Stress is something we all deal with in our lives. Unfortunately, the effects of stress are vast and far-reaching. Stress can increase risk of depression and anxiety, asthma, obesity, heart disease, cancer, and more. Even in the moment, stress can be quite unpleasant.
Unfortunately, our habitual reactions to stress are often more harmful than they are helpful. How we cope with stress can make a huge difference in how it impacts our physical and mental wellbeing. Here are 9 unhealthy ways of coping with stress, along with alternatives you can try.
Remember that there are people out there to support you with stress. Shifts has qualified stress management coaches who have experience working with individuals experiencing stress in their lives.
1. Unhealthy Sleeping Habits
Sleep is healthy, and we all need enough of it. However, we can sometimes cope with stress by changing our sleeping habits in unhealthy ways. We may take naps during the day in order to avoid the stress, or maybe we stay up all night with anxiety or the intention to get more work done. It’s important to remember that sleep is crucial, and all naps aren’t bad. We have to find a sustainable, balanced place with our sleep patterns.
If you find yourself napping, staying up all night, or experiencing any other irregular sleeping patterns during times of stress, it’s time to investigate. See what is truly healthy for your mind and body, and where you are just using sleep changes to cope with the stress and anxiety in your life. Because we all need sleep, this one isn’t as simple as just stopping a specific behavior.
2. Using Stimulants
Many people use stimulants to help cope with stress. For some, stimulants can give some euphoria or a sense of calmness. In other moments, stimulants give us some energy to get more done. The most commonly used stimulants are caffeine, nicotine, and amphetamine (we will talk more about other substance in a moment). If you are prescribed a stimulant medication, you must consult with a doctor before changing your dose.
All stimulants are not inherently bad, but it is important to know that stimulants can cause anxiety and worsen stress. One of the best things we can do in relation to any substance use is to investigate the root causes. There are many ways to stop these self-destructive behaviors. For some inspiration, check out our post How to Stop Self Destructive Behavior in Your Life at https://shifts.coach/stress-management/how-stop-self-destructive-behavior/.
3. Spending Money
Of course, we have to spend money to live. Just like sleep, this is one where we really need to find some balance. When we shop, gamble, or buy things impulsively, the brain is releasing serotonin, dopamine, and epinephrine. This makes it an addictive action, and one way to cope with stress that can give the illusion of the stress falling away.
Just like we do with sleep, we can take a close look at our money-spending actions. When we buy something, what is our intention? Are we getting something necessary, or are we just looking for a way to avoid the stressful feeling we’re experiencing? Try being with the stress and working with it instead of engaing in this often unhealthy coping mechanism.
4. Ignoring and Denying
Denial of the stress doesn’t mean the stress isn’t there. You can’t just focus on something more positive or ignore it completely. If you are to free yourself from the grips of stress, you will need to face it eventually. We sometimes cope with stress by pretending it isn’t there, only to have it hit us all at once.
Mindfulness can reduce stress, and is a great way to go. Tune into the feelings coming up, and look at them clearly. As you begin to use mindfulness as a way to handle stress, you will be able to recognize it and work with it with less reactivity.
5. Lashing Out at Others
When stress gets the better of us, we may cope with it by lashing out at others. This is an unhealthy way to cope with stress that not only impacts our own stress, but also causes harm to others often. When we are overwhelmed or consumed by stress, we may express it by taking it out on others. This is a strategy that can make us feel even worse as we experience the guilt of harming others.
If you find yourself lashign out at others verbally or physically, it’s time to take a serious look at yourself. You don’t need to judge yourself too harshly or beat yourself up; instead, use it as an opportunity to really take a look. Sometimes, seeing the effects of stress on others in our life is the fuel we need to take action. Seize the opportunity and take action.
6. Drug and Alcohol Abuse
This is one of those coping strategies that we all know is unhealthy. There’s definitely a difference between a single drink at the end of a long day and regular alcohol or drug use. Either way, we can investigate our substance use to see if it is really healthy. Does that single drink or bowl of marijuana help us in the long run? The truth is that although substances may temporarily relieve symptoms of stress, they generally make it worse in the bigger picture. Eventually, you may go through withdrawal symptoms from drugs like kratom, opioids, and alcohol. This definitely makes things worse.
If you are struggling with substance use, there are many options available to you. You can find support in groups like twelve-step, meet with an individual therapist, find an addiction treatment center, or reach out to a sober coach. One of the keys is to remain open-minded. Your use may not be as bad as what you see on television or in movies, but quitting drugs can dramatically reduce stress in your life.
7. Self-Harming Behaviors
Self-harm is another coping strategy that is fairly obviously not a healthy way to go. However, it can be effective in the short-term, giving us the illusion of lessening stress. To be clear, it doesn’t work in the long run and we are absolutely not advocating for self-harm in any way. If you or somebody you know is struggling with self-harm, you can find a list of free hotlines at
8. Poor Eating Habits
Like sleep, food is something we need (and water!). However, we need to find a balance here. When we are going through an especially stressful time, we may find ourselves bingeing, purging, or avoiding eating altogether. This is an easy habit to fall into, and we may not even notice it happening. When we aren’t getting proper nutrients or are flooding our bodies with sugar, carbs, and empty calories, it can dramatically increase stress and cause other unpleasant symptoms.
Healthy eating is something many of us struggle with our whole lives. There really isn’t one answer to this issue. You can try meeting with a therapist, seeing a nutritionist, or finding an in-person or online support group for those struggling with eating issues. Remember that you’re not alone, and there are tons of resources in the world to support you!
9. Wallowing, Dwelling, and Pitying
One of the unhealthiest strategies for coping with stress is to wallow in the sadness. It can be easy to fall into self-pity and just dwell in our current situation. This state of inaction doesn’t help us work toward any relief. Although it feels like all we can do in some moments, wallowing in self-pity just tends to make the situation worse.
Instead of dwelling, see if you can bring two things to the table: self-compassion and planning. First, have some compassion for yourself. If you’re coping with this self-pity, chances are you’re going through some pain. Pause and care about this pain. Then, make a plan. Take baby steps, and don’t overwhelm yourself.
It’s important recognize that there are many effective ways of coping with stress. A coping mechanism can be healthy. As we discuss in our post Does Acupuncture Hurt? Does it Help?, there have been some studies to suggest that acupuncture is an effective way to reduce stress. You may also try things like mindfulness meditation, exercise, and listening to music.