Seven Healthy Coping Mechanisms To Help You Work Through Life’s Challenges

Medically reviewed by Dr. April Brewer, DBH, LPC
Updated April 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The goal for many people is to lead a happy, healthy lifestyle. However, achieving one does not always guarantee you won’t experience stress, loss, or difficulties. Learning how to cope with stressors as they come up can help you learn to increase moments of happiness and care for your mental and physical health.

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Understanding stress and coping mechanisms

One potential obstacle to working through stress is difficulty accepting or understanding the feelings that come with it, leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

There are two types of coping mechanisms: positive also known as healthy coping mechanisms or adaptive coping mechanisms, and negative also known as unhealthy coping mechanisms or maladaptive coping mechanisms. These two coping styles can be a reaction to stressful situations. 

Some stress can be functional. For example, if you are working on a project for work and have a tight deadline, functional stress may help you achieve your goal. However, other forms of stress can be detrimental to your mental health. Not everyone becomes stressed for the same reasons, but understanding your stress inducer may aid in accepting and healing the stress.

For some, when a problem is encountered in life, a natural reaction may be to push it away and avoid it. However, maladaptive coping mechanisms, or negative coping mechanisms like avoiding emotions can lead to them becoming worse or coming out at inopportune times. Recent studies show that one of the negative consequences of suppressing emotions can be a reduction in emotional intelligence. Avoidant coping is just one of many maladaptive defense mechanisms against stressful situations. Other behaviors include substance use, anger, withdrawal, and self-harm. 

On the other hand, you have approaches like active coping, emotion focused coping, and problem focused coping, which are positive ways to handle stress. Unlike defense mechanisms, which are subconscious reactions, these coping skills are active and intentional. These can include things like problem solving, to manage stress and negative emotions. The list of exercises that follows is a mix of problem focused, active, and emotion focused coping.

Looking at emotions and stress as temporary problems with a solution can be helpful. Emotions change over time; although feelings can come back, emotions are not permanent. Stress can last longer. However, learning positive coping mechanisms such as radical acceptance may help you move through it more quickly. Having this reminder on your side can be a significant help as you use the coping mechanisms below.

Seven healthy coping mechanisms to reduce stress

Healthy coping strategies are tools that you can use to work through life’s challenges when they appear. Here are seven to try in your life.

1. Learn your stress inducer

If pushing problems and stress away is a natural reaction, you may not know that dealing with stressors head-on can be beneficial in the long term. Learning how to cope with problems begins with learning how to recognize problems (and your reaction) when they are present.

Looking for stress inducer can include identifying physical symptoms such as:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • An irritable or sad mood
  • Turning to less healthy coping mechanisms
  • Feeling fatigued

Knowing how to spot when you are feeling down can reveal to you that identifying problems and making changes could help.

Take some time to discover what you feel and why. Consider whether a situation, person or role in your life is causing stress. Perhaps a particular action, sensory input, or topic has been causing you stress. Stress inducer can be many things. Awareness is the first step in creating a change in your life.

2. Create goals when issues arise

Some obstacles are temporary, while others may have a long-term effect. Either way, staying stuck in a negative thought pattern or ignoring your feelings may not help the obstacles go away.

Whenever you encounter an obstacle, ask yourself what your first step is. Then, set aside some time to create a plan of action to work around the problems in your life. 

Learning how to map out a solution to a problem can aid you in various areas of life, such as work, school, or relationship conflicts. Change may be as simple as creating and following a plan to the best of your ability. It’s okay if you fail—ask for help and try again.

3. Take care of your physical health

The human body is better suited to deal with stress and worry when physically healthy. The mind and body are connected, as well. You may reduce stress by caring for your physical health. You can make some changes in your daily life to improve your physical health, including:

  • Getting plenty of sleep
  • Eating healthier foods
  • Drinking more water
  • Engaging in regular exercise (such as a brisk walk for 20-30 minutes a day)
  • Getting outside in nature

Building these habits begins with pursuing them as much as possible and making them a priority. If it’s hard at first to complete these daily, consider trying each item once weekly until you feel comfortable increasing the frequency. Rewarding yourself for achieving challenging goals may also be beneficial.

Getty/Halfpoint Images

4. Engage in relaxing activities

Learning how to relax is a skill for some people. For people who are always on the go, taking time to stop their racing thoughts and enjoy a moment of peace can seem complicated. For many, however, this moment of relaxation can often be the most enjoyable part of the day.

Whenever you encounter something that stresses you out, try to participate in an activity that relaxes you. Some relaxation techniques include:

  • Squeezing in a quick meditation session on the go
  • Doing an exercise, such as yoga or a cardio workout
  • Soaking in a hot bath
  • Sitting outside on the grass
  • Swimming
  • Practicing deep breathing exercises
  • Reading your favorite book
  • Practice progressive muscle relaxation
  • Creating art
  • Writing or journaling

Whatever brings you happiness and peace may balance you out when you feel stressed.

5. Maintain your support system

Close social connections can be one of the most significant tools in helping us work through difficult situations. Besides providing moral support and a place where we can voice our concerns, a close relationship may also be a source of advice when we need it.

Being around your friends and family can also provide positive feelings, such as happiness, love, and self esteem. Whether you’re feeling stressed or well, consider connecting with those you love, and see them regularly.

6. Avoid any harmful substances

In some cases, using drugs or drinking alcohol can be an unhealthy coping mechanism. Although an infrequent drink with friends may not be harmful, some substances and situations can cause unwanted effects and behaviors. Substance use may lead to substance use disorders with time or frequent use.

Even in the case of healthy substance use, turning to substances to relieve stress may aid in avoiding the core issue of your concern or cause problems to worsen. For example, alcohol is shown to be a depressant and may cause you to feel sad. Consider avoiding any substances that can add to your stress.

If you develop or have a dependence on certain substances, help is available through counseling. Speak with your primary healthcare provider before deciding to end the use of a substance, as withdrawal can cause distressing mental and physical symptoms and may be potentially dangerous.

7. Reframe negative thinking 

While we may not be able to control what happens to us, we may be able to decide how to react and move forward. Learning how to reframe your thinking when a problem appears can be a great way to help you learn to deal with stress. 

The next time you are faced with a stressor, ask yourself the following:

  • What is my desire right now?
  • What caused my stress?
  • Why is this stressful for me?
  • Is there a positive or healthy way I can respond to this?
  • Why would partaking in my desire be harmful or helpful?
  • Are there any positive aspects to this obstacle in my life?

Thinking positively or optimistically in the face of stress may increase your life satisfaction. Although it may be challenging to reframe your thoughts, help is available to learn how to do so.

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Counseling as a tool

It may feel difficult to work through stressors on your own. Professional insight can be a valuable tool in this case. Therapy is another tool that may allow you to speak about your concerns, validate your feelings, receive outside perspectives, and gain insight into how to start using these tools in your life.

Traditional counseling is often the first choice for those who need help. However, some people have busy schedules, live far away from a therapist, or do not feel connected with therapists around them. Online counseling can make it easier to fit your therapeutic needs into your schedule and doesn’t require a long commute to a therapist’s office.

Studies show that online cognitive-behavioral therapy is highly effective in treating prolonged exposure to stress. Sites like BetterHelp may offer an outlet for those experiencing these feelings to find support through a therapist specializing in stress and life challenges.


Knowing how to deal with stressful situations and obstacles through positive coping skills may play a role in navigating life challenges. The seven coping mechanisms above can help provide a positive start as you learn to navigate stressors. Counseling is another tool available if you find that you need outside assistance for stress management and creating healthy coping strategies.

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