“What’s the difference between escapism, suppression, and coping mechanisms? Are they the same thing?”
Sometimes, life is a pain in the ass.
We've all had moments where we've felt overwhelmed- confronted with huge challenges that seemed insurmountable.
Life suddenly takes a left turn, with one of our life pillars suddenly shaken.
Maybe you experienced this losing a valued relationship, or your career, or your life dream, or maybe you've faced a health crisis. It's sudden, it's unexpected, and it's catastrophic. You feel like you've just been in a car wreck, and are stumbling from the wreckage, dazed and in shock.
Or, if you're like me, you do all of them at the same time, and your world feels less like a car wreck, and more like an airplane crash. You stumble through the wreckage, avoiding the jet fuel fires... no idea where you are or where to go from here.
It is not fun. I don't recommend it.
Or perhaps you're feeling challenged by a more subtle, but persistent form of life pain. Perhaps you're craving something, or someone, that you imagine you need to be happy.
Perhaps you are feeling a lack of love, success, or social approval., like your life will never amount to what you imagined.
Have you found your life problems yet?
When we are confronted with things we perceive as Big Life Problems, we feel insecure, because those areas of our life aren’t behaving the way they should.
Things are not going to plan... and that hurts.
How Much Pain are You Feeling?
In medical science, pain scales are used to describe the level of perceived pain that someone is experiencing.
Imagine you have a headache. How bad is it?
You might try to describe it to me using a face.
Pain scales with facial expressions, such as the FPS–R and the Wong-Baker scale, are among the most popular options for describing or rating pain.
Most scales also offer a numeric assessment. FPS-R has a 1-10 assessment. , with 0 representing “no pain” and 10 indicating “very much pain.”
Waging a War on Discomfort
Let's rate your imaginary headache on the FPS-R numeric scale. Imagine different intensities of headache before, and how you'd feel.
How would you respond?
- If it’s a low-level headache level , you’ll probably just ignore it.
- Slightly more pain [2/3]- but bearable- you’ll actively seek distractions like TV, a video game or maybe a shower or the gym.
- A bit more [3/4] you may be looking for aspirin.
- By  you’re feeling ineffective, and just want a nap until it’s gone.
- At higher levels, let’s say [6/7/8/9] you’re directly trying to numb it, perhaps with alcohol.
- By  you’re pretty much delirious, shut down and planning to sleep it off or else seek medical attention.
Just like choosing from a cabinet full of painkillers, we have different types and different dosages that we can apply to numb the pain, and we apply a measured response in order to feel normal again.
Here's Where the Problem Lies
Often, we focus on managing the pain, more than resolving the problem behind it.
What caused the headache to begin with? Maybe you were dehydrated, lacked sleep, or were dealing with an emotional crisis. Maybe you need to eat something, or perhaps that was way too much tequila last night.
But, sometimes, we don't know, and we don't invest the time to find out.
Too often, we prioritize simply making the pain go away rather than finding and sorting out the problems that are causing it.
It's a bad habit. And it is dangerous to both our health and our happiness, because...
We deal with emotional pain using the same approach.
A Big Pile of Coping Strategies
Imagine you've just lost your job.
Your bank account is empty, because you've just bought a house. Your mortgage payment is due. You're 21 years old, you're married, and the sole breadwinner in your family. You're expecting a child, and you suddenly have no medical insurance. The car just stopped working, there is a big tree in the front lawn that needs to be removed before it falls on your house... and your partner is very unhappy about this whole situation.
For what it's worth... yes this has actually happened to me.
How do you react?
If you look closely at how we perceive and react to emotional discomfort, you’ll notice that our perceptions and behaviors closely mirror the ways we react to physical discomfort.
Everyone will respond differently- but for the most part, we just want to make the pain stop. In fact, we are so motivated towards comfort-seeking, that we have a whole arsenal of techniques, strategies and weapons to help us deal with uncomfortable emotions.
The 5 Ways We Chase Comfort
I categorize these strategies into five levels.
Level 1. Avoid or ignore the problem.
Our first reaction to discomfort is simply to move away from it.
Uncomfortable things feel bad to us, a kind of agitation or pain, and so we withdraw back into our comfort zone.
If the pain is low enough, you simply avoid or suppress the discomfort. Leave the bills in the mailbox, or bury them under some papers, or shove them in a drawer where you can't see them. They are still there, but you feel less confronted by them.
Level 2. Distract yourself.
When simply ignoring it won't work, distractions can help.
