Helping Hurting People: Damaging Coping Strategies


“I don’t want to keep doing this. I know that it’s bad for me. I feel guilty about it every time. I just don’t know what else to do.”

Getting Perspective

People are going through significant physical and emotional changes. Adding ever-increasing stressors to the mix and we are vulnerable to all kinds of struggles. In the absence of appropriate coping strategies, people often begin to manifest damaging coping strategies.

Each of these activities is often an attempt to find relief from emotional pain—particularly pain from relationship loss or rejection. Those who have not learned to cope with negative emotions find that these strategies do provide relief—even if it’s only temporary. The endorphins that are released by these behaviors can be addictive. Because of the nature of the behaviors, people often feel a deep sense of shame on top of the emotional pain that led to the behavior.


Cutting is using a sharp object for the purpose of self-injury. Other forms of self-injury include biting, burning and beating the skin. These injuries are most often inflicted upon the wrists, arms, legs or stomach. Those who cut often try to hide the scars so that others won’t notice.

Nearly half of all high school students report that they have engaged in some self-injurious behavior in the last year. These behaviors externalize emotional pain in a way that is also physically stimulating. Often what begins as surface markings turn into extreme injuries that could lead to blood loss or infection.

Eating Disorders

More than twenty-five percent of teen girls have symptoms of an eating disorder at some point between age twelve and age eighteen. These teens have an obsession with food and the behaviors related to eating. There are two primary types of eating disorders: those with Anorexia restrict the amount of food that they eat; those with Bulimia eat a lot of food at once and then force themselves to throw up (often referred to as binge-and-purge). Either of these two eating disorders can have significant health problems long-term.

Substance Abuse

Ninety percent of high school students have tried alcohol. More than thirty percent say that they use some sort of alcohol or drug each week. Teens from Christian homes are not immune and are sometimes even more prone to use because they have had limited exposure to it.

Biblical Insights

“What? Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20)

“Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.” (Ro. 6:6, 11-13)

Immediate Response

Look for patterns of behavior that indicate that there is a problem dealing with stress. Often what starts with curiosity leads to experimentation which leads to abuse and addiction. Affirm people for seeking help and continue to maintain a close relationship. The bigger goal is not just the damaging coping skills but building a renewed sense of hope and purpose.

Action Steps

  • Share strategies for stopping their current (maladaptive) coping in addition to learning how to effectively work through their negative emotions.
  • Help to identify places and situations in which they are more likely to engage in these behaviors and “safety plan” for them to use other strategies instead.
  • Encourage them to review relevant passages of Scripture and to begin to journal their thoughts and feelings.

Depending on the level of severity of the behavior, those who disclose their problem may need to be directed to professional help. In some cases, a physical exam may be needed as well.

Andrew Graham
Andrew Graham
Dr. Andrew Graham is a licensed mental health counselor, nationally certified counselor, and board-certified professional Christian counselor providing professional counseling and consulting from a Christian perspective. He serves as Associate Professor of Counseling at Spring Arbor University and as an adjunct faculty member in God's Bible School and College's Graduate Program. Dr. Graham and his wife Lisa live in Hobe Sound, Florida with their eight children.