coping mechanism

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Definition of coping mechanism

noun Psychology.
an adaptation to environmental stress that is based on conscious or unconscious choice and that enhances control over behavior or gives psychological comfort.Compare defense mechanism (def. 2).
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Words nearby coping mechanism

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


What are coping mechanisms?

A coping mechanism is a psychological strategy or adaptation that a person relies on to manage stress. Sometimes, coping mechanisms are intentional choices, while other times a person may be unaware that they’re using them.

In this context, mechanism refers to a method or process, and coping means “dealing with problems or difficulties.” So a coping mechanism is a way to deal with the stress caused by life.

The term coping mechanism is used in psychology. but it’s more than just a technical term used by psychologists and therapists. It has entered the popular vocabulary to the point that you may hear it in everyday life, such as in self-help books or from people on social media discussing their mental health.

Why are different types of coping mechanisms?

We all deal with stress—difficult relationships, dentist appointments, school deadlines (which might even be why you’re here!). We call the things we do to deal with the stress from these situations, coping mechanisms. The term was first used by psychologists Abraham Maslow and Bela Mittelmann in Principles of Abnormal Psychology (1941). Use of the term started to spike in the 1960s when psychologists began using it more frequently to refer to the methods people use every day.

Sometimes coping mechanisms help people manage the emotional effects of one-off events, but often they are applied to ongoing things, such as stress at work or grief from the loss of a parent. Coping mechanisms are also used to manage mental health problems, like anxiety or depression. Some coping mechanisms are healthy, like meditation, and some are unhealthy, like drinking heavily or smoking. Unhealthy coping mechanisms are sometimes called maladaptive, meaning they’re a bad, faulty, or inadequate way of adapting. Many coping mechanisms are subtle, unconscious mental processes, like denial.

Psychologists sometimes classify coping mechanisms into a few main categories. Here are some of them:

  • Defense (relying on subconscious coping methods)
  • Adaptive (tolerating the stress)
  • Avoidance (ignoring the stress)
  • Attack (fighting with someone rather than deal with the real problem)
  • Behavioral (making changes to your behavior to minimize the stress)
  • Cognitive (changing how you think about a situation)
  • Self-harm (hurting yourself in some way)
  • Conversion (turning one emotion into another)

As you can see, there is a wide range of different ways to cope—both healthy and unhealthy—and some are even used at the same time. Everyone experiences stress, so understanding what a coping mechanism is and how to spot one is a good thing for both your own mental health and that of others.

Did you know ... ?

You probably use coping mechanisms all the time without realizing it. Binge-watching your favorite show can be a coping mechanism (maybe to help you cope with the end of your other favorite show).

What are real-life examples of coping mechanism?

There are many different kinds of specific coping mechanisms—some healthy and some unhealthy. It helps to be able to identify the things you do to deal with stress.


What other words are related to coping mechanism?

Quiz yourself!

What are unhealthy coping mechanisms usually called?

A. Malformed
B. Maladaptive
C. Adaptive
D. Readaptive

How to use coping mechanism in a sentence