Mood Ring host Anna Borges talks about coping mechanisms like binge-watching television and late-night gaming. Are those behaviors unhealthy and reasons to feel guilty, or are they fine to help you deal with what’s going on in your life?
Anna is joined by licensed mental health counselor Jor-El Caraballo to unpack how we can tell if our coping mechanisms are helpful or harmful, and how to enjoy them without all that shame.
Anna Borges: Alright, I’m gonna…I’m gonna tell you something…
Every once in a while, I get this taste of what I imagine it must be like to be...well-adjusted? You know like, whole stretches of time where I’m not ruminating or anxious or lonely or sad. I am just...chill.
...And then, Netflix will ask me…
“Are you still watching?”
And the illusion is shattered. And I’m forced to see my sad reflection in my smudged laptop screen, and all the thoughts and feelings I’m avoiding come bubbling back up.
If I were the person I wanted to be, this would be the moment I say, “You know what, Netflix? No, I’m not still watching. I’m going to go do all the things I told myself I was going to do today.”
But I’m me. So I hit “next episode” and sink back into numb, distracted bliss.
Binge-watching TV is a shitty coping mechanism of mine. And if we’re all being honest with ourselves and each other, you probably have one too.
Maybe your thing is video games. That’s…also my thing.
Maybe you’re partial to falling down the TikTok rabbit hole, scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.
Or maybe swiping endlessly on dating apps and window-shopping for validation. Or real shopping. Our producer Jordan loves to obsessively order home goods from Amazon.
Most of us have those things that we do for our mental health in the moment even though we know they’re probably not all that good for our mental health in the long run. And that’s fine! It’s totally human to want to distract ourselves, or soothe ourselves, or whatever it is your thing does for you.
Except…I don’t know about you, but I probably spend as much time judging myself for my shitty coping mechanisms as I do actually enjoying them. Which kind of defeats the purpose. But that doesn’t mean I have to stop, right?
Hey friends, what’s up? I’m Anna Borges and this is Mood Ring: A Practical Guide to Feelings. Even when you feel like a swamp person with terrible coping mechanisms. Every episode, we’ll explore one new way to cope — with our feelings, with our baggage, with our brain, or with the world around us.
Anna: If you thought today’s episode was going to be about kicking these shitty coping habits to the curb, don’t worry. It’s not that kind of show. No, this episode is about how we can stop thinking about them as “shitty” in the first place and how we can tell when they’re helpful or harmful, and how we can enjoy them without all the guilt and shame.
Here to help us unpack it is our guest Jor-El Caraballo. He’s a licensed mental health counselor and the cofounder of a health and wellness practice called Viva Mental Health and Wellness.
Anna: I know how I think about coping mechanisms and what they mean but as a mental health professional, what is your kind of official definition of coping mechanisms?
Jor-El: Yeah, it's, it's funny, because coping mechanisms, coping skills, any of those kind of terms we use, are really about the things we do the tools we utilize to manage our feelings and our thoughts manage our mental health. So they could be very sophisticated things. I don't know, like electromagnetic cranial stimulation, or they could be other things like journaling. And it really, it really depends on what someone finds the most helpful. But there's s uch a wide range of tools that we have access to that help us manage.
Anna: Yeah, I tend to think about it in terms of things that we can do ourselves without professional intervention. Does that kind of vibe?
Jor-El: Yeah, yeah, I like that.
Anna: Yeah. Cuz I kind of have, or, at least in my circles, coping like mechanisms, that word has a specific connotation that does lean negative versus like coping strategies. And so I'm curious, like, Are there good and bad coping mechanisms? Like that's how I categorize them? How do you tend to think about that?
