Today I want to have a no-frills, straightforward discussion about grief and negative coping. People commonly engage in negative coping (c’mon, you know you do), especially people who have experienced the death of a loved one. Although many will eventually find constructive ways to cope with their experiences and emotions, others will become stuck in a cycle of thinking and behavior that is bad for their mental, emotional, and physical health. As it pertains to experiencing the death of a loved one, these behaviors could prevent a person from coping with some or all aspects of their grief.
What is negative coping?
It’s tempting (and common) to conceptualize negative coping as specific behaviors that are typically thought of as bad or harmful. These behaviors include things like excessive substance use, isolation, overeating, procrastination, etc. While these behaviors certainly play a role in negative coping, they do not provide a complete understanding of the concept.
Negative coping encompasses any type of behavior employed as a quick fix to regularly avoid painful emotions or situations. These are temporary distractions that reduce emotional pain in the short-term, but provide very little in the way of actual healing. Negative coping is like emotional aspirin; it numbs the pain temporarily, but once it wears off the pain reappears. Often these patterns of behavior end up making your stress worse because they are unhealthy and require a lot of effort to maintain. Moreover, they prevent you from effectively processing your emotions and experiences, which can lead to a prolonged sense of anxiety and emotional pain.
Why do people engage in negative coping?
Avoidance almost always lies at the heart of negative coping. As we discussed in a previous WYG post on avoidance,
“When we talk about avoidance in regards to grief, we are usually referring to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations. These are internal experiences that are perceived to be painful or threatening and might include fears of losing control, being embarrassed, or physical harm and thoughts and feelings including shame, guilt, hopelessness, meaninglessness, separation, isolation, etc.”
Your grief is most likely associated with a wide range of painful emotions and memories. For some these unpleasant feelings are contained to thoughts about the loss of their loved one, for others they extend to worries about life, religion, family, the future, etc. Many of these feelings, anxieties, worries and apprehensions are the internal manifestations that keep you up at night, others are brought on out of nowhere by external triggers. On a whole, grief can make you feel like you’re spinning out of control and so it feels protective to try and regain control through avoiding painful and threatening emotions.
Actually, in some ways avoidance can be useful and adaptive. Often times, in order to manage responsibility, function in family and society, and stay generally sane, one has to engage in some degree of avoidance. This is what we call, taking a break from your grief and it’s actually a major tenant of the popular grief theory, the Dual Process Model, which says that grievers must oscillate between confronting their loss (coping) and avoiding it (seeking respite).
Avoidance becomes maladaptive when it limits the ways in which a griever is able to fill their roles as a spouse, parent, friend, employee and society member and when this cycle persists to the detriment of personal healing.
What does negative coping look like?
Negative coping encompasses behaviors that promote avoidance in the following ways:
- Numbing the emotions of grief felt on a daily basis or in response to certain situations or memories.
- Complete avoidance of situations, memories, or thoughts in an effort to minimize exposure to unpleasant emotions.
It’s important to understand that it’s not the inherent nature of the behavior that qualifies it as a negative coping mechanism, it is the way the behavior is being used. Most behaviors exist on a continuum, so that it can be either adaptive (normal) or maladaptive. By conceptualizing behavior on a continuum, we can see how behaviors typically thought of as good can actually be maladaptive, and vice versa. For example:
(Note: Variation exists among individuals, families, cultures, religions, etc regarding what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘average’ behavior)
When behaviors like these, and many others, change in ways that enable a person to repeatedly and continuously numb and avoid, then the person may be engaging in negative coping. I couldn’t even begin to compose a complete list, but some common behaviors include things like:
- Staying busy
- Focusing only on the needs of your children
- Constantly saying ‘you’re fine’
- Substance use
- Throwing oneself into advocacy
- Emotional or physical isolation
- Cutting yourself off from certain family and friends
- Seeking constant distraction
- Avoiding certain places
- Emotional eating
- Giving up
Again, it may only be when these behaviors are consistently used to avoid and numb that they become problematic. A behavior should be considered a vehicle for negative coping when it contributes to someone’s world becoming more restricted and increasingly complicated, and when it prevents a person from learning how to deal with the painful emotions and experiences related to their grief.
If you want to learn a little more on this topic (or if you are more of an auditory learner), you should listen to our podcast on the continuum of negative coping:
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