Learning to Cope

We have all experienced pain at some point in life. It’s not a question of if we cope, but rather–how–we cope. I’ll tell you what doesn’t help is being told to “get over it”. Any way of coping that doesn’t address the underlying issue is not conducive to healing. 

Why is it easier for some of us to succeed after trauma? My mother is relatively well adjusted considering she lost her mother at age 8, lost both of her brothers and then lost her dad to cancer. If that wasn’t enough, she then lost her husband of 20 years to a meth addiction. She throws herself into work, perhaps a bit too much, but she also surrounds herself with good friends. She cares for others to a fault, drawing on her own experiences. I’m not sure if she is even aware that she does this–she has helped guide me and my husband both, with patience, honesty and understanding. 

I went through trauma as a child, and while I believe that its very difficult to objectively judge what is “worse” and it can be dangerous to try, I would still have to say that what she went through seems like it would/should be harder to overcome than what I went through. Maybe having a child helped her cope–she had someone to try for. (I’m definitely not suggesting having a child as a coping mechanism!)

I suppose asking “why” is irrelevant.  Positive, and negative coping mechanisms are also referred to as adaptive or maladaptive, depending on the affect they have on your life. What I want to do here is lay out a few options of each type and dissect them. 

A few examples of adaptive coping mechanisms are: seeking help from supportive people, such as a counselor or friend, meditation, journaling, and exercising.

Why do these things help? Overreaction is often a result of maladaptive behavior; when we’re able to react to a stressful situation calmly, patiently and thoughtfully, we have a much greater chance of avoiding unwanted backlash. Using our knowledge and strength to adjust to a negative situation can be difficult and even feel wrong if we aren’t used to it. If something is a big deal we feel the need to react immediately! Well, some of us do, and it isn’t a good thing. If you have carefully considered the consequences of your reaction and waited until you are calm, you are now ready to react. It’s a fact that intense anger actually lowers IQ, so it’s certainly advisable to wait until you get those IQ points back to make any life changing decisions! Exercise is a great way to release endorphins and redirect your thoughts in a positive direction, creating a more peaceful outcome.

Maladaptive coping mechanisms fascinate me. Often times we know what we are doing hurts us but we do it anyway. Immediate stress relief is addictive. An entirely different part of the brain is responsible for impulsive behavior— as opposed to long term, carefully considered decision making. It’s our brain’s reward system. When we are used to using that part of the brain, I suppose it’s like exercising it. 

I have a lot of experience with substance abuse and I have spent a lot of time considering it’s long term effects. Taking drugs or alcohol to block unpleasant thoughts and painful emotions is faulty escapism. I used alcohol to numb my pain, drown my anxiety and quiet my extremely frequent bad dreams. Not only did this lead to buried problems that haunted my subconscious, but it also lead me to a substance abuse problem and risky behavior.

Substance abuse caused serious issues for me that I’m still dealing with today. Alcohol affected my relationships, my potential for success and my overall health (mental and physical). Often times I became angry, depressed or even violent out of the blue. Things piled on until I felt like there was no way out. The pain got worse and there was one way I knew that would numb it. People who haven’t experienced these types of issues often ask “How could you continue doing something that’s so harmful?”–it’s hard to explain honestly. It’s just impulsive behavior at it’s finest.

Addiction potential increases with substance abuse: There is the physical addiction and psychological addiction. The physical addiction is the craving and withdrawals physiologically. The psychological addiction is the repeated and learned paired behaviors of taking the drug/alcohol and the temporary reward mechanism of avoidance / escape from the stress, escape from emotional pain, and escape from the accompanying thoughts / beliefs. The psychological addiction pattern is negative coping, plain and simple. It is the most difficult to treat.

The physical addiction / withdrawal process is known to be easier to break relative to the psychological addiction.  The psychological pattern of the addiction use/abuse is known to be very very difficult to break because of the temporary reward mechanisms operating.

Other unhealthy, or maladaptive, mechanisms include isolation (sometimes to the point of agoraphobia), hypervigilance, angry or violent behavior, and working too much. 

I’m not going to address the last three behaviors listed above as I have little personal experience with them. I have, however, dealt with my share of shame and feeling misunderstood. Isolation is a natural reaction to feeling uncomfortable while socializing. Some completely withdrawal and others find small, sometimes negative ways to connect to others. 

The need of social connection and belonging is hardwired in our brains. Our brains have mirror neurons that fire in response to the firing of another person’s neurons when we connect. These parts of our brain atrophy (shrink) when we are in isolation or lack interpersonal connection in our lives.

So, take part in social activities even if you don’t feel like it. It will increase the chances you have to feel good and have fun. Truly beneficial results occur when we connect with others: Feelings of acceptance, belonging, and safety occurs. There are increases in feel-good neurotransmitters, and decreases in destructive chemicals, such as cortisol.

I’ve rambled on long enough and I think I’ve done enough dissecting for the day. I was feeling a bit down this morning and through writing, I feel I’ve overcome my negative thoughts and basically distracted myself with positive thinking. Success!

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