Everyone experiences stress and trauma in their life at one point or another. These experiences can affect us for a fleeting moment or for a lifetime. Our methods for dealing with stress are most often an attempt to survive the suffering. Generally speaking, these methods are mental or behavioral efforts that help us manage emotions by escaping or avoiding the stress, self-soothing, and/or stoping the stressor altogether.
From childhood into adolescence, we adopt various approaches for dealing with the stress in our life. Typically we pick up these strategies from our family, cultural examples, and cultural norms/expectations. They can be direct replications of behavior (parents yell when stressed, so child learns to yell) or indirect responses (parents yell, child learns to hide or withdraw). Many of the methods we use as adults are established in our youth, and because of that, they are often limited to the developmental abilities of the age we learned them.
As adults, we are often confronted with the limitation of the coping methods we learned in our youth and are presented with the choice of finding more sophisticated approaches to match our maturity. In order to live at optimal health, you need to equip yourself with a wide range of tools including coping mechanisms, self-care practices, and deeper corrective methods.
Here’s how I see the difference.
Ok so…… You experienced a trauma or are enduring a stressful phase of life. The trauma or stress deeply effects you and in order to survive it, you pick up some habits that make you feel as though things are more manageable. For some this looks like withdrawing and isolating, for others this looks like staying busy. Coping mechanisms are the broad umbrella of methods used to endure stress, including the deeper healing practices of self-care and corrective work. However, I generally define coping as any effort taken to ease immediate suffering — coping methods are the things you do to manage your discomfort in the moment.
By nature, coping methods help distract us from the difficulty or pain so that we can focus on other priorities. It is extremely important to have methods to cope with immediate stress, because processing deeper emotions related to stress or trauma is not always appropriate or possible in the moment. There are always life responsibilities waiting for you — as a parent, an employee, a student, etc. It is equally important to be mindful and honest with yourself about the efficacy of your coping methods.
There are so many different ways people learn to cope with stress and some approaches have more risk factors associated with them than others. For example a lot of people cope with stress by leaning on a substance or practice that numbs the senses or stimulates pleasure, e.g.: smoking, drinking, sex, binge eating/eating comfort foods. Another example is self-harming (cutting), which tends to provide a sense of relief from pressure. In the moment, these examples serve the purpose of mitigating the pain/suffering; they help us relax or forget about our troubles, but over time can have negative impacts as well.
All coping methods serve a purpose, I think it’s important to honor the coping mechanisms you’ve learned along the way. They have, in one way or another, kept you alive and well. It is important though as adults to become more mindful of the short and long term impacts of the coping methods we use, and take responsibility for expanding our repertoire with more skillful and effective coping tools.
Alright so… You experienced some trauma in your life and you realize that you have been allowing your energy to drain in negative relationships, work environments, and other situations. You realize that some of your coping mechanisms have negative impacts too, or that they don’t really help you anymore. You have a deep desire to take better care of your self because you realize it’s up to you to make this a priority. Self-care is pretty much anything that you do to meet your own needs and nurture yourself. For me, self-care is the way in which I tend to my own wellbeing physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Self-care is how we refill our spirit. While coping gets you through the moment short-term, self-care helps you build your capacity to endure stress over time.
The concept of self-care is really starting to take hold in mainstream culture and it’s absolutely amazing! It’s a huge step forward towards the betterment of our collective society. As we learn to see individual self-care is vital to our wellbeing, the whole of society also adapts to this culturally.Self-care as a practice and a cultural philosophy is revolutionary. In a society that teaches you so many ways to mistreat yourself, others, and the Earth, to care for yourself is a radical act of rebellion.
Practicing self-care lends itself to developing self-love and it also teaches us how to be more empathetic. When you begin to care for yourself you develop the capacity to recognize when other people are doing their best to take care of themselves too. You can also recognize when others are not taking care of themselves and how their behavior/energy is a reflection of how well they are caring for themselves.
Even still, self-care can be misunderstood and misguided at times to. Take for example the concept of treating yourself. Maybe you shouldn’t #treatyoself when you are financially unstable. Maybe a more skillful approach to self-care is to save your money; paint your own nails instead of getting the manicure. Maybe it looks like a walk at the river instead of charging the credit card for a weekend in Vegas. I’m jus sayin… We all need to have fun, but at what cost? We all need to feel good, but there’s a difference between genuine nourishment and doing things that feel comforting but cause harm.
Obviously, this is just an example and isn’t meant to be taken as a rule. The thing about self-care is that it’s subjective — you and only you will truly know what kind of care is best for your wellbeing.
Correcting the Issue
Ok so… You experienced some trauma in your life and now, as an adult, you are realizing that some of the ways you learned to survive that trauma are no longer serving you. You’ve improved your coping mechanisms to be less harmful longterm but you’re tired of distracting from the underlying issue instead of resolving it directly. You even started to integrate more regular self-care practices into your routine like eating healthier, getting into nature, going to yoga or getting regular massages. Nevertheless, you still find yourself struggling with the residual grief from challenges of the past.
If coping mechanisms help us mitigate immediate stress, and self-care is refueling ourselves so that we have more stamina to endure stress, correcting the issue is looking to find the root source of our stress.Sometimes we make efforts to change our coping mechanisms and practice self-care, and still find ourselves in familiar cycles of abuse and stress. Sometimes we can be living a healthy lifestyle and still be suffering from the residual traumas of our past.
Correcting the issue could look like leaving a negative work environment, setting boundaries in unhealthy relationships, or rewriting your internal dialogue to make your self-talk script more positive. Instead of a drop in yoga class, you may enroll in a more extensive 10-day meditation or yoga course. You might start therapy to process the residual grief of past stress and trauma. For the most part, I think people understand coping mechanisms and self-care as physical or behavioural methods. For me, correcting the issue is about going deeper into the layers of mental and emotional patterning that drive behavior, to relinquish what is no longer useful, and upgrade to new and improved strategies for maintaining our own wellbeing.
Self-care is a huge jump from simply coping with stress to growing your capacity to manage stress. Meanwhile, correcting deeper issues is about healing the wounds of your past in order to move forward more freely. Instead of coping with an open wound, correcting outdated patterns is like finally bandaging the wound and tending to it until it starts to scab and mend. To me, healing simply means tending to our wounds.
You’re still going to experience triggers over time, some wounds remain feeling fresh even after years have passed. Correcting the issue has more to do with coming to terms with things, processing the emotions that were stuffed down, and repatterning our thoughts so that we can regain our stability and health. Correcting the issue does not mean that your wound magically reverts to having never happened. Breaking your leg, setting the cast, and going through physical therapy doesn’t give you a brand new bone… the bone was broken and now it’s mending. You continue to tend to the wounds throughout your life, coping, caring and correcting the methods that no longer serve you.
Thanks for reading!