Pandemic, inflation, war, there is enough to be stressed. 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 show up in sweating, stuttering, or other obvious signs. Anxiety can appear in many forms, including irritability, fatigue, sleep problems, and even stomach problems.
It can also manifest as several different behaviors intended to reduce anxiety, whether it’s watching television on repeat, quitting your job, or dyeing your hair purple. These are known as defense mechanisms or coping strategies, and while they can be helpful, sometimes they can also be harmful. Here are five common types, in their healthy and unhealthy versions, and some ideas for using them effectively for yourself and the people around you.
Search for comfort (regression)
Everyone is looking for comfort. You regress, however, when you act out of a desire to offload your age-appropriate responsibilities. As any parent can attest, this is a very common coping mechanism for children in times of stress. Anxious children will often go back to things they had outgrown like thumb sucking, tantrums, clinging, baby talk or whining. In adults, regressive behavior often involves returning to old habits or hobbies — listening to beloved music from your high school days, rewatching old TV shows, picking up an abandoned craft project.
Many of these activities are healthy both physically and mentally: naps, hot baths, eating favorite comfort foods, rereading childhood books, doing simple crafts, playing board games, exercising jump rope or hike with your dog, decorate or dress up in a comfortable way. Regression is unhealthy, however, when the search for comfort degenerates into the search for forgetfulness through alcohol, drugs, oversleeping or overeating, or when people are unable to return to their adult roles and responsibilities.
If you seek comfort, designate particular times and places for your preferred self-soothing activities. Make a conscious decision to put your responsibilities aside for as long as you soak, draw, sleep, whatever. Don’t laugh or let anyone hurt you about “childish” anti-anxiety stuff like adult coloring books – smoking looks fancy, 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 reassurance they need, acknowledge that they are going through a difficult time. Simply saying “I know this is really difficult” to a stressed person makes them feel appreciated and less alone.
People need to feel able to act competently, to be able to control the world around them to some degree. Any emotion can be misplaced, but the desire for control is a particular theme during the pandemic. When the world around us changes so rapidly that we feel out of control in our daily lives, we shift that desire for order and stability to smaller, manageable projects, like puzzles or baking bread. Remember the big sourdough craze of 2020? This type of movement is often the opposite of a regressive search for comfort. That’s why some people learned three new languages during lockdown while others ate ice cream and watched the four seasons of Veronique Mars. And some did both, because people are complicated and life is tough and it often takes more than one coping strategy.
Moving can be a very healthy defense mechanism, and not just for Duolingo and other language training results. Shifting the need for control onto manageable projects feels good in the moment, and this feeling can be transferable to other situations. A study has shown that people who feel responsible and competent at home or in their hobby groups bring this feeling to work the next day. The next time you’ve had a particularly frustrating day, try accomplishing a clear, low-key task — alphabetizing the spice rack, for example — and see if that doesn’t help at least a little.
Displacement can become unhealthy when the underlying emotion is not addressed at all (“I’m going to skip my mom’s funeral to keep literating the spice rack”), or when a person becomes dysfunctionally controlling over displacement activity (“If you put the cumin in front of the coriander, I’ll kill you”).
If you are a control seeker, consciously imbibe that sense of accomplishment and competence as you do your job, and take time to reflect on what you have learned afterwards. If someone else in your life is overinvested or possessive about a particular activity or project, don’t dismiss or challenge their feelings. Instead, try to channel their energy and help them define “project success” in a way that includes the needs of others as well.
Acting out is the blunt version of displacement, expressing emotions indirectly through actions, usually by doing something against social convention. Ever wanted to get up in the middle of a boring meeting and just scream? It’s the impulse to act out, the desire to do something crazy and wild because there’s no other way to meaningfully change the situation.
Acting out can be genuinely antisocial or simply a violation of social conventions. Bold fashion choices, going to an ax shooting room or “rage room”, breaking routines or norms in any way, can all be a way to release tension and poke fun at people. absurd situations in which we find ourselves. Unhealthy forms of acting out include 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 some acting out can improve team morale. That’s part of why karaoke parties, Halloween costumes, and the like are popular in some office cultures. However, if someone in your life is acting in a harmful way, take whatever steps are necessary to address that behavior, with safety first.
Dissociation is any form of loss of awareness of your surroundings, otherwise known as “How did 4 o’clock come to?” Everyone walks away from time to time because your brain needs some awake downtime. Under stressful conditions, many people space themselves out much 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 very inopportune times, or involves intrusive and distracting thoughts or daydreams.
If you’re spending more time in a not-quite-there state than you used to, try to determine whether you’re drifting away in general or dissociating in response to particular stressors (e.g., zoning out every time you try to read the news or fill out long-dreaded paperwork). Try to budget your energy so that you are fully present and aware of the people, times, and tasks that require your full attention. Concentration issues are prevalent these days, so get into the habit of summarizing important conversations or asking the other person to repeat what you’ve said, to make sure nothing gets lost.
People who have chosen artistic or musical hobbies, or who have particularly immersed themselves in books or television series, use imagination-based coping strategies. A defense mechanism related to this type of imagination is introjection, which means modeling oneself after another admired person when ordinary everyday life does not seem appropriate for the situation.
These strategies are often helpful. Fantasy, reverie, and imagination help process emotions and information, resolve internal conflicts, and give people a brief respite from difficult reality. People can often access reserves of creativity, patience, and resilience by imitating or imagining themselves as someone who has them in abundance. Charmingly, children can persevere longer in a boring task if they are asked to pretend to be Batman. On the unhealthy end of the spectrum, people can lose touch with their situation or themselves. More commonly, they may invest too much time, energy, and resources in their imaginative pursuits.
If you’re an imaginative, deliberately use daydreaming and introjection to solve problems, get inspired, and just hang in there. Connect with others through your imagination, whether it’s a book group, Star Trek convention, jam nights or more.
Everyone has defense mechanisms, and having healthy ones is important for long-term health and happiness. Here are four steps to improving yours.
Recognize your own preferred coping strategies. What do you do the most when you are anxious or stressed? Why do you think you are doing it? (“I think of my mother 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.”)
Recognize the underlying stress. Improve it if possible. Don’t expect to behave like you did 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 for the people around you? If so, what type of intervention is needed?
Join others. Social support is crucial to surviving adversity. Coping strategies that also build connections and communities are better than those that do not. Go throwing axes, share fanfiction, spend a day at the spa, eliminate your weed aggression at the community garden, track your progress in Crossfit. 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.