Coping mechanisms are the sum total of ways in which people deal with minor to major stress and trauma. Some of these processes are unconscious ones, others are learned behavior, and still others are skills that individuals consciously master in order to reduce stress, or other intense emotions like depression. Not all ways of coping are equally beneficial, and some can actually be very detrimental.
The body has an interior set of coping mechanisms for encountering stress. This includes the "fight or flight" reaction to high stress or trauma. A person perceiving stress has an automatic boost in adrenaline, prompting either action or inaction. People have a variable level of physical reaction to different levels of stress, and for some, merely getting interrupted from a task can cause an inappropriate fight or flight reaction. This can translate to “fight” mechanisms, where a person gets very angry with others for interrupting him. Alternately, flight may include physically leaving, or simply being unable to regain focus and get back on task.
Other unconscious coping strategies can include the way that the mind deals with a constant barrage of stress. People in the psychiatric field suggest that mental illnesses tend to be coping mechanisms that evolve from certain stressors. For example, dissociative identity disorder may result in children who have been severely abused. Panic disorder may be the body’s way of coping for inappropriate fight or flight reactions to minor stressors. Some mental illnesses also have a genetic basis, but stress certainly often plays a role in making these conditions more severe.
People also learn these mechanisms as they progress through life. Some people tend toward reactions that are helpful, while others choose defense mechanisms that can actually increase stress. The person who uses stress as a reason to exercise is learning and expressing a healthy way of coping. The person who turns to alcohol or drugs, eating disorders, or workaholic behavior is using mechanisms that are both dangerous and unhealthy.
Both children and adults can benefit from learning coping mechanisms from mental health professionals, especially when they are suffering from mental illness, or have turned to unhealthy forms of dealing with stress. In this sense, these mechanisms are a set of practiced and learned behaviors that help individuals better respond to stress. People may not always be able to control the amount of adrenaline that pumps through their bodies in stressful situations, but many therapists believe that people can learn to control their reaction to it.
Many times, people who experience high fight or flight reactions actually amp up their own stress by their coping mechanisms, creating more adrenaline boost than is needed. Learning to recognize the body’s tendency toward these highly charged states and altering behavior accordingly can reduce the length of time a person stays in the charged state and reduce the body’s continued need to produce adrenaline to cope with danger that does not really exist. Therapeutic ways of handling stress can involve meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and the recognition of the body’s inappropriate response. These are only a few of the mechanisms that can be learned through therapy. They can result in fewer incidences of panic, inappropriate anger, or turning to unhelpful behaviors like using alcohol to dull stress.
People who have developed mental illness as a coping strategy benefit by learning therapeutic methods and by taking medication that can help reduce the symptoms of mental illness. A schizophrenic who hallucinates may be aided by the coping mechanisms provided by anti-psychotic drugs. Anti-anxiety medications can assist the person with frequent panic attacks. The gold standard in treating inappropriate behavior is to gradually replace it with therapy and medication that can help reduce unwanted coping responses.