Jor-El: That's a, that's a really good question because the way I have my default setting, so to speak, is that coping mechanisms have no value. Morally, they, it's really anything because anything that you do any strategy can be good or bad, depending on how or when it's applied. So just for like, a very, like, this is super like traditional psychoanalytic, right? So denial, for instance, is a defense mechanism or a coping mechanism that we all have the capacity for, right? Which basically says, we don't, we don't acknowledge what we're feeling in the moment, if, especially if it's like a painful feeling that comes up for us. So we're just like, No, I'm good, fine. Everything's cool, right? And in some instances, that is actually a really helpful tool, where you might be limited in your use of other strategies or tools. But in other situations, or if you rely on that perpetually, as your one go to, then obviously, you're going to end up in a place where you're very disconnected with reality. Right? Because you're walking around saying, like, no, that's not happening. This is not happening. I'm not here. I'm over here,
Anna: Oh, wow! Are you dragging me right now? Is this our therapy session?
Anna: I mean, I basically invited you on to be like, please tell me what I do is okay, give me like a professional stamp of approval. But yeah, so it sounds to me what I'm hearing is that there's also a line between maybe conscious coping mechanisms and like unconscious ones, because I don't know that I recognize in the moment when I'm in denial, but I definitely recognize when I'm binge watching 12 seasons of some show.
Jor-El: Yeah, and I think something like denial because it is, you know, as Freud would argue that it is innate. And so it is much easier for that to kind of roll by in our subconsciousness. And so it's hard to kind of catch that that's happening in the moment. Usually, there are those little moments that happen afterwards, at least for me, I'm like, “Oh…I was lying.”
Anna: I love that we’re bringing Freud into this. Like very early. Like, welcome to the conversation, Freud.
Jor-El: He’s been on my mind lately, you know?
Anna: Just always. So I'm thinking a lot about the kind of like conscious coping mechanisms, you know, the ones that we perhaps feel a certain way about in the moment, you know, like I mentioned, mine, it's going to be my go to, I am very into the escapism, play a lot of video games, watch a lot of TV will do it for a very long period of time. And then, of course, as I'm doing it, even though it's like what I want to do, I just feel like guilty and like crap, and like, judging myself and not enjoying it in the moment. Is that common? Like, do you see this in your work?
Jor-El: Yeah, I think it's really common. I mean, especially if we're talking about living through a global pandemic. I think it's really common for people to be using some skills that are finding ways to cope, that they're like, Ah, this isn't the best. Like, I don't feel great doing it. And I think, I don't know, I think that everything needs to happen in moderation. And so I always talk to people about having, like, you, obviously going to have your go to is like, I don't know, binge watching. Whatever show, right. I've been binge watching Frasier. You know, unsurprisingly, you know, more times than I can count. But, you know, it's like being able to have various things at your disposal, you should always have a toolbox, because sometimes it doesn't, it's not good to do one thing to escape, maybe you need different things to escape, maybe you need a little space to lean into something, and then you can pop back out, you know, back into escapism.
Anna: I don’t pop out. That's my problem. Yeah, I live there.
Anna: Hey. I’m just glad to know that all those nights I spent staying up until 3am playing Breath of the Wild or Fire Emblem 3 Houses or whatever my flavor of the week was wasn’t for nothing. In fact, I think I’m going to go ahead and add playing video games to my coping mechanism toolbox. Officially. For real. After the break, we’ll finish up our interview with Jor-El Caraballo and talk about some of the most common coping mechanisms that come up in his work.
Anna: Hey, welcome back to Mood Ring. I’m Anna Borges. Before the break we were talking about our shitty coping mechanisms, and by that I mean our awesome coping mechanisms that we’re working toward embracing, with licensed therapist Jor-El Caraballo. Let’s get back to it.
Anna: I would actually love to pause like, because we're binge watchers, it sounds like but for people who might not be this might not be like their go to I'm curious if you have any examples of other shame inducing, like, quote, unquote, shitty coping mechanisms that like you hear from from people you work with?
