Fill in the blank: “Today was a hard day. I need ___.”

What do you reach for? Exercise? Family time? Comfort food? A glass of wine? Pills?

Stress affects us all. I see it hurting my patients, my family members, and myself. We shouldn’t be ashamed to reach for something that helps us cope, but we must know when we’re reaching for the wrong thing — when the coping mechanism makes matters worse.

Infographic: We All Self-Medicate for Stress — What Are YOU Reaching For?

Healthy Coping

Healthy coping mechanisms keep you in control of yourself and leave you prepared to address your source of stress.

Here are some excellent coping methods you can try:

Box Breathing

This breathing technique activates your parasympathetic nervous system and curbs your vagal response.

Breathe in four-second increments. Inhale, hold your breath, exhale, hold your breath, and repeat.

5-4-3-2-1 (Grounding)

This technique uses your senses to return you to the present.

Name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste.

This technique’s simplicity makes it a great option for kids.


Use moderate exercise to release the excess adrenaline that stress generates.


Journaling can help reduce stress, among other benefits. You can even use your journaling session to plan a way to address the source of your stress.

Take a Break From Technology and Lean on Others

Practice being present (i.e., not distracted) by focusing on your immediate surroundings and connecting with other people. It’s easier to be present when you’re with another person.

It can feel challenging to admit you’re struggling, but you’ll almost always feel better when you open up to someone else. If you don’t want to talk about it, it’s still beneficial to simply spend time with others.

Practice Gratitude and Perform Acts of Kindness

Instead of dwelling on your stress, develop a list of five things going well in your life.

Performing acts of kindness also makes you feel good. There is a chemical component here (endorphin release), but this particular chemical makes you feel better and puts you in a healthy frame of mind.

Unhealthy Coping

It’s perfectly normal to reach for unhealthy coping methods because they work… for a while. Unfortunately, the relief is temporary.

Young, healthy, driven professionals are especially prone to unhealthy coping mechanisms. They don’t notice the damage of unhealthy coping like an older, less healthy person would.

Alcohol and Other Substances

Alcohol and other substances often dull the pain of stress. Many people reach for these “solutions” because they work — but only for a short time. Then, they lead to larger problems, like addiction.

Overeating or Undereating

Eating too much or too little harms our bodies and doesn’t resolve stress. In fact, it creates more problems and additional stress.


Avoiding the root of your stress by burying yourself in something else (e.g., work, social media, television, etc.) is escapism. It’s not helpful, and it’s becoming a massive trend.

Social Withdrawal

Interacting with others almost always relieves our stress, and isolation almost always makes it worse.

Aggression or Aggravation Toward Others

Hurting the people closest to you won’t eliminate your stress. It’ll only make you feel worse.

Turning your frustration toward loved ones creates cycles of retaliation and dysfunction. It’s confusing to the people who care about you. For example, your kids may not understand your anger and blame themselves. This can perpetuate dysfunction for generations.

Quote: We All Self-Medicate for Stress — What Are YOU Reaching For?

Do You Need Help?

If your unhealthy coping mechanisms lead to depression, addiction, or physical or emotional harm (for yourself or others), rest assured that there are healthier options. Don’t be ashamed to talk to your doctor. This is part of being human.

This is one of the reasons I love practicing medicine in a concierge model. I have the time to explore these topics with my patients without feeling rushed. Together, we can devise a plan for healthy coping.