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I Can’t Cope — How Do I Change My Negative Thought Patterns?

If you’re thinking to yourself, “I can’t cope with life right now,” or maybe that you can’t cope with life at all, I understand.

When we’re struggling mentally or having a difficult time, it’s normal to use a coping mechanism to help adjust to the pain we might be feeling — this is what many people do when they feel like they can’t cope.

A coping mechanism is a tool or strategy that people may use during a period of stress or trauma to help manage troublesome emotions. They can help ease a person as they adjust to stressful events or moments in their life and assist them with their overall emotional wellbeing. 

It’s important to note that sometimes people may confuse coping mechanisms with defense mechanisms.

Here’s what you can do when you can’t cope.

Can’t Cope? Here’s What a Coping Mechanism Is

A coping mechanism is used consciously and is an active way of trying to deal with an uncomfortable moment in a person’s life. It is done on purpose to help a person cope with their external stressors. 

However, a defense mechanism is often subconscious—the person doesn’t always know or isn’t aware of it. Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.

Let’s consider an example. Let’s say a person has a really big test coming up, and they’re feeling stressed and anxious about it. A coping mechanism that person could use might be taking some time to meditate or practice mindfulness.

This is a conscious, purposefully-done tool that the person is actively deciding to do to help better handle this stressful situation. Practicing mindfulness might help them focus on their breathing, calm their nerves, and help them get a clearer mind.

From there, the person might feel more calm and relaxed to study and feel productive without having the stressors take over.

On the other hand, a person who uses a defense mechanism might be more inclined to procrastinate or avoid the stressful situation, “defending” themselves against the painful emotions associated with performing well.

This person might use drugs or alcohol to help numb their feelings and do so without even really thinking actively about it. They might try to “cope” by cram-studying at inconvenient times or avoid taking the test altogether.

While it might temporarily ease a person’s emotional pain in the moment, this kind of coping can have negative, longer-term impacts.

In this example, the person may not be able to study because they decided to go out drinking instead and, in turn, not perform well on their exam. Repeating behaviors like this could lead to worse grades, failing out, or other negative consequences.

Defensive Behaviors – I Can’t Cope With What’s Actually Happening

Another way to notice if someone is using a defense mechanism is in their behavior and how they react to a situation.

For example, let’s say you tell your partner that you’ve been feeling lonely lately because you feel like your partner has been so busy with work.

If your partner uses a defense mechanism, they may react harshly—they might feel like they need to “defend” themselves by justifying why they haven’t been able to spend time with you. 

Perhaps they say things like, “I need to work so that we can have dates out,” or, “I can’t control what my boss makes me do.”

These responses are coming from an emotional state. The person might be feeling judged, criticized, or threatened.

Rather than hearing their partner’s request to spend more time with them, they are hearing things like “you’re not good enough,” or, “you can’t organize your time well.” 

In turn, you might feel like you weren’t truly heard (even if your partner heard what you said, they might not have fully understood what you were asking).

As a result, you might feel hurt and also start to react emotionally and subconsciously with your own defense mechanisms.

Perhaps you’re trying to defend yourself by saying things like, “fine, I’ll just be alone by myself,” or perhaps you stonewall the conversation, leave, and pretend the conversation didn’t happen.

Again, defensive reactions/defense mechanisms can happen without you even realizing it. You might realize later that you overreacted or said something you didn’t mean or want to say. But, in the moment, you said them because you wanted to defend yourself and keep yourself safe.

We all do this, and it’s okay, but, if we allow ourselves to use these defensive strategies more than coping mechanisms and other helpful tools, we might fall into some toxic patterns.

What If I Can’t Deal With What I’m Feeling?

There are moments in our lives when we feel so overwhelmed that we think we can’t possibly handle all the emotions. We can’t cope, whether with a coping mechanism or a defense mechanism.

Maybe your normal go-to strategies for dulling the pain are no longer working. Maybe you can’t even get yourself to get up, move, or do anything.

