What do you do when you’re feeling restless, uncomfortable, somber, or anxious?
For many of us, unhealthy coping mechanisms are the first thing we turn to. Alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, and shopping (‘shopping therapy’) are all examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms.
These are quick fixes; they give us immediate relief, while we’re doing it. But afterward, we usually feel worse than before. Because the existing problem hasn’t been solved, plus we often feel guilty about our drinking, spending, and eating. Over time, coping mechanisms like these may become more problematic than the initial problem.
So let’s talk about healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms and comfort activities.
- What are coping mechanisms?
- My experience with coping mechanisms and comfort activities
- How do you find your comfort activities?
- How to incorporate your comfort activities into your regular routine
- 30 examples of comfort activities
What are coping mechanisms?
Unconscious or subconscious ways of dealing with negative emotions are called defense mechanisms. Read more about defense mechanisms on Healthline.
Conscious ways of dealing with negative emotions are coping mechanisms:
“Coping refers to cognitive and behavioral strategies that people use to deal with stressful situations or difficult demands, whether they are internal or external.” – PositivePsychology.com
Coping styles and mechanisms can be divided into different categories:
- Problem-focused, where we try to deal with the problem in order to reduce stress, or emotion-focused, where we try to manage the feelings coming from the problem. The latter doesn’t mean ignoring the problem—sometimes we’re not able to solve the problem so it’s important to focus on what we can control; ourselves.
- Coping mechanisms can be active and avoidant: Active coping mechanisms involve a conscious attempt to either solve the problem or reduce negative feelings. Avoidant coping mechanisms are characterized by ignoring or avoiding the problem.
- Some coping techniques are not effective for a long-term period, can be counterproductive, or even have negative consequences. These are known as “maladaptive coping.” The opposite is adaptive coping, those are mechanisms that are seen as healthy and effective (GoodTherapy).
Alcohol, gambling, food, and shopping are unhealthy coping mechanisms. These are emotion-focused, avoidant, and maladaptive coping techniques and can create more stress or anxiety.
Commonly used active and adaptive (healthy) coping mechanisms are support, problem-solving, humor, physical activity, and relaxation.
So, now we get to the comfort activities I wanted to talk about. Comfort activities are adaptive and active coping mechanisms (often emotion-focused) and fall mostly under the relaxation and physical activity coping mechanisms, depending on your favorite comfort activities.
Comfort activities are activities that give you positive emotions. They make you feel calm, happy, strong, content, grateful, hopeful, proud, inspired, etc. It’s a form of self-care.
My experience with coping mechanisms and comfort activities
I’m a comfort eater. Even when I was in primary (middle) school I turned to food to help make me feel better. I had a stash hidden in my bedroom for years.
“Comfort eating is a way in which people deal with stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness or unhappiness. Comfort food are foods that evoke a psychologically comfortable and pleasurably state when they are eaten.” Health Engine
It wasn’t the right way to deal with my emotions (avoidant and maladaptive), but I also didn’t know how else to do it. I knew it was unhealthy, but I didn’t experience the downsides for myself. I wasn’t gaining weight, I wasn’t ignoring friends in favor of food, my doctor never mentioned anything, etc.
Until I had my burnout in 2018. Comfort eating was still my go-to coping mechanism. Now, with my burnout, I was comfort eating HARD, but I also wasn’t cooking any nutritious meals or exercising—after all, I was exhausted and didn’t have the energy to take care of myself.
The food didn’t make it any better. I had even less energy and gained a lot of weight in a short time—about 20 kg in 6 months.
When I started recovery, my GP wanted me to go to a therapist. I said ok, as long as I could also see a physical therapist. I already knew exercising had a positive effect on my mental health.
I think that was the first time I acknowledged a coping mechanism that was healthy, although I was still struggling with comfort eating. While it made me feel better while doing it, afterward I felt guilty, disgusting, nauseous, and bloated.
For a couple of weeks, I was able to stop the comfort eating, or only do it in moderation, but then I’d fall right off the wagon.
It felt like every time I had to start over.
Until one of my coaches asked me about my comfort activities.
I started keeping a list of activities that bring me comfort. Some are healthy physically, others mentally, others don’t bring me any advantages but comfort. But none of them bring me the disadvantages that overeating does.
