Changing Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

We all have ways of coping or have fallen into bad habits, even addictions. You may have decided you want to change. But most likely you have found that actually changing just is not as easy as making the decision to do so.

Change is hard for most of us.

Many unhealthy coping mechanisms start early in life and become ingrained. These can be things such as binge eating, purging food, restricting food, self-harm, gambling, over-spending, gaming, or other destructive behaviors. These coping behaviors serve a purpose for you- or they did at one time in your life. Your unhealthy coping mechanism may have helped you “survive” life at one time, but it is no longer appropriate or needed. In fact, it is damaging your life now.

This short object lesson from Anita Johnston, PhD is inspiring, and can be applied to many unwanted behaviors.

Imagine yourself standing in the rain on the bank of a raging river. Suddenly, the water-swollen bank gives way. You fall in and find yourself being tossed around in the rapids. Your efforts to keep afloat are futile and you are drowning. By chance, along comes a huge log and you grab it and hold on tight. The log keeps your head above water and saves your life. Clinging to the log you are swept downstream and eventually come to a place where the water is calm.

There, in the distance, you see the riverbank and attempt to swim to shore. You are unable to do so, however, because you are still clinging to the huge log with one arm as you stroke with the other. How ironic. The very thing that saved your life is now getting in the way of your getting where you want to go. There are people on shore who see you struggle and yell, “Let go of the log!” But you are unable to do so because you have no confidence in your ability to make it to shore.

And so, very slowly and carefully, you let go of the log and practice floating. When you start to sink, you grab back on. Then you let go of the log and practice treading water, and when you get tired, hold on once again. After awhile, you practice swimming around the log once, twice, ten times, twenty times, a hundred times, until you gain the strength and confidence you need to swim to shore. Only then do you completely let go of the log.

(From Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston, PhD)

  • What does the log represent for you?
  • In what ways has your unhealthy coping mechanism kept you afloat when you felt you were drowning?

Changing your unhealthy coping mechanism requires honoring and appreciating its function first.  And then developing the skills that will give you the strength and confidence you need to let go.  Imagine letting go when you are ready.

Written by: GROW Staff