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At-risk coping skills may be detrimental to your health

January 5, 2021
By Bill Howatt

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘Mental Fitness: The next frontier in workplace mental health’ is a weekly series, in partnership with Dr. Bill Howatt of Howatt HR Consulting in Ottawa. This series takes a deeper look at mental fitness — an approach to prevent mental harm and promote mental health.

When you are feeling stressed out, what is your go-to feel-good behaviour?

Feel-good behaviours are the things you do to cope with and reduce the impact of negative thoughts and feelings. Stress can trigger behaviours that may not always be in your long-term interest.

For example, feeling stressed and worried may lead to snacking on potato chips. Taking in more calories than you burn can increase your risk of chronic diseases like obesity.

There is a high co-morbidity in people with chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity with depression and other kinds of mental health challenges.

In my book, The Coping Crisis, snacking controlled the lead character Sam’s life and, over time, negatively impacted his quality of life.

Sam engaged in a cycle of at-risk behaviours that took over his life in a coping crisis that eventually eroded his mental health.

How to control at-risk coping

The first step to controlling at-risk coping is to learn what it is and stop self-judgment.

Breaking an unhealthy coping skill begins with self-compassion and accepting that we often are doing the best we can with the knowledge and skills we have.

This provides an opportunity to learn that the mind can play mental tricks under stress, such as suggesting the value of engaging in an unhealthy behaviours in an attempt to feel good.

The stress triggers the need to stop the emotional pain. An automatic thought such as “get some potato chips now” jumps into our head.

There are now two forces at work.

Our conscious brain is telling us that eating this large bag of chips right before bed is not healthy, while the unconscious brain continues to fire off intense urges and cravings. This eating when not hungry is an example of an at-risk coping skill.

To stop at-risk behaviours, it is helpful to have a frame of reference as to what is driving these cravings under pressure. The answer is eating potato chips when stressed has become a habit.

Training your brain

The basal ganglia part of the brain is responsible for much of our habit-making behaviours.

In Sam’s case, the potato chips were stored as a feel-good habit. Like any at-risk behaviour, the goal is short-term relief with no regard for long-term negative impact.

What is challenging with at-risk coping skills is not the behaviour; it is their frequency, duration and intensity. Food, alcohol, cannabis and technology are parts of our society that, with awareness and moderation, can have positive benefits to our quality of life.

Taking control of at-risk behaviours begins with the awareness that many times they are learned habits. Moving to accountability begins with self-monitoring of how much they have a hold of your life.

For the next week, without trying to change or control an at-risk habit, record the behaviour and the amount of time you engage in it.

After engaging in the habit, write down the feelings you are experiencing — both the benefits of giving in to the habit and any self-judgement.

You may say to yourself, “OK, tonight I am not going to snack,” but at 9:30 you find yourself needing that bowl of ice cream. You try to resist, but the tension and urge build until you give in.

These kinds of mental tricks are powerful and confusing and can leave a person feeling guilt, shame and self-loathing.

Replacing bad behaviours

This is an important point to anchor because self-judgment adds stress that fuels the habit. The unconscious brain does not know if the habit is good or bad; it just knows you have deemed it a feel-good behaviour.

After one week of monitoring and tracking a habit, the next step is simple. Do you want to stop this at-risk coping habit?

If the answer is yes, then stop the behaviour. One exception is if you start your day of consuming alcohol and drink throughout the day, consult with your doctor or mental health professional about your plan to stop.

If you can accept that it will take about 30 days for the urges to diminish, know that it will be challenging, but you value your health. You will need to look for healthy, prosocial coping skills to replace the at-risk behaviours.

You do not have to do this alone. If you are struggling, get some professional support.


Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting and the former Chief of Research and Workforce Productivity at The Conference Board of Canada.

The next article in this series will review help-seeking behaviours and why they are important to mental fitness. If there is a particular microskill or topic you would like to see Dr. Howatt write on that supports employees’ mental health in the workplace, please send your request to Talent Canada editor Marcel Vander Wier.

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