- Working out
- Going for a walk with music or a podcast
- Being in nature (walking or just sitting)
- Dermot Kennedy’s music
- Reading (fiction or self-development)
- Reading Harry Potter
- Clean sheets and just-shaven-and-lotioned legs
- Dozing in bed for an hour after waking up on the weekend
- Getting a manicure or pedicure
- Working on my passion projects
When I feel down, I choose activities based on how I’m feeling. If I’m angry or frustrated, I like working out because I can channel that energy. When I feel very anxious, I like to do yoga and focus on stretching and breathing. I go for a walk or into nature when I need time to think. I read or work on passion projects when I need to feel productive and want to lose track of time.
If I’m feeling particularly fatigued or anxious and don’t have a lot of energy, I read Harry Potter, watch Netflix (requires less focus than reading) or just sit and listen to music.
To be completely honest: I still emotion eat sometimes. But not nearly as often or as much as I used to!
How do you find your comfort activities?
When I was asked about my comfort activities, I had no idea what they were. Creating that list took a while. In fact, I’m still adding to it!
The question I asked myself was: What are some things that make me feel better, without being bad for me at the same time?
I could think of a few from the top of my head, so that was a start. I was very conscious of how I was feeling at any time of day since I was trying to recover from burnout and depression, so whenever I felt positive emotions I wrote down what I was doing and evaluated if that was a comfort activity for me.
1. What’s the first thing that came to mind when you read that question above? Write it down.
2. Now think about when you felt positive emotions in the past week. What were you doing? Write that on your list too.
3. Look ahead: What are some activities in the upcoming week or month that you’re looking forward to? Add that to your list.
Congrats, you now have a list of your comfort activities!
Remember that your comfort activities may not always help with all your emotions. That’s why it’s important to have a list, so you can choose what sounds best. It makes sense to prefer a more physical activity when you’re feeling angry or something low-key when you’re anxious and tired.
Keep that list on your phone or another place that you can get to easily. Pay attention to when you’re feeling positive emotions and write down what you’re doing.
Now that you have a list of activities that make you feel good, happy, relaxed, comfortable, content, what’s next?
Try and fit some of these activities into your life every day.
How to incorporate your comfort activities into your regular routine
Ok, ok—hear me out.
I know it sounds like a lot of work. You’re already busy/stressed/tired, right?
But if you have a list of activities that make you feel better, why would you only do them when you’re feeling off?
Wouldn’t it be much better to try and do some of them every day so negative emotions don’t get to you as quickly? (It’s called proactive coping, instead of reactive coping, which is reacting to those negative emotions when you’re already having them.)
Adding comfort activities to your daily routine decreases agitation and leads to positive emotions, relaxation, and overall well-being.
For example, I know if I don’t work out regularly, I’ll get more stressed and I’ll feel restless. This happens if I miss two or three days in a row. My friends will ask me when I last moved my body.
I hate having that feeling. Who doesn’t? It also makes me sleep more (or at least lie in bed longer), less focused and quickly irritated.
And that takes a lot of my time and energy.
More time and energy than an hour of working out would take.
Because when I do work out, I can focus and I’m more productive, so I’ll finish my work quicker. I’m a nicer person to be around, because I’m happy and enthusiastic, and much less quickly annoyed at you. I’ll fall asleep quicker and have a better sleep as well. I also make healthier food choices because I don’t need the comfort of less nutritional food (remember, I’m an emotional eater). As a bonus, I also have less time to engage in things that make me feel bad (doom-scrolling, for example).
So all in all, I’m convinced fitting in an hour of whatever your comfort activity is, will save you time! But, start easy. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself!
So start with a 10-minute walk after dinner (or make your current walk more fun). Instead of listening to some marketing or business podcast during your commute (because #productivity), put on some happy music. Switch out one Netflix episode in favor of reading. Treat yourself to a manicure, massage, spa-day, etc. with your friend, instead of going out drinking.
Examples of comfort activities
- Read a book
- Paint or do another type of art
- Watch cute animal videos
- Clean—if only a drawer
- Listen to music or make music
- Do some physical activity
- Spend time with family and friends
- Cook or bake
- Go to a scenic place
- Hug someone
- Keep a gratitude journal
- Take a spa day
- Watch a tv-show or movie
- Create a to-do list
- Get therapy
- Take a hot shower or bath
- Go out for a meal
- Practice mindfulness
- Pet your cat, dog, rabbit, guinea pig, etc.
- Blow bubbles
- Eat healthy
- Learn/try something new
- Visit your place of worship