The problem is unchanged, but to a certain degree you can reduce the pain by simply redirecting your attention to something else.
Watch Netflix, play video games, go for a run, or to the gym.
Often the most effective forms of distraction are those that create other emotions or sensations. Some people, when they feel an emotion like anger, will intentionally cause themselves physical pain as a distraction.
In the most extreme cases, this may be one of the underlying motivations behind forms of self-harm. - such as self-abuse, sexual promiscuity, eating disorders and even cutting.
Level 3. Seek comfort.
Pleasure is a powerful form of distraction, and it can also have the effect of counter-balancing your emotional state. When you feel "negative" emotions, like the grief of a break-up, every sitcom writer knows you break out the Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
Comfort-seeking is a big part of our psychology, even though the effects often have a downside.
There's even a German word for it-
Kummerspeck (n). German. Literally means "grief bacon," and refers to the extra weight you might put on after a bout of emotional eating.
What's your go-to comfort-seeking behavior?
Whether you pound ice cream & pizza or watch porn, it's important to ask yourself "is this helping me?"
Even more importantly... "is this hurting me?"
Level 4. Numb it.
There's a certain point where you begin directly attacking the emotions or sensations, with things that can directly numb them.
For emotions, that's often;
- Recreational drugs.
- Prescription drugs, such as painkillers & antidepressants
Level 5. Escapism.
And this brings us to level 5, escapism.
Escapism is about dealing with your discontent by embracing an alternate reality- one in which you are usually living the life you want, satisfying certain urges, or living by your core values.
There are obvious forms of escapism, like fantasy fiction, video games, soap operas, or pornography. However anything in your world can be over-emphasized as a form of escapism from other areas of your life that are less successful. People often over-emphasize their career to escape from their lack of meaningful relationships.
Even healthy things can be a source of escapism...
- Sports, gym, or yoga
- A romantic relationship
Look at the things that you enjoy in your world, where you invest a lot of time and attention. Are any of these providing an unhealthy escape from confronting other areas of your life that need your attention?
I rank escapism as the most intense category of coping strategies, because it is an effort to completely ignore reality and to replace it with a fiction that's more acceptable.
Sometimes this is brief- like being broke, but choosing to go out on a shopping spree. For that day you can pretend that you have money, while you deal with the credit card bills later.
Other times escapism is more prolonged.
At the most intense levels of physical pain, as you near level 10, your mind can become delirious. Pain is that intense. So what about emotional pain?
My observation is that the mind reacts the same way- reality becomes... fluid... malleable... distorted... even unreal.
For some, this means re-framing the problem itself, as in a victim mindset. If you've ever blamed someone else for your problems- and said "it's not my fault" when that wasn't the whole story- you've practiced a lightweight form of escapism.
Lightweight, because, perhaps there's some reality in it, just not 100%.
But there are much heavier forms of escapism too.
In high school, I know a girl who struggled emotionally when her boyfriend ended their relationship. Her emotions were intense. In fact- she found it so difficult to accept that she'd been broken-up with, that she found it easier to pretend he had died.
She began referring to him as though he had died, and reacted with confusion when others would try to correct her or ask what she meant.
For her, the emotional pain approached a level 10, and she became delusional... and she radically warped her perception of reality as her coping strategy.
And then what? What's above level 5?
On the physical pain scale, pain over 10 is basically death.
In emotional pain, when we reach a level greater than we can handle, the equivalent is emotional death - blackout, overwhelm, or a complete mental breakdown.
For some, ending it all becomes an option they seriously consider.
If you ever find yourself in that place, back away from the edge. Your problems are not about you, or your life, and they are all resolvable. They are about how you are thinking.
And this is why it's important to understand coping strategies...
and why they don't fix a thing.
Before we continue, stop and reflect on your own experiences for a minute.
Think about specific instances where you experienced negative emotions like depression, anxiety, sadness, fear, and anger.
What did you feel?
How did you react?
It's important to see clearly how closely related emotional and physical pain are at a psychological level. It's even more important to see how similarly we respond to them.
If your hand suddenly hurts, you'll probably pull it away from that hot stove, check how badly you've been burned, and then seek medical attention to sort it out.
But if you don't see an injury, you probably won't do anything, right?
Without visible harm, Your mind says "Whew, I don't think I'm actually injured here...", and you invalidate those sensations.
It's very important to see this mental connection, because most of us are taught to think of emotions as unreal and unimportant- and part of the reason is that we can't see them.
