Why Negative Coping Skills Are So Popular

February 9, 2023 Natasha Tracy

There are positive and negative coping skills for mental illness. This means that while almost anything can be a coping skill, some are truly helpful, and some are actually harmful. But what are negative coping skills, and why would anyone use a negative coping skill if it's harmful? 

Why Negative Coping Skills — What Are Negative Coping Skills?

As I said, almost anything can be a coping skill. They can range from petting a purring cat to eating cookies, taking a walk, going to therapy, and so many other options. Negative coping skills are coping skills that end up harming you, however. For example, if your only coping skill for dealing with depression is eating cookies, you will likely eat far too many of them and face negative consequences like weight gain. That is a negative coping skill.

One very common negative coping skill in bipolar disorder is substance abuse. In fact, almost 60 percent of all those with bipolar disorder have had a substance abuse issue at some point in their lives.1

And substance abuse is inherently harmful — it's actually in the definition. Drug abuse is defined as:

"the excessive, maladaptive, or addictive use of drugs for nonmedical purposes despite social, psychological, and physical problems that may arise from such use." 2

In other words, substance abuse means using the substance despite the negative effects it causes. Substances could be cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs.

Other negative coping skills I see frequently include:

  • Self-harm
  • Retreating from human contact
  • Outward bursts of anger
  • Avoiding the problem
  • Compulsive actions like spending or gambling
  • Escaping through sleep or other means
  • Becoming promiscuous
  • Over- or under-eating

Why Negative Coping Skills If They Harm?

The thing about negative coping skills is that they fulfill their primary objective, which is to reduce the pain of whatever is going on at the time. For example, if you're experiencing grief and have a night of wild sex with a stranger, you may temporarily feel better. This is true of all negative coping skills. Temporarily, they make us feel better. That's why we started using the negative coping skill in the first place. It's just that their overall effects are negative. But when we're desperate, we may have trouble seeing or caring about the deleterious consequences, so negative coping skills still often seem like the best idea at the time.

For example, say you are arguing with your partner. You feel terrible because you're fighting, so you lash out in rage. That lashing out feels like a release for a moment. But then you see the harm you've caused both to yourself and your partner. That's a negative coping skill in action.

People shouldn't feel bad about using negative coping skills because, honestly, we all use them. We all get backed into corners we feel we can't get out of and do something harmful. It's very, very human. And negative coping skills often seem like the easiest answer in complicated situations. After all, what's easier than grabbing a beer, for example?

That said, we can do better. We can learn to turn to positive coping skills instead. We can learn to put positive coping skills into the places where negative coping skills once existed.

Next time I will talk about how to do this, so stay tuned.


  1. Cassidy, F., Ahearn, E. M., & Carroll, B. J. (2001). Substance abuse in bipolar disorder. Bipolar Disorders, 3(4), 181–188.

  2. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Drug abuse | Definition & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2023, February 9). Why Negative Coping Skills Are So Popular, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 14 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

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