When we brought our first cat home, our dog Roxy, who’d never lived with a cat, quickly saw an over-sized squirrel and ran towards her new enemy. Mosi the cat, who’d obviously dealt with this kind of canine behavior, quickly schooled Roxy before she saw it coming with a scratch across the nose. For awhile afterwards, each time Mosi entered the room, Roxy turned her head in the opposite direction as if she was thinking – ‘if I don’t see you, then you don’t exist and I won’t get my nose scratched.’
It worked as a smart short-term coping mechanism until she could rectify her long-held worldview about large squirrels. Over time, as the large squirrel appeared to be less threatening, they began to look at each other, then sit near each other, and eventually became friends.
We all have short-term coping mechanisms to help us deal with acute stress (such as looking the other way) and healthy long-term ones (such as facing fear/befriending the other). The problem occurs when we take a coping mechanism meant as a short-term fix and continue it indefinitely.
For instance, a friend who found herself in the middle of emotional turmoil that opened up old wounds, quickly drove to the store and bought her first pack of cigarettes since she’d quit a few years ago. After she arrived home, smoked her first cigarette and calmed down, she remembered all the reasons she’d quit smoking and decided that what she really needed was to talk to a counselor and deal with some well-buried emotional issues.
Often times our short-term coping mechanisms are unhealthy – smoking, drinking, eating junk food, ignoring/denying (like Roxy), shopping, TV – and ultimately need to be substituted with a long-term healthy option that minimizes the affects of stress by transforming our reactions.
This requires a conscious commitment to engage regularly in a practice that nourishes you. Whether this is exercise, art, gardening, meditation, reading, talking with friends or a therapist – you must take your own mental health seriously and make a daily effort to refill your ‘spiritual bank account’ in honor of your own life and to better serve those around you. With healthy long-term coping mechanisms, eventually you will find that you are no longer just coping, but actually thriving. Reminds me of the saying – change your habits and your habits will change you.
What are your short and long-term coping strategies?