From Coping Skill to Addiction: When Coping Becomes Unhealthy

October 3, 2019 Amanda Richardson

We all cope with life differently, so how does one know when their beloved coping skill has manifested into a full-blown, unhealthy addiction? I believe most of us have our own unofficial list of coping skills that we turn to after (or during) a particularly unpleasant day. For some of us, a staple coping mechanism might be a hot bubble bath and for others, their nightly routine could include a chilled glass of wine while binge-watching their favorite sitcom. So how far is too far, and what transforms a harmless coping skill into an unhealthy life choice, or worse, an addiction?

What Is Addiction?

After a significant amount of time battling numerous addictions and dependencies in my life, I can candidly say that nearly every coping skill can become an addiction if it is allowed to. Granted, there are varying levels of addiction and unhealthiness to consider. For example, it's probably not too harmful to become addicted to romance novels or addicted to watching your favorite sports team, but I certainly believe that addiction is possible.

You might be wondering, how in the world could either of those harmless activities be deemed as an addiction, and I would gladly point you to an extremely informed and evolved definition of addiction by renowned speaker, author, and addiction professional, Gabor Mate.

Mate explains that addiction is:

". . . any behavior in which the individual finds temporary relief or pleasure in -- and craves for that reason, despite negative consequences."

So I will elaborate on my initial examples by reminding everyone that nearly every coping skill or enjoyable hobby could fit into this mold in the right context. A woman could be enslaved to her desire for romance novels to the point where it eliminates her social activities or severely inhibits her ability to maintain romantic relationships. For a man who is unhealthily obsessed with his favorite football team or even his fantasy football league, this could eventually lead to negatively impacting his time and commitments to his family or even his ability to focus on work.

Of course, not every woman who avidly reads romance novels is addicted to them and not every man with a fantasy football team is enslaved to his habits. However, as Mate explains, if these habits (or any habit) provide temporary relief or pleasure, lead to potential cravings, and are still pursued despite negative repercussions, it just might qualify as an addiction of sorts.

So now that we've established what can possibly qualify as an addiction, let's discuss coping skills and how they play a part in our lives.

What Are Coping Skills?

Coping skills, in my own opinion, are the things that make us tick. Coping skills can be our favorite hobbies like crafting or dancing, our tools of relaxation like deep breathing or meditation, and sometimes coping skills can even be our favorite people or places like spending time with your best friend or hanging out at the beach.

Coping skills can be emotionally driven like going to therapy, they can be mentally focused like making checklists or journaling, they can also be spiritual like attending a house of worship, or even physical like practicing yoga. No matter what though, coping skills are typically self-care-centered activities that bring relief, pleasure, or peace back into your life.

I believe that coping skills, by definition, are intended to help you cope with life. In fact, in addiction recovery, coaches and counselors commonly recommend that their clients refer back to healthy coping skills to help individuals in recovery curb their difficult cravings. 

So When Do Coping Skills Become Unhealthy?

As I mentioned, recovering individuals are often encouraged to find new pathways to receiving relief and pleasure in their lives, instead of referring back to their (negative) drugs of choice. That's the keyword here: healthy.

I've witnessed common coping skills take unhealthy turns many times both in my personal recovery journey and in the lives of other recovering individuals I've helped mentor and coach. Some of the most common concerning coping skills include things like caffeine or sugar consumption, food intake, working out, sex, alcohol, tobacco use, and marijuana.

Please note, I'm not saying that every single one of these things is inherently bad. Caffeine is likely a staple item in your home, particularly in Western culture. Sugar is amazing. Food is a necessity. Sex is natural. Alcohol can be harmless in small quantities (depending on your family history, addictive tendencies and so on). (Marijuana and tobacco, however, are topics for another time.)

Nonetheless, each of these items could be incredibly helpful in assisting recovering individuals curb cravings from much more harmful (or deadly) substances like heroin, methamphetamine, or crack cocaine just to name a few.

We all recover differently and supplementing addictive tendencies is a frequent and normal part of addiction recovery. However, it is always wise to stay vigilant and prepared, especially when you know that you have a personal or family history of addiction or dependency.

Final Thoughts on Coping Skills and Addiction

At the end of the day, we all have our favorite hobbies or activities that bring us joy, surround us with peace, or provide pleasure in our daily lives. There's no harm in having coping skills; I believe we should all have an escape from our crazy lives on occasion.

I will encourage you, though, to stay alert to any addictive and dependant tendencies that could develop over time. If you notice that any of your coping skills have become life-altering, have become overtly controlling or consuming, have lead to imminent cravings, or cause debilitating consequences, I strongly recommend that you reach out to a mental health professional to help you find different ways to cope.

You know you better than anyone, so only you can decide what makes a coping skill healthy and when it becomes a life-altering, unhealthy addiction.

APA Reference
Richardson, A. (2019, October 3). From Coping Skill to Addiction: When Coping Becomes Unhealthy, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 24 from

Author: Amanda Richardson

Amanda is a professional health and wellness writer who specializes in creating content tailored to the female audience. She is especially passionate about social injustice, mental health, and addiction recovery.

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For more information on Amanda's professional writing services, be sure to check her out at Richardson Writing Influence.

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