How Different Types of Coping Skills Can Protect Your Sobriety from Alcohol

People learn specific thought patterns and adaptable behaviors to cope with stressful situations. Some coping mechanisms have been found to reduce the negative effects of stress, while others are ineffective or ultimately harmful, such as alcohol use and misuse.¹ Sobriety from alcohol addiction commonly includes learning new coping mechanisms and relapse prevention skills to replace alcohol use, manage urges, and address the underlying issues of alcohol misuse as a way of coping.

In this article:

Types of Adaptive Coping Mechanisms

Coping mechanisms are generally purposeful and used to manage stressful internal and external situations an individual is experiencing. Coping skills are normally seen as a way to cope with a negative situation, such as a loss of a job.

Coping strategies can change over time with an individual. While there are various ways to categorize and conceptualize coping mechanisms for sobriety from