Replace a Negative Coping Skill with a Positive Coping Skill

February 17, 2023 Natasha Tracy

You can change a negative, harmful coping skill into a positive skill. Sometimes negative coping skills seem easier or better, but in the end, they aren't. I know initiating such a positive change can seem impossible sometimes, but you can do it.

Last week, I talked about why negative coping skills are so popular. Sometimes they're just what they think of, and let's face it, in some ways, they do lessen our suffering, and that's why we use them. But in the end, negative coping skills harm us, and that's why they need to be replaced with positive coping skills.

What Are Positive Coping Skills?

As I said, negative coping skills harm us. Similarly, positive coping skills lessen our pain the same way, and they do not harm us in return. Positive coping skills include things like:

  • Taking a walk
  • Practicing yoga, doing relaxation exercises, etc.
  • Exercising
  • Meditating, using deep breathing techniques 
  • Using distraction techniques
  • Submerging your face in ice water
  • Calling a loved one
  • Calling a helpline
  • Reaching out for help from a professional, going to an emergency room, etc.

Of course, any of the above can actually become a negative coping skill if you use it so much that it starts to hurt you. (For example, over-exercising can lead to exercise addiction.) But, in general, you can use the above to lessen emotional discomfort/pain/suffering without harming yourself.

Getting Rid of Negative Coping Skills

One of the mistakes some people make when they go to get rid of negative coping skills is that they don't work to replace them with anything. For example, if your go-to coping skill is cigarette smoking, trying to stop but not replace it with anything will likely increase your suffering, likely leading to failure. You'll end up back where you started, with your negative coping skill, again.

A better idea would be to plan for what to do every time you feel the need to smoke cigarettes. For example, you might go outside and do some breathing exercises. You might go to the gym. You might call a friend. You might have to try multiple things before your urge to smoke lessens. Over time, though, it will get easier.

Using a Positive Coping Skill Instead of a Negative One

The thing about negative coping skills is that they become ingrained. They become almost a reflex. And the more you use them, the more of a reflex they become. This is why they are so hard to replace. 

So, what you want to do is to create a new relationship if your mind. Every time you are in pain, instead of thinking of X negative coping skill, you think of Y positive coping skill instead. At first, trying to build this relationship in your brain will be hard. But just like with the smoking example above, over time, it will get easier.

For example, one negative coping skill is self-harm. It can be hard to replace because you can do it anywhere, and for some people, it creeps into many facets of their lives. There are known ways of dealing with self-harm urges, though. One of them (common in dialectical behavior therapy [DBT[) is putting your face into a bowl of ice water. According to The New York Times

". . . putting your face in cold water can activate the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which prompts the body to relax after a stressful event. This may help people feel calm and tamp down inflammation."1

So, when you feel the urge to self-harm, instead of picking up something harmful, force yourself to walk to the freezer and get ice. Then force yourself to run water over the ice in a bowl. Put the bowl down and then force your face into it. You likely won't want to, but try it. I guarantee this is one positive coping technique that will have some kind of effect. 

And then, whenever you feel a self-harm urge, do that or substitute another positive coping technique if you need to. Maybe splash cold water on your face if you're in a public place and can get to the bathroom. Maybe hold onto something icy if you need your face to be free of water. And then have a backup positive coping skill at the ready for times when this one doesn't work for you. The idea is to do this substitution every time the urge arises for you to create a relationship in your brain.

When you start trying to do this, it will seem hard, and sometimes you may go back to your negative coping skill. That's okay. Don't beat yourself up. No one is perfect. Every time you have the urge is a new opportunity to try a positive coping skill out.

Tips on Using a Positive Coping Skill Instead of a Negative Coping Skill

  • Research coping skills. That way, you will have a range to choose from depending on the scenario.
  • Choose the right positive coping skill for you. You may need to try out several to find the one that will be most effective.
  • Every time you have a negative coping skill urge, try to use a positive coping skill. It might not always work, but you're trying to change your habit and form a new relationship in your brain. Consistency is key.
  • Keep going. Change takes time.
  • Don't beat yourself up if you don't always succeed in avoiding the negative coping skill. You are human, and it happens. Beating yourself up about it won't help.
  • Get the help of a therapist if you find you're having trouble. Someone like a psychologist can help you learn new coping techniques and teach you new ways to use them.

In short, positive coping skills can work for you, but they take time to implement. Consider how long you have been using a negative coping skill. It's not surprising it takes time and effort to replace it, but you can do it.


  1. Williams, C. (2022, February 21). Can Cold Water Plunges Really Reduce Anxiety and Depression? The New York Times.

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2023, February 17). Replace a Negative Coping Skill with a Positive Coping Skill, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate, and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar. She's also the host of the podcast Snap Out of It! The Mental Illness in the Workplace Podcast.

Natasha is also unveiling a new book, Bipolar Rules! Hacks to Live Successfully with Bipolar Disorder, mid-2024.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleX, InstagramFacebook, and YouTube.

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