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What Maladaptive Coping Do I Need to Stay Away From When Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?

Whether it be stress from your job, your home life, or personal relationships, we all have a specific way of coping that works for us. Coping mechanisms are an integral part of functioning and dealing with the problems life throws our way. However, some coping mechanisms can do more harm than good.


When it comes to compassion fatigue, you must cope in a healthy manner. Far too often we see those struggling with compassion fatigue cope in harmful ways, like avoidance, procrastination, or withdrawal. Using these coping mechanisms will be more damaging in the long run, even if it might temporarily and in the short - term to relieve your stress. Whether you recognize what kind of coping mechanisms you use or not, let’s talk about what types are healthy, and what types to stay away from.


What is Maladaptive Coping?

There are two main types of coping mechanisms: adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive coping, also known as healthy coping, is a behavior used to resolve problems using stress reduction methods. This could vary depending on the person but typically includes exercise, processing emotions, meditation, or getting quality sleep. 


Maladaptive coping, also known as the unhealthy way of coping, are behaviors that do not always seek to resolve the problem but are used as attempts to reduce the symptoms of stress for a short period of time and temporary. This can be anything like substance abuse (drug and alcohol dependency), eating disorders, withdrawal, or avoidance. These can end up causing serious harm and increase stress in the long term. Maladaptive coping strategies can be hard to avoid because they can tend to feel like they’re helping at the time. However, the relief is short-lived, and soon you will have to face reality again as your coping wears off and now you're dealing with the original problem (that has not been resolved) plus an additional maladaptive coping strategy e.g. addiction 


Examples of Maladaptive Coping As it Correlates to Compassion Fatigue

Due to the harsh reality that a lot of first responders or service providers see and hear on a day-to-day basis, they often struggle with compassion fatigue, which is the cost of caring for others, or their emotional pain that results in numbness. First responders deal with trauma daily, resulting in increased stress and burnout. It’s not uncommon for those who struggle with compassion fatigue to want to escape from their stress and often indulge in maladaptive coping mechanisms.


Some of the most common, unhealthy, coping strategies are avoidance behaviors like drinking, emotional numbing, gambling, and social withdrawal. Their goal is to completely shut down their feelings to provide a sense of short-term relief. Another common strategy is self-blame and behavioral disengagement. These are extremely common when struggling with compassion fatigue, and end up leading to a very harmful pattern of behavior. 


So What Are The Next Steps? 

Breaking out of your maladaptive coping habits can be difficult, but not impossible. Seek out professional help if you are starting to notice your negative behaviors. Work with your therapist to identify strategies that are not working, and replace them with more adaptive coping techniques. Practice self-care and make time to enjoy the things you want to do. Taking care of yourself will ultimately lead to a more fulfilling life. 



  1. Source: Jeremy Sutton (2020) Maladaptive Coping: 15 Examples & How to Break to Cycle


  1. Source: Hanna DeWitt (2022) What Are Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms, and How Do They Affect Me?


  1. Source: Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Admin (2023) COmpassion Fatigue and Self-CAre for Crisis Counselors

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