Wow that's uncomfortable, but... I'm not really hurt. I'll just wait, and distract myself, and it will go away after awhile.
Why emotions matter
On some levels this is accurate.
Emotional pain is typically more of a prediction that you might be harmed, unlike physical pain's indication that you've already been harmed.
When you feel emotional pain, you're probably not going to get an infection, or bleed out and die in the next few minutes... but this misses four crucial points.
- When you invalidate and repress emotions, they don't go away, they accumulate.
- If you're using coping strategies, you're not dealing with the underlying problem. Your life can't get better, and the problem won't go away on its own. It's more likely to get worse.
- Emotions are typically a prediction. When you feel fear, foreboding, anger, anxiety- these are usually signals that something bad might happen to you. If you ignore that prediction, and it happens to be valid, you may suffer those consequences.
- Emotions may or may not affect your future. They may or may not provide you with useful, actionable intelligence that you can use to make better decisions. But whatever the case, they will have a huge impact on your ability to enjoy life. Ignore them, you'll suffer from anxiety, depression, anger issues, or just plain melancholy.
You can do better.
Why We Use Coping Strategies
When it comes to pain, fear, and most other "negative" emotions, your brain responds in one of three basic ways... fight, flight, or freeze.
Fighting is about going towards a problem with the goal of resolving it.
Coping strategies are about avoiding the problem by running away, or freezing - hoping the problem will just go away by itself. They are not a problem-solving strategy, they are a problem-avoidance strategy.
Just like aspirin, they don't fix the underlying problem, they simply reduce the pain. The problem is still there.
What if I’m Using Coping Strategies?
I can pretty much guarantee that you're using coping strategies. We all do. It's a fundamental part of being human.
Unlike other animals, we have a powerful rational mind, which means we get to question and even challenge the sensations we're feeling. We get to make choices about how - and whether - we respond to them.
This is a superpower, but it's also a huge vulnerability.
Welcome to being human.
This fact does not make you weak, or naïve. But it's important to see this truth because if your go to approach to dealing with your emotions is always coping strategies, then guess what?
Your future life won't be one bit better.
What you can do
Journaling is one of the most effective ways to observe your thoughts and behaviors, and to adjust them over time.
Every day, journal specifically about the emotions you had, and how you responded to them. Did your response actually fix any problems? If not, how can you respond better next time?
Journaling is incredibly effective, but just like gym, you get what you give, and consistency is crucial.
Watch out for your initial response
I haven't run any double-blind international studies on pain recently, but I'm aware that the pain experience appears to have a clear progression.
I think of it as three main phases;
- The shock phase. This is your initial experience of pain. Usually, it just feels intense, and you don't know the details of how you're being hurt, or whether you've been injured. You just feel blinding pain. At this point, the brain lacks information- for example if you touch something extremely cold, your brain cannot tell if it's cold, or hot. It just feels like a burn, regardless.
- The pain phase. After 4-5 seconds, your mind seems to have sorted out the nature of the pain, and gives you specifics. At this point, it's clearer whether you've been injured, and precisely how.
- The recovery phase. This is longer term, and usually lasts the duration of the recovery. It's the indication that you're still injured, and need to take things carefully until you're well.
This experience is easy to experience. Go take a nice warm shower, and then turn the dial all the way to cold. Make yourself stay there standing beneath the cold water.
You'll notice that the initial pain you feel is the most intense, and you feel the strongest desire to react- by stepping out of the shower or turning it off. After a few seconds, your body acclimates, and the experience changes from pain to... acceptance. It's not hurting you, and so your mind relaxes.
Once you turn it off and step out of the shower, you simply feel refreshed because there is no actual injury, and no recovery needed.
Reflect on your past
What's causing these emotions, and... has this happened before?
If this is a recurring experience for you, chances are you've not been dealing with the problem directly.
Consider your future
What do you really want, and how can you get it?
Your life will be more of the same, and you'll keep feeling these emotions, until you address the underlying problems that create them.
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- Basic avoidance
- Emotional suppression
- Distraction techniques
- Pleasure-seeking behaviors
- Suppress-rage cycles
- Victim mindset, “it’s not my fault,” and blaming others
- Psychoactive drugs such as alcohol, recreational drugs, and medications such as antidepressants
- Self-harm- extreme sensations And even more severe forms of physical-sensation-distraction, such as self-abuse, eating disorders and cutting
- Fantasy, like porn, video games, and Netflix
Depending on the severity of the discomfort, we have a weapon to fight it with.