The Difference Between Healthy And Unhealthy Coping Skills For Managing Stress

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated April 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Experiencing various pleasant and unpleasant emotions is part of the human condition. How we handle these feelings—especially those distressing or overwhelming—can significantly affect our overall mental health. That's why discovering how to utilize positive coping skills rather than negative coping skills can be an essential life lesson. Let's dig into the details of coping skills and how you can build healthy ones in response to life's stressors.

Do you have trouble finding healthy ways to manage stress?

What are coping skills, and why do we need them?

Stress is a part of life—but how we deal with it can significantly impact our overall health. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), unchecked or chronic stress has been associated with various mental and physical health conditions, from muscle pain, hypertension, heart disease, and chronic fatigue to diabetes, immune disorders, depression, and others. Stressors can also affect your moods and behaviors, potentially negatively impacting daily functioning or creating an unhealthy relationship with specific loved ones. Applied psychology has produced numerous healthy coping strategies and constructive ways to manage stressors, many of which can positively affect your psychological well-being in both the short and long term.

Adaptive vs. maladaptive coping skills

Broadly, coping skills can fall on either end of the spectrum between adaptive (healthy) and maladaptive (unhealthy), ranging from barely hanging on or avoiding the problem to confronting it head-on and working through the resulting emotions, for instance.

Adaptive or healthy coping skills typically help reduce stress and bring about feelings of comfort, balance, and competence in handling the challenges you're faced with. Maladaptive coping may feel better initially but is generally counterproductive, often leaving you feeling worse and harming you in the long run.

"People who rely more on active coping strategies, such as problem-solving and information seeking, tend to adapt better to life stressors," say the authors of a 2017 paper about adaptive coping. "For example, avoidance coping strategies, such as denial and wishful thinking, are generally associated with increased psychological distress."

Getty/Vadym Pastukh

Examples of maladaptive coping skills

Some may think certain coping strategies are healthy just because they work, but that isn't always the case. Maladaptive coping skills may temporarily relieve symptoms but often make you feel worse later while your problems remain unresolved. Examples of maladaptive coping skills to avoid include:

  • Heavy drinking and drug use
  • Gambling
  • Overeating
  • Overspending
  • Engaging in impulsive and risky behaviors
  • Avoiding the problem completely
  • Hyper-fixating on the problem

Examples of adaptive coping skills

Mental health professionals commonly divide healthy or adaptive mechanisms for dealing with stressors into four successful coping styles. Here's a brief overview of these coping styles and a few examples of each type.


This healthy coping style directly addresses the source of stress. In some cases, problem-focused coping involves planning ahead and tackling a specific stressor directly. Problem-focused coping skills may include:

  • Asking for help
  • Setting healthy boundaries 
  • Choosing to spend time away from unhealthy situations
  • Developing a plan to tackle the problem (which can be as simple as establishing a “to-do list”)
  • Creating realistic goals


This healthy coping style targets the negative emotions associated with psychological stress or a specific stressor. Coping skills that focus on emotional health may include:

  • Journaling
  • Meditating
  • Taking the time to practice relaxation exercises
  • Positive thinking
  • Reframing
  • Deep breathing in moments of stress
  • Changing thought patterns
  • Practicing forgiveness
  • Seeking therapy
Do you have trouble finding healthy ways to manage stress?


This healthy coping style involves using cognitive techniques to understand the meaning behind what we experience during stressful situations. Meaning-focused coping skills may include seeking the benefits resulting from misfortune or anxiety, which could have:

  • Knowledge
  • Experience
  • Competence
  • Stronger relationships
  • A greater appreciation for life

Support-seeking (social)

This healthy coping style entails seeking social support from your friends, family, community, and others to reduce stress. Utilizing this style may involve simple behaviors like watching a funny movie with a loved one, or more significant activities like seeking professional mental health support. It may also involve seeking out the support of a religious organization (sometimes referred to as “religious coping”). Support-seeking coping skills may include:

  • Asking for opinions and advice about the situation
  • A willingness to accept support and encouragement from others
  • Relating the current situation to positive past experiences
  • A willingness to ask for help from a professional (like a therapist or licensed clinical social worker) 

How therapy can help you develop adaptive coping skills

While relaxation exercises and other coping activities (like engaging in physical activity) may help, in some cases they might not be enough. You might consider working with a therapist if you are struggling with stress management or have developed unhealthy coping skills. They can provide a safe space to express difficult emotions and may be able to help if you are constantly feeling sad or powerless in the face of stress. Therapists can also help you analyze your current coping skill level and develop more adaptive coping methods if necessary.

If you're interested in seeking the support of a therapist, you'll first need to decide whether you want to meet with someone in person or online. Research suggests that both formats can offer similar benefits in most cases, so it typically comes down to your preference and availability options. If you're interested in the relative convenience, availability, and affordability of meeting with someone virtually from the comfort of your home, you might consider an online therapy platform like BetterHelp. You can get matched with a licensed therapist according to your needs and preferences, as communicated through a brief questionnaire. You can then meet with them via phone, video call, and in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing.


Stress is a part of life, but adaptive or healthy coping mechanisms can help us overcome it. Meeting with a qualified mental health professional may be helpful if you are experiencing more stress than you can reasonably cope with, or have developed maladaptive or unhealthy coping tools.
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