Jor-El: Eating, it's right up there. Specifically like comfort food. And it's just so interesting, because, again, like, I come from this mindset that even something like that, like comfort food has definitely gotten this bad rap. Because like, Oh, it's just all the bad things you want to eat. First of all, there are no bad things. Second of all, they they're comforting for a reason, right? Either they provide some chemical reaction that we interpret our bodies interpret as really comforting, or… and or. We also have attached memories, right? That really put us in a comfortable, safe space emotionally when we revisit with those things. So it's okay. But again, it's like that can't be your only thing. Because then if you're only relying on you know, comfort food to cope, then you might end up creating some other problems that you have to deal with later, that that are unintentional. It's about finding that balance.
Anna: Absolutely. I could talk about complicated relationships to food all day. But what struck me about what you said is that there is a reason that this these things generally make us feel good. So I'm curious, like, even if it's no, we know that we're doing it for a reason. It's like maybe what we need or really want in the moment. Why do we feel guilty about it? Rather than saying like, okay, yeah, this is this is what I need today. I need to binge watch, or I don't know if need is the right word. But this is what sure this is what would feel good to me right now. And I need to feel good.
Jor-El: Yeah, I just think that there's so much noise about …one about mental health in general, and about how we respond to it. And so I find that a lot of times I'm having conversations with clients about unpacking the internalized messages that come with, like your chosen coping strategies or coping mechanisms and saying like, Okay, well, you know, maybe there's a part of this that you're relying on or the extent to which you're relying on it, which is unhealthy. But the thing in and of itself isn't all that bad. I think it's about reminding yourself that each and everything has its place. Right? So avoidance has its place, escapism has its place. Denial has its place. But the thing that really keeps us from being healthy, or like, quote unquote, good, is when we're really relying on things to perpetually and continuously avoid things that we could change. Right? And because I think we all need to feel empowered, to some extent over our circumstances in our lives and our mental health. And so, you know, it's, it's really, it's not good to always rely on certain things when there are other things, other progressive things I'll say that you could be using to change what your experience is.
Anna: Yeah, no, totally. Oh, I can't wait to dive into that. But first, I'd love to take a step back. Because you said something very interesting about like, unpacking internalized message messages about that kind of thing. Can you expand on that?
Jor-El: Yeah, I think this is really about the, whether it's messages that we get from friends, family, the greater social culture, about the things that we're supposed to be doing, or the things that are healthy to do.But it really does, can create this relationship between coping and mental health. It says like, if you just do X, you will feel better. And some that's not really what coping is. It's, it isn't meant to bring you some relief. Right. But that relief is momentary.
Anna: At least for me, I know that my inner voice sounds like a lot of what you were just spelling out coming from other people and other messages, and I shouldn't be doing this, I should be doing that. And it sounds to me that like this is very similar and that like when we're doing our quote unquote shitty coping mechanisms, we are bogged down by guilt that we should be doing like more adaptive coping mechanisms. We should be going for a walk, we should be doing all the things that we know will make us feel better. And it's just such a fine line.
Jor-El: Yeah, it's a super fine line. And I, to me, this is also just interconnected to the conversation on rest. And it's like it's this idea is Well, if coping is supposed to bring about some relief, if you're also feeling crappy while you're doing it, it's probably not the best strategy. Right? And so if you're similarly if you're trying to rest as a way to cope, and the whole time you're trying to counter this guilt that you have about resting, right, you're not really resting.
Anna: And so many of these things are also rest. You know what I mean? I don't want to like speak for every shitty coping mechanism. But a lot of them are just us resting. There are things that don't serve a larger purpose.
Jor-El: It's about sort of turning down the noise on your nervous system. Right?
Anna: Can you expand on that? I can't do that for my nervous system. My nervous system has a mind of its own, it has a volume knob I cannot access or maybe I can. Teach me how.
Jor-El: Yeah, my mind stays busy too. So I understand. It's, it's like, so when we're when we're feeling things, when we are stressed, we're experiencing anxiety, or what have you. It's also a, it's, it's a physical process to right, your body is responding, your brain is responding. And when that happens, your nervous system is just more activated. Right, which also produces inflammation in the body, excess cortisol production, like all these things, it's super dynamic, all these things are happening. And so really what coping is meant to do, at least in my opinion, is to like kind of like if you had a dimmer, right, you can move that dimmer down and say, like, okay, if I'm like an eight right now, like, this is not good. Can I get to a six and what will help me get to a six, right, or what will help me get to a four, maybe I can journal or maybe I'll take a nap. Or maybe I'll call a friend for some support. And that'll bring that all that, you know, nervous system arousal down, which will help you feel better, and we'll also help you be more functional.
Anna: We, you know, judge ourselves for not being productive or being sedentary. And I wanted to talk about kind of like the inherent like, ableism in this framing, when we think about these things…
Jor-El: Yeah, well, and I, I've done my best to not step on a huge soapbox on social about this. So I'll throw out little pieces here and there. Yeah, it's so much of so much of the conversation around coping and stuff is has this looped in? Well, a few things ableism and capitalism, right? That those are big parts of those, like little message that messages that we internalize, about like, Oh, you're supposed you always supposed to be productive? Why? Why? Why must you always be doing something? Right? Also, you are human, you have limitations physically, psychologically? Why are we pretending that we don't? Oh, ableism? Right, because everyone should be achieving a certain level at all times. And everyone has the same capacity. And that's just a lie. And sometimes that is also like the beginning process of that unpacking is we're like, let's tell the truth. The truth is everyone's not the same. The truth is people need different things. The truth is humans need rest. They need coping, they need relief. Everyone does.
Anna: Internalizing those messages takes time. Some days, it still might feel more like, “Everyone needs rest—except me! Everyone needs coping—except me! Everyone needs relief—except me! I need discipline and punishment and guilt!”
Been there. I push back against that voice by scheduling my shitty coping mechanisms. Not as a way to control myself or cut back—no, I mean, if I think I’m going to need to spend all weekend playing video games and cuddling with my cats, that’s exactly what I put on my calendar. And then my calendar gives me permission. When shame creeps up in the moment, I can remind myself that this is exactly what I planned. This is exactly what I needed.
You might find scheduling helpful too, or you might need to give yourself permission a different way. Maybe you give yourself permission out loud or write it in a journal or set a text alert or ask a friend to hold you accountable.
The exact way you give yourself permission isn’t the important part. As Jor-El really drove home, being intentional is the real tool.
Jor-El: I think that one of the most powerful tools that we can arm ourselves with it, especially when it comes to coping, is making the choice. There's something really powerful about saying, I'm struggling right now. And I'm choosing to cope in this way. Because I think it offers you one: just the affirmation of your feeling and what you're going through. But it also gives you an opportunity to briefly check in with yourself and say, Oh, is this thing going to give me the thing I'm looking for right now?
Anna: It won’t always be easy to make that choice, or to check in with yourself at all. Luckily, the thing about all this living with intention is that you have to intentionally give yourself permission to fuck up this living intentionally thing. It’s called being human. And maybe that’s what this whole permission thing is really all about—giving ourselves permission to be human.
Just like I’m giving myself permission to say cheesy shit like that, oh god. Back to binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy.
Thanks for listening to Mood Ring, a production of APM Studios and Pizza Shark. We’re a new show, so it really helps if you rate, review and share this episode with your friends.
You can even tag me if you’re really into it — I’m @AnnaBroges on Twitter – that’s Anna B-R-O-G-E-S…because Anna Borges was taken. You can also follow the podcast at Moodringshow DOT ORG or Mood Ring Show on Twitter and Instagram.
Mood Ring was developed by Kristina Lopez. Our executive producers are Maria Murriel, Isis Madrid and Beth Pearlman. Our story editor is Erika Janik. And this episode was produced by Jordan Kauwling. And as you know, I’m Anna Borges and I write, host and produce this show too.
APM Executives in charge are Chandra Kavati, Alex Schaffert and Joanne Griffith. And finally our music is by Mat Rotenberg.
Thanks again for listening and I hope to see you next episode.