We live in a world full of stress, anxiety and worry. We develop coping strategies or habits to deal with everyday pressures. Some people become workaholics, using success to protect themselves. Others strive for control, spend hours in the gym, binge media, gamble, overeat, or view pornography to feel good. Some self-medicate with caffeine, nicotine, alcohol or other substances to get through the day.
We all use coping strategies to help us in our day-to-day life and to fulfill some basic longing or need within us or to rebound from difficulty, trauma, fears or anxiety. Some improve our health and help us lead productive, successful lives. These are often valued and encouraged as “self-care.” Other habits or coping strategies can be harmful, leading to negative consequences like isolation, debt, incarceration, or even death.
Some of us are able to keep these in balance, living productive lives. Others find themselves consumed with the thing intended to bring happiness and fulfilled desires. In reality, they find themselves led farther and farther from where they wanted to be. At the beginning, it may seem pleasant and harmless, without a hint of the long-term consequences, negative effects, or, in the case of substance use, the ongoing physical changes that make controlling a habit more difficult by the day.
But sometimes, repeating these habits over time can be less satisfying and more compulsive or obsessive. Without addressing underlying issues, challenges, and trauma, the innocent ways to cope become unconscious habits that can undermine our well-being. We repeat them over and over, attempting to fill what is missing, increasing the amounts and frequency without bringing satisfaction, always wanting more. We can create a dependency on an action, a person, or a substance.
But there are ways to intervene when habits grow to unhealthy levels. A variety of simple options can help avoid dangerous routines. Outdoor spaces that promote interaction, for example, provide a community alternative to excessive solitary distractions. Peer support groups, like the AA meetings we have addressed in recent articles allow people to share their concerns and find like-minded support. Our partners at NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) are working to bring even more peer supports to our area.
Finding balance in coping with stress can be as simple as adding variety, human interaction, and service to others to our routines. Understanding that balance is important to a full life, and that everyone we meet is creating their own balance can help us be more empathetic to those who sometimes struggle to find the right mix. Most important, if we know that coping can create habits, habits can create ruts, and ruts can create obsessions, we can be sources of strength to those in our lives who may need help along the way. Before a person loses the ability to control their coping strategies, we can make a difference, helping to strike a balance.
Lynn Saylor is the AmeriCorps member working with the United Against Opioid Abuse Initiative alongside the White County United Way. She is a major facilitator of the United Council on Opioids serving White County and a regular contributor to local media.