These moments can be really scary. It might feel like you’re isolated and alone from the rest of the world. One thing that helps me in these moments is realizing that I’m not alone. So many of us struggle with moments like these, whether we can see them for ourselves or not. 

In our society, we’re more likely to project all the things going well in our lives rather than these scary, difficult moments. If you were to reach out to a friend or family member expressing some of the things you were feeling, you’d probably realize they went through something similar, too. 

They might also tell you that they made it through—and so can you.

What If I Feel Too Overwhelmed Or Stressed To Learn To Handle Things Better?

When you’re already feeling stressed and overwhelmed, learning something new can be scary. The very idea of putting work into something might feel exhausting because you’re already feeling so low.

You may feel more inclined to use your regular defense mechanisms or coping tools to get through those moments rather than sit with the discomfort.

Remember that learning to cope with difficult feelings isn’t something we master overnight. We don’t need to add more pressure on ourselves.

We don’t need to have an expectation that we’ll feel better as soon as we put the work in. Coping with trauma and stress is a process, a journey that’s not always linear. 

Rather than feel like you have to change everything to feel normal again, start small. This could mean tweaking just one small thing each day. Make your goals small.

For example, this could look like getting up just 5 minutes earlier each day so that you have more time. It could mean trying to go to bed earlier or spending just 10 minutes walking outside.

These are small, simple steps a person can make to help improve your life overall and hopefully start your journey towards coping with hard things more easily.

Another helpful tool is journaling. When we’re so distraught with our emotions and with whatever is happening in our world around us, we can build up a lot of emotions inside.

Being able to throw all of that into a journal can help gain perspective, feel like a release, and give you a fresh new take on your situation.

I Can’t Cope — How Do I Get Better?

Working with a therapist, friend, coach, or mentor can help shape your perspective on how you’re feeling. Remember that the words and language we use to describe ourselves can affect how we feel.

If you say, “I can’t cope with this, nothing will ever work, I’ll never be happy again,” you’ll start to feel these things and hold that emotion in your body. You may convince yourself to believe these thoughts entirely.

However, our thoughts are not always true. Remember that just because you think you can’t do something doesn’t actually mean you can’t. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of negative thinking when you’re already in a negative space.

It is difficult to break that cycle—in fact, it might feel like you’re “faking it” until you make it. 

That’s normal. When you’re in a negative thinking cycle for so long, and when all your defense mechanisms feel like they don’t work anymore, you might feel hopeless.

But remember, it won’t always be this way.

Therapies like cognitive behavior therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy can help reframe some of these thought patterns and, in turn, affect how you feel and your behaviors.

Rather than relying on your defense mechanisms (or negative coping strategies like drinking and drug use), you can start to use tools that help you get out of a negative thought cycle. 

Creating New Thought Patterns When You Can’t Cope

Sometimes creating a new pattern or a new routine in how you think can be difficult. Challenging your thoughts isn’t easy because it may be something you’ve become so used to doing.

When we feel like everything is going wrong, we might feel like we’ve reached a phase of learned helplessness, this idea that we will always feel hopeless, that things will never be how we want them to be.

When we implement new coping tools to help challenge these very powerful, dark thoughts, we can begin to see the world with a fresh perspective.

We may learn that tools we would have otherwise used—using drugs and alcohol, being reactive in how we respond to others, giving up, procrastinating—are more hurtful than helpful. 

While falling into those negative coping strategies might seem easier, they won’t be helpful in the long run.

Feeling like you can’t cope? I understand. Tell me about your experience in the comments.

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Samantha Mineroff

Samantha Mineroff is a writer, mental health advocate, and aspiring author. In 2018, her paper, “The Rhetoric of Major Depressive Disorder: Performativity and Intra-activity of Emotions in Major Depression” won best seminar paper award at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. At the Poetics And Linguistics Association (PALA) Conference in 2019, she went to The University of Liverpool to present her paper “An Application of Scripts, Schemas, and Negative Accommodation Theory in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams.” She currently works as a marketing writer for clinical research. She enjoys live jazz, good conversation, and writing letters. You can reach her at sammineroff@gmail.com

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