Coping Mechanisms

People will go through major stresses in life.  I’m not talking about typical stresses that are considered “normal” and expected such as work, drama within family, drama among friends, deadlines, school, etc.  These activities are just the norms of daily living and although they are stressful, they are activities that one gets used to and one can find a somewhat equilibrium to balance these activities within one’s life and still function as a normal human being.  I find this akin to riding a bike.  You know how to ride one, but to stay balanced, you just have to keep riding and keep working to function as a rider and your equilibrium is settled.  Let’s call these mundane stressors.

The stress I’m talking about has to do with the major upsets that throws one of balance, where the equilibrium is so off kilter that one is lost in terms of what to do.  These stressors are not just certain moods, but they throw you off where you have to formulate a new equilibrium and a new balance just to function.  These major stressors would include: a breakup, divorce, moving to a new city, starting a new job, getting fired from a job, realizing that one is going to be a parent, the death of a loved one (and the more unexpected the death, the more stressful it is), working on a major project that can make or break your career, moving in with a partner, getting kicked out of your own home, being publicly shamed for some activity, etc.  With all of these activities, they don’t happen as often as mundane stressors.  The major stressors are so infrequent that it’s hard to see how one can “pick up the pieces” because one isn’t sure what to do.  The balance is off kilter; the equilibrium seems unrecoverable.  Going back to my bike analogy, it’s as if you’re riding your bike and all of the sudden, the front wheel pops off.  You will most likely crash and once you get back up, you will have to learn how to ride this new bike with just the back wheel, which is something that is a new experience and that it almost seems impossible to do at first.  Of course, after one gets their bearings and learns how to cope with this new situation, one can find a new equilibrium and learn how to ride a bike with one wheel.  A new balance is formed and one can ride out one’s life more or less effortlessly.

But how do people learn to get through these major stressors?  Analogously, how does one learn how to ride the bike with one wheel?  Of course, the bike rider may realize that she will have to ride the bike with one wheel, but the process of not only learning how to ride this bike, but also lamenting the fact that the front wheel is gone is something that she still must cope with.  In other words, the bike rider had learned how to ride a bike with two wheels, and she now realizes that she has to learn how to ride a bike with one wheel, but the process to get from A to B is going to be tough.

Likewise, the person who just went through a major stress realizes that one will eventually recover and learn how to find an equilibrium, but the process is going to be difficult.  Going from A to B is going to be hard; one does not just gain a balance automatically.  It’s going to take some time and the process is going to be hard.  One must cope and deal with the new situation and so there are certain mechanisms to help one cope, and to help deal with the stressful situation.  One must figure out the process to “unlearn” A so that one can move forward toward B.  These processes are coping mechanisms.

This post is an investigation into these coping mechanisms.  Typically, one goes through a coping mechanism, gains ones bearings so that one can gain a new equilibrium, and then one can move on.  What does it mean to cope?  How does one cope?  As I see it, there are two broad forms: internal and external.

Internal coping mechanisms deal with the agent’s own internal structures so that the internal aspects are ordered and coherent.  The agent is an internal mess, and so the way to fix this is to “go within” and fix this mess so that things can be made coherent again.  I consider certain internal mechanisms including meditation, counseling, journal writing, and perhaps stoic exercises.  Notice that these mechanisms deals with the agents own internal structures.  It’s as if the agent can go into one’s own “inner citadel” to “get away from it all.”  The outside world is too messy, too chaotic, too unstructured.  So what can one do?  Go within.  Although the internal structures are also chaotic, at least they are  trustworthy and—more importantly—they can be controlled.   The goal is to work through the problem by changing the internal structure from within so that one gains control of oneself.  By working through the problem, one gains a sense of a coherent self again, where one finds an equilibrium.  When that happens, one can then move forward in life and the coping is no longer needed.  In short, this coping mechanism is to help the self heal by “smoothing out” the troublesome spots about the self.  Sure there may be a few wrinkles here and there, but as time goes on, these wrinkles get less and less noticeable.

External coping mechanisms are ways where the agent wants to get away from the self.  The agent does this because the internal structures are so chaotic and messy.  Indeed, confronting the internal mess can be too painful, too stressful, or overwhelming.  Thus, the agent does certain activities to make the self have less pain, less stress, and controllable.  Since the problem was looking within, the agent looks to activities that can change the self so that the self is, in a sense, a different kind of self.  The self is troubled, and so the self engages in activities to relieve the troublesome spots and these external things “smooths out” the self.  It’s as if the self is a passive entity and the external activities are the iron.  Certain external activities can range from being social (hanging out with friends and family members, or simply just being around people so that one is not alone), engaging in sex (which could mean one night stands or simply increasing the frequency of sexual activity with a partner), exercising, watching TV, sleeping, volunteering, and overconsumption of food, drugs, and/or alcohol.  I include the last one because even though it does change the internal structure, it does so from an external source.  What is the strategy with external coping mechanisms?  Well, if one has major stressors, dwelling on certain thoughts or memories is not a remedy.  If anything, it could make things worse.  Imagine having a fight with a loved one, but you had to stop the argument shortly because you had to study.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m in the middle of a fight, I can’t study.  My thoughts immediately go back to the fight and I’m forced to reflect on the fight.  My mind wonders and I’m just replaying certain thoughts and memories.  Thus, for the externalist, any internal coping mechanisms just don’t work. If anything, the internal coping mechanisms seem crazy because the agent wants to think about something else.  The last thing the agent wants to think about is the major stressors again.  What does this tell us?  The agent is using external coping mechanisms to get away from these thoughts that are bothering him/her.  The goal is distraction.  Internal aspects forces one to reflect, which is exactly what the externalist wants to avoid.  This isn’t to say this is a bad thing.  Of course, it takes some time to get past the major stressor.  It’s not as if the externalist is using some activity to get away from the stress as a permanent thing.  There is the saying that “time heals all wounds.”  The internalist may use that time to reflect to formulate a new equilibrium.  But the same is true with the externalist.  The externalist realizes—perhaps even subconsciously—that s/he will get past this.  It’s just that these external activities are ways to make the time pass quicker.  In other words, these activities are not just simply distractions so that the agent has to face the stress later.  These distractions are the healing process so that time is being used up.  Since the externalist doesn’t want to think on the major stressors, the externalist must use up the time somehow.

There is a risk with externalism however.  One can be consumed in dangerous or risky activity.  Drugs and alcohol are ways to distract oneself, but they can form into a new equilibrium that includes these activities as a permanent structure of the agent’s character.  On the other hand, another external activity (such as volunteering) could also inform the agent’s equilibrium to form a new character.  It really depends on the activity, the major stressor, and how much the agent realizes that one will get past this.

Now that we have set up the distinction between external and internal coping mechanisms, what can we do with this information?  Which is better?  Which one helps the agent to heal?  I don’t think this is an easy answer because it really depends on one’s personality and history.  Is it possible to do both?

I don’t have the empirical data, but I would think that the internalist is good for getting the inner self aligned and balanced, but the external stuff helps with the distraction that the self just can’t bear.  Does the internal and external coping mechanisms contradict each other?  Not necessarily.  However, the goals of each are hard to achieve simultaneously.  After all, the internalist needs to think about self whereas the externalist wants to get away from the self.  Maybe another way to think about it is that the internalist wants to reconnect with the self whereas the externalist finds a relationship with the self problematic.  They both want to form a new self, but they have different ways to get there.

Although this is a sketch of coping mechanisms, I have a feeling that someone who is more inclined toward character, such as virtue ethics, and notions of autonomy as central to the self would find internalism a better route.  And those who are more inclined to empirical-based forms of the self may find externalism a better route.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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