Healthy (and Unhealthy) Coping Strategies for Anxious Times

Pandemic, inflation, war—there is plenty to be stressed about. There are effective ways to manage the strain, but it's important to use them in a healthy way

Anxiety is on the rise, but it doesn't always reveal itself through sweating, stammering or other obvious signs. Anxiety can show up in many guises, among them irritability, fatigue, sleep problems, even gastric issues.

It can also manifest itself in several different behaviors meant to reduce anxiety—anything from binge-watching TV to quitting your job to dyeing your hair purple. These are known as defense mechanisms or coping strategies, and while they can be helpful, they can also sometimes be harmful. Here are five common types, in both their healthy and unhealthy versions, and some ideas for putting them to effective use for yourself and the people around you.

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Seeking Comfort (Regression)

Everyone seeks comfort. You are regressing, however, when you act on a desire to chuck your age-appropriate responsibilities. As any parent can attest, this is a very common coping mechanism for children in moments of stress. Anxious children will often return to things they had outgrown like thumb-sucking, tantrums, clinginess, baby talk or whining. In adults, regressive behavior often involves returning to old habits or hobbies—listening to beloved music from your high school years, rewatching old TV shows, picking up an abandoned craft project.

Many of these activities are physically and mentally healthy: naps, warm baths, eating favorite comfort foods, rereading childhood books, doing simple crafts, playing board games, getting exercise in the form of jumping rope or hiking with your dog, decorating or dressing in a cozy way. Regression is unhealthy, though, when seeking comfort escalates into seeking oblivion through alcohol, drugs, excessive sleeping or eating or when people are unable to resume their adult roles and responsibilities.

If you're a comfort-seeker, designate particular times and places for your preferred self-soothing activities. Make a conscious decision to set your responsibilities aside for however long you are soaking, sketching, sleeping, whatever. Don't mock or let anyone make you feel bad about "childish" anxiety-busters, like adult coloring books—smoking looks sophisticated, but crayons don't kill. If someone else in your life is displaying regressive behaviors, do what you can to give them the break and comfort that they need, acknowledge that they are going through a hard time. Simply saying, "I know this is really difficult" to a stressed-out person makes them feel appreciated and less alone.

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Seeking Control
(Displacement)

People need to feel capable of taking competent action, of being able to control the world around them to some extent. Any emotion can be displaced, but the desire for control is a particular theme during the pandemic. When the world around us changes so fast that we feel out of control in our everyday life, we displace that desire for order and stability onto smaller, manageable projects, like jigsaw puzzles or baking bread. Remember the Great Sourdough Craze of 2020? This kind of displacement is often the opposite of regressive comfort seeking. It's why some people learned three new languages during lockdown while others ate ice cream and watched all four seasons of Veronica Mars. And some did both, because people are complicated and life is hard and often you need more than one coping strategy.

Displacement can be a very healthy defense mechanism, and not just for the bottom line of Duolingo and other language instruction outfits. Displacing the need for control onto manageable projects feels good in the moment, and that feeling may be transferable to other situations. One study showed that people who get to feel in charge and competent at home or in their hobby groups bring that feeling to the job the next day. The next time you've had a particularly frustrating day, try accomplishing some clear-cut, discrete task—alphabetizing the spice rack, say—and see if that doesn't help at least a bit.

Displacement can become unhealthy when the underlying emotion is not addressed at all ("I am going to skip my mother's funeral to continue alphabetizing the spice rack"), or when a person becomes dysfunctionally controlling about the displacement activity ("If you put the cumin in front of the coriander I will murder you").

If you're a control-seeker, consciously soak in that feeling of accomplishment and competence when you're doing your thing, and make a point of taking time to reflect on what you've learned afterward. If someone else in your life is overinvested or possessive about a particular activity or project, do not dismiss or challenge their feelings. Instead, try to channel their energy and help them define "project success" in a way that includes other people's needs as well.

Acting Out

Acting out is the blunt-instrument version of displacement, expressing emotions indirectly through actions, usually by doing something against social conventions. Ever wanted to stand up in the middle of a boring meeting and just scream? That's the acting-out impulse, the desire to do something mad and wild because there's no other way to meaningfully change the situation.

Acting out can be truly antisocial, or simply a violation of social convention. Bold fashion choices, going to an ax-throwing range or a "rage room," breaking routines or norms in any way, can all be a way of releasing tension and mocking the absurd situations we are in. Unhealthy forms of acting out encompass aggression, violence and reckless behavior such as road rage, hate crimes, substance abuse, public tantrums, internet bullying—the list goes on.

Harmless forms of acting out can help individuals relieve stress, and a certain amount of acting out can improve team morale. This is part of why karaoke nights, Halloween costumes and the like are popular in some office cultures. If someone in your life is acting out in a harmful way, however, take whatever steps are necessary to address the behavior, with a mind to safety first.

Spacing Out
(Dissociation)

Dissociation is any form of losing awareness of your surroundings, otherwise known as "How did it get to be 4 o'clock?" Everyone spaces out occasionally, because your brain requires a certain amount of awake downtime. Under stressful conditions, many people space out a whole lot more.

Healthy dissociation allows the brain to consolidate and interpret information. Creative people may be more prone to dissociation, and also use it more purposefully. Dissociation is unhealthy when it is excessive, occurs during critical or highly inopportune moments, or involves intrusive, distracting thoughts or daydreams.

If you're spending more time than you used to in a not-quite-there state, try to determine if you're spacing out in general, or if you're dissociating in response to particular stressors (for example, zoning out every time you try to read the news or do some long-dreaded paperwork). Try to budget your energy so that you're fully present and alert for the people, times and tasks that need your full attention. Problems with concentration are widespread right now, so get in the habit of summarizing important conversations, or asking the other person to repeat what you said, to ensure that nothing gets lost.

Imagination
(Fantasy, Introjection)

People who picked up artistic or musical hobbies, or become especially immersed in books or television series, are using imagination-based coping strategies. A defense mechanism related to this kind of imagination is introjection, which means modeling yourself on some admired other person when ordinary everyday you doesn't seem adequate to the situation.

These strategies are often helpful. Fantasy, daydreaming and imagination help process emotions and information, resolve internal conflicts and give people a brief reprieve from a difficult reality. People can often access reserves of creativity, patience and resilience by emulating or imagining themselves as someone who has those in ample supply. Charmingly, children can persevere longer on a boring task if they are asked to pretend they are Batman. On the unhealthy end of the spectrum, people may lose touch with their circumstances or themselves. More commonly, they may invest excessive time, energy and resources in their imaginative activities.

If you're an imaginer, use daydreaming and introjection deliberately to solve problems and get inspiration and just plain hang in there. Connect with other people through your imagination, whether that means a book group, Star Trek convention, jam nights or whatever.

Effective Defense

Everyone has defense mechanisms, and having healthy ones matters to long-term health and happiness. Here are four steps to improving yours.

Recognize your own preferred coping strategies. What do you do more of when you are anxious or stressed? Why do you think you do it? ("I think about my mom because she was strong," "I sleep a lot so I don't have to think," "I play guitar because it takes me out of myself.")

Acknowledge the underlying stress. Ameliorate it if possible. Do not expect yourself to behave as you were three years ago.

Assess your coping strategies. Are they healthy, or at least harmless? Are you getting what you need from them? Can you do them more intentionally? Are any of your coping strategies causing problems for you or the people around you? If so, what kind of intervention is necessary?

Join with others. Social support is crucial for surviving adversity. Coping strategies that also build connection and communities are better than those that don't. Go ax-throwing, share fanfiction, have a spa day, take out your aggression on weeds at the community garden, track your Crossfit progress. We all need healthy outlets right now.

Robin Abrahams is a research associate at Harvard Business School. Boris Groysberg is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.