known as ‘Switching’. The one that tries to dissociate itself from that traumatic experience would sometimes be at a state of denial of the incident. There would be memory issues, with one personality recalling something and the other one recalling nothing of it. In the most acute of situations, the split personalities may have their own believes about the person’s identity, age, race and even sex.

A person suffering with dissociative mental disorder can have other symptoms including depression, severe mood swings and alcohol and or drug abuse. The ‘other individual’ may compel the normal individual to act in a way that is improper. E.g., individuals may steal from their colleagues or friends, go through a set rituals every day that may appear insane to others, jaywalking or react violently to even otherwise harmless stimuli.

Repression and Suppression

A person who have had an abusive childhood may want to keep the memories of that traumatic experience out of his/her mind. This repressive behavior is widely considered to be a form of coping mechanism. However, unlike in denial, where the person will even deny there is or ever was a problem, in this case the person affected is aware of the problem but will try to suppress the memory or thought of it in the conscious mind. This forcible suppression does not take the memory completely out of the system. It has been noticed in psychiatric tests that individuals who use such repressive methods to deal with their memories of abusive experiences have difficulty in later life when they try to make social contacts. Suppression is yet another coping mechanism in which the memory is not repressed but forced out of the system. Again, this is a mixed result scenario.

Fight or Flight Response

When presented with a situation that can potentially cause a serve injury or insult or other forms of prejudice, reaction is usually induced out of an individual. Such reaction may or may not be spontaneous. Additionally, the threat may not even be a real one and could even be imaginary. When it is spontaneous (which is like 9/10 times), perceived threats are immediately signaled to the brain and the nervous system of the body, especially the adrenal glands, goes on an overdrive producing hormones. These hormones, a bulk of which is the adrenaline and noradrenaline is what conditions the body and immediately shapes it to brace the situation. You may have felt your breathing rate change, your heart beating twice as fast, when encountered with a life and death situation. There are scores of other indicators such as glucose level rising, goose-bumps, dilated pupils and tensed muscles in the body that all point towards the condition that is also known as flight or fight.

It was coined and explained by Walter Bradford Cannon back in 1932. This is a coping mechanism that can either lead to a person to stay put and deal with the situation or force him to beat a hasty retreat. Thus the name. A simple stimuli can induce different coping mechanisms from different individuals. While some could react violently, use abusive words and even try to physically harm another individual, others may simply avoid the situation and walk away. While the first one is a fight mechanism of coping, the second one is a flight mechanism.


Intellectualization is an interesting coping mechanism which does not deal with the problem directly per se, but gives a different opinion that discounts the very existence of the problem or threat. E.g., a man is threatened by his significant other that if he does not leave his drinking habits she will leave him. Instead of dealing with the problem, he continues to reason with his mind that she will never do so because she is dependent on him. Here the problem is never handled directly. If you know someone who is having a problem in his / her personal life due to drug or alcohol abuse, do him/her a favor by gifting this course.


Many a times a person may fight or argue with others based on their perception that the other person may not be paying attention or listening to what the first person is saying. The fact of the matter is that the person yelling is the one who has the problems being complained about and the show of frustration is entirely misdirected and or uncalled for. This is a defense mechanism for coping with stress but here the problem is the person who is complaining. This is undoubtedly a fight mechanism but the results are often detrimental, leading to further worsening of the situation.


A coping mechanism that is passive and often can lead to self-degeneration, denial is a stage where the person who had a stressful experience completely ignores or denies that the problem even exists. The person in this state refuses to see the facts or truth of the matter does not want to face the situation. The repercussions can lead to a person to alcohol or drug abuse to keep the worrying thoughts about a problem out of the mind. In other patients this condition can lead to over eating, staying back at work for extra hours, even looking for ways to obtain overtime, or abstaining to go to work and or sleeping for longer than usual hours. Interestingly, an alcoholic person or someone who is a habitual drug abuser will deny the fact that he is so.


Rationalization is a form of coping mechanism that can be best explained with an age old story. A fox once attempted to eat grapes from a grape tree. After several attempts when it could not reach the grape high up in the tree, he rationalized that the grapes must be sour and walked away. Rationalization usually involves the person coming up with a completely different reason for the situation. It does not have to be right or accurate or even practical. It is a defense mechanism alright but it does not deal with fighting the situation but could rather be classified as flight.


An individual when threatened or behaved abusively may want to direct the anger, and pent up frustration to some other person because he cannot direct to the person who deserves them for some reason. An individual may be frustrated because of his immediate superior. However, because of the repercussion that he may face or the fear of losing his job is unable to direct his anger to the person he wants to. Instead, when he comes home, he takes it out on his little child who pesters him to take her out to the fair. Displacement is one of the worst forms of coping mechanism and has the potential to further make this worse for an individual when he misdirects his frustrations to someone who does not deserve it or is emotionally hurt as a result. If you ever have been guilty of displacement try to use this great online course to reduce stress from your life.