Coping: 5 ways to deal with mental health issues

No organisation is immune to psychosocial problems. The way a person deals with such issues is referred to as coping. There are various coping mechanisms, but not all are effective in the longer term.

Research shows that more than 60% of Belgians experience stress at least once a week. There are different ways to shake off a stressful day: from reading a book to going for a walk in the woods. It gets harder when the problems are more serious in nature: unrelenting stress can lead to burn-out, and anxiety disorders, depression or addiction are not uncommon in the workplace.

The method that someone uses to deal with mental health issues is referred to as coping. Coping consists of different components and can change over the years: it depends on the problems the person is struggling with and on the coping mechanisms that were successful in the past. Consequently, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all method.

Problem-focused or emotion-focused strategy

There are two possible coping strategies:

  • problem-focused coping, which involves tackling the root cause of a problem;
  • emotion-focused coping, which involves learning to deal with the negative emotions associated with mental health issues.

A problem-focused coping strategy is the desirable approach in the long term. However, it is not always possible to eliminate the root cause right away. Sometimes even, there is nothing you can do to influence the source of the problem. For example, individuals who slip into depression following the sudden death of a family member have no other option than to apply emotion-focused coping. Those who experience extreme stress through their job, however, can tackle the cause, by deciding to switch careers, for instance.

Positive coping mechanisms

Each strategy includes different coping mechanisms, from emotional expression to professional help. But not every approach is positive. Just think of someone who blames himself or herself for a breakdown (= depressed response pattern) or takes to drinking to forget problems and thus develops an alcohol addiction (= palliative coping).

Conversely, there are countless positive coping mechanisms. We've listed a few examples:

  1. Find a distraction
    Finding a distraction allows you to step back slightly from the problem situation by doing something else. Reading a book or watching TV are examples of distraction. Colouring books for adults are a recent trend, as research shows that colouring has a stress-reducing effect.

    Distraction helps in the short term: it gives your mind a break. Even though doing something else in a crisis situation is a good response, this won't resolve the problems in the long term.
  2. Blow off some steam
    Almost everyone gets overwhelmed with anger, fear or sadness at some point in their lives. Blowing off steam allows you to get rid of those overwhelming emotions. For example, count to ten while you breathe in deeply and exhale or scream.

    It may be a relief to give free rein to your feelings, but the cause of the problem remains. And of course, you cannot apply this method everywhere: you will undoubtedly seem weird to your colleagues if you start shouting during a meeting.
  3. Allow for some 'me-time' (self-care)
    Self-care allows you to become your own best friend again. You take time for yourself by scheduling breaks, not accepting every invitation, and setting priorities. You can pamper yourself with your favourite dish, a massage, or a walk in the woods during rest periods. After all, research has shown that spending time in nature stimulates your well-being. Reduce your stress levels and the risk of burnout, while simultaneously boosting your information processing speed and response time.

    Simplicity and self-esteem are central to self-care. However, putting yourself first may create a feeling of selfishness.
  4. Rely on your support network
    Being able to fall back on friends, family and acquaintances will make it easier to get through hard times: you don't have to solve problems all on your own. The importance of a support network should not be underestimated.

    But building such a network takes time and energy: you have to stay in contact and show interest in others. Being able to share concerns is often a first important step in nipping potentially damaging scenarios in the bud and tackling problems.
  5. Tackle the issue actively
    In an active approach you analyse a problem and look for a solution. This usually involves professional help, especially in serious situations. For instance, it is not advisable to tackle addiction or depression without help. In addition, certain training courses are part of an active approach, like stress management, assertiveness training or conflict management.

    An active approach is time consuming and taking the step to seek professional help is not easy either. Yet, this coping mechanism has a long-term impact.

The success of any given coping mechanism will depend on the individual. However, it has to be based on the use of simple tips. Since, by definition, we experience crisis situations unexpectedly, a simple coping method has the best chance of success.

Read all blog posts about ‘mentally fit’.