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  • Jennifer Stafford

Getting to Know Self Series: Adaptive Coping Mechanisms

When we ride through and rise above an emotional obstacle with grace, it can be called being well adjusted. Childhood cannot only be riddled with emotional wounds. Many of us learn ways of adapting to unpleasant situations that have positive benefits for ourselves and others. Sometimes we do not even realize that we have positive coping habits until it is pointed out to us or by chance, we learn about helpful ways of coping. Healthy coping mechanisms help us work through the experience of unpleasant emotion without creating additional unpleasantness.

Channeling the energy generated from an unpleasant experience towards some kind of passion or hobby can literally change lives and shift how people see the world. Authors, athletes, artists, musicians and many other individuals have turned their hurt experiences into motivational musings allowing them to overcome unthinkable odds. Successfully navigating the unpleasantness of a situation means that we are able to regain cognitive clarity in our decision making. An additional benefit is that healthier ways of coping allow for decreased unpleasantness for ourselves and/or others.

Adaptive coping mechanisms can make the difference in everything in so many ways. How we handle a situation matters and being able to handle ourselves well when unpleasantness arises is like a human superpower.

Have a look at some of the adaptive coping mechanisms below and see if any ignite your interest.

Do any of these adaptive coping mechanisms look familiar?

Acceptance ≠ Agreement

Practicing acknowledgement of an unpleasant emotion. Remembering to remind oneself that acceptance does not mean agreement. Acceptance is merely accepting the reality of a moment for what it is, not agreeing with it.


Seeking mental calm and soothing through the body can be hugely helpful. Taking a nice bath or shower during a moment of emotional unpleasantness can take the edge off what may feel like the impacts of an emotional dagger.


Taking 3-4 deep belly breaths can help calm down the nervous system and allow for more oxygen to flow throughout the body. Deep breathing sends signals to the brain to tell the body and mind that it is safe.

Compassionate Boundary

A compassionate boundary is a boundary implemented to manage the experience of unpleasantness with the generosity of grace and space.

Conscious Distraction

When an unpleasant emotion becomes overwhelming, practicing conscious distraction can support disconnecting from the hurt and pain momentarily. This is the ability to put one's focus and attention towards something helpful and supportive in the face of unpleasantness.


If you appreciate art or drawing and are experiencing emotional unpleasantness, draw, sketch or paint it out. Give yourself permission to voice the pain and hurt in your unique creative expression.


Engaging in some sort of physical activity or exercise can increase the blood flow to the brain. It can also decrease stress hormones by reducing levels of adrenaline and cortisol.

Grounding Techniques (a few) These techniques can support cognitively returning to the present moment instead of engaging in emotional spiraling after experiencing emotional unpleasantness.

- Put hands in water

- Hold a piece of ice

- Make yourself laugh

- Describe your environment

- Imagine yourself leaving painful feelings behind you


Take a nap. Put yourself to sleep by taking some deep breaths, allowing your mind and body to relax and detach from the unpleasant emotional experience.


Get yourself to nature. Find a river, lake, ocean, go to the mountains, gaze at the trees, walk in the forests. Take in the limitlessness of nature made creation to remind yourself that you can also access pleasant emotional experiences.


Give yourself extra care and thoughtfulness in response to feeling unpleasant emotion. Give yourself a hug, get a massage, make a favorite meal or watch a favorite show. Be intentionally mindful of being kind and considerate towards yourself.


Singing is another activity that improves blood flow and oxygen to the brain. It can reduce stress levels of the hormone cortisol in the body and ease bodily tension. Singing increases endorphins and can contribute to making us feel happy.

Taking Space

Being able to recognize when physically and/or emotionally removing oneself from an unpleasant situation is the most appropriate option for the moment.


Knowing when to seek outside support in the form of therapy is a step towards emotional healing. If you're in therapy and feeling significant unpleasantness, reach out to your therapist and request an urgent session to support you through the hurt feelings.


Make time to process the emotion that you are experiencing by writing or journaling. Be creative or be concrete and walk yourself through your emotional experiences. This is how some of the best books and songs were birthed.



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