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What are unhealthy coping mechanisms?

Gambling, alcohol and substance abuse are major issues across areas of northern, western and central Melbourne.

For example, alcohol is known to be a contributing factor in all three leading causes of teenage death in the region. Ambulance call-outs due to illicit drug use is rated extremely high in the Melbourne and Yarra local government areas (LGAs). And in 2016-17, problem gamblers lost an astounding $240 million on pokies machines in just the Brimbank and Hume LGAs.

Most people know that illicit drug use, smoking, alcohol abuse and gambling can cause all kinds of harm if consumed or engaged in to excess. And yet, these continue to be problems across the region.

So why do so many people keep engaging in this behaviour even when they know it’s harmful?


Why do people gamble, drink, take drugs, smoke…?

People gamble, smoke, drink and consume drugs for many different reasons.

It could be because of boredom or a desire to fit in socially; it could be out of a desire be ‘edgy’ and different; or it could be because it provides a ‘rush’. Most commonly, though, people engage in these kinds of behaviours because it makes them feel good.

Whether it’s the thrill of gambling, the chemical effects of drugs and alcohol, or the sense of social belonging with other smokers, ‘vices’ such as these can allow people to feel better about their immediate situation and help them forget about their troubles and worries.

For this reason, the stresses and difficulties in someone’s life are often the reason behind behaviour that has become habitual or problematic. That’s because it’s normal to want to avoid difficult or unpleasant situations (in fact, it’s part of our evolution). When we are faced with stress-inducing situations, we naturally look for a way ‘out’. These behaviours — actions based on our desire to remove those feelings which cause us distress — are known as coping mechanisms or coping behaviour.


What are coping mechanisms?

A coping mechanism, coping behaviour or coping strategy, is behaviour that someone engages in to try and insulate or protect themselves from psychological damage resulting from a problem in life.

Coping mechanisms can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’. In fact, you may have also heard the term ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ (or destructive) coping strategies. Mental health professionals refer to these respective behaviours as adaptive and maladaptive.

A good, adaptive or healthy coping mechanism is one where the coping behaviour leads to the problem being resolved, or at least dealt with, in way that reduces stress and reduces harm.

A bad, maladaptive, unhealthy or destructive coping mechanism is one where the behaviour does not resolve the problem in the long-term and may actually increase the harm. Unhealthy coping strategies may feel like they are having the desired effect in the short term.

There are an enormous number of mechanisms that people resort to when faced with stress-inducing situations. Here are some of the more common ones.


Examples of unhealthy coping strategies

  • Alcohol consumption, outside of socially acceptable occasions or above a reasonable quantity.
  • Drug abuse, especially if consumed habitually as a way of dealing with difficulties, rather than as isolated recreational pursuits (keeping in mind that the safest quantity of drug consumption is zero).
  • Anger or aggressive behaviour — anger is a normal human emotion which everyone experiences occasionally, so anger here refers to behaviour which is potentially destructive and damaging to relationships, career, physical health, etc.
  • Eating junk food, beyond a ‘normal’ level of occasional indulgence.
  • Gambling, beyond what is a socially acceptable amount and frequency.
  • Spending and shopping, beyond what is necessary to meet one’s personal needs and occasional indulgences.
  • Self-harm which inflicts damage to a person’s body.
  • Console gaming, where the amount of time is at odds with family, social, and work commitments.
  • Smoking addiction.


The above are generalisations and it is important to remember that no two people’s circumstances are alike. For example, 16 per cent of Australians aged 14 or over have used illicit drugs in the last year, yet most people are not problem users.

In general, a behaviour can be regarded as unhealthy (e.g. maladaptive) if engaging in it leads to harm, be it physical, emotional, financial or even legal.


Examples of healthy coping strategies

  • Going for a walk, staying active or doing regular physical exercise
  • Mindfulness relaxation and meditation
  • Eating healthy snack foods like fruit instead of sweets or junk food
  • Giving yourself permission to have a reasonable amount of down time
  • Making an effort to hang out and spend time with friends and family
  • Reaching out and talking about worries to a friend or family member
  • Talk it out with a professional CAREinMIND counsellor.


Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.


The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.