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A simple guide to developing conscious coping mechanisms

In this excerpt from her new book, Pain: A Portal to Enlightenment, writer Shweta Singh Kirti writes about how we can develop conscious coping mechanisms to deal with difficult situations in our lives

Meditation is a conscious coping mechanism that can help us develop greater acceptance and a non-judgemental attitude towards life's situations.
Meditation is a conscious coping mechanism that can help us develop greater acceptance and a non-judgemental attitude towards life's situations. (Unsplash/Benjamin Child)

Coping mechanisms are the techniques and behaviours we adopt to manage the challenges and difficulties we encounter in our lives. They are often learned behaviours that aim to reduce anxiety and distress in the short term. They can be conscious or unconscious, and are shaped by our experiences and surroundings. Coping mechanisms can arise in response to traumatic or adverse events, and can be positive or negative in nature.

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Dr Gabor Mate explains that coping mechanisms can cause significant stress because they involve a conflict between authenticity and attachment. When the attachment in relationships is insecure, people are not as authentic and vulnerable because they are afraid that their authenticity might lead to rejection. Hence, for the sake of attachment, they sacrifice authenticity. If our emotional needs are not met during childhood, we may adjust our behaviour to fit the situation, leading us to adopt coping mechanisms that deny our pain. As adults, these mechanisms may persist and result in unfulfilled needs within our relationships.

For example, if parents consistently rely on their child to fulfil their own needs, the child may become overly responsible and self-sacrificing, suppressing their own emotional needs and suffering internal stress. In more severe cases, if a parent is abusive or unable to protect their child, the child may develop coping mechanisms such as extreme self-sufficiency or even rebellion and violence, leading to further stress and conflict.

Coping mechanisms can take many forms and vary in intensity and duration. Some may be functional and healthy, while others may be maladaptive and harmful. Some examples of maladaptive coping mechanisms include substance abuse to numb emotional pain or avoid reality, which can lead to addiction and other problems. Avoidance of situations or people that trigger negative emotions or memories can also be maladaptive, leading to isolation and missed opportunities for personal growth.

On the other hand, adaptive coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness, exercise or creative expression, can be effective in managing stress and regulating emotions in a positive way. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help us become more aware of our thoughts and emotions, and develop greater acceptance and a non-judgemental attitude. Regular exercise can also improve our mood and reduce stress, promoting better physical and mental health. 

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The cover of Pain: A Portal to Enlightenment
The cover of Pain: A Portal to Enlightenment

Developing Conscious Coping Mechanisms
Developing conscious coping mechanisms involves becoming aware of our current coping strategies and evaluating whether they are effective and healthy. Here are some steps to develop conscious coping mechanisms:

Identify your current coping mechanisms: Start by reflecting on how you typically cope with stress and emotional pain. Do you tend to avoid difficult situations, distract yourself with activities or substances, seek support from others or something else?

Evaluate the effectiveness of your coping mechanisms: Consider whether your coping mechanisms are effective in reducing stress and promoting well-being in the long term. Do they help you solve problems and manage your emotions, or do they only provide temporary relief? Are they helping you reach your goals or are they holding you back?

Assess the healthiness of your coping mechanisms: Consider whether your coping mechanisms are healthy and sustainable in the long term. Are they harming your physical or mental health or creating additional problems? Are they causing harm to others or straining your relationships?

Identify alternative coping mechanisms: Consider healthier, more effective coping mechanisms that align with your values and goals. Some examples may include mindfulness, exercise, creative expression or seeking professional support. Experiment with different coping mechanisms and see what works best for you.

Practice conscious coping: As you identify and experiment with new coping mechanisms, make a conscious effort to integrate them into your daily routine. Make a commitment to practicing healthy coping mechanisms consistently, even when you’re not feeling particularly stressed or overwhelmed.

In order to manage stress and emotional pain in a healthy and sustainable way, it’s important to develop conscious coping mechanisms. This is a process that requires time and effort, as well as a willingness to learn and grow. Seeking support from friends, family or professionals can be helpful in this journey, as can practising self-compassion and patience. By consciously choosing coping mechanisms that are adaptive and healthy, we can create a more fulfilling and balanced life for ourselves.

Excerpted with permission from Pain: A Portal to Enlightenment by Shweta Singh Kirti, published by Penguin Random House, 256 pages, Rs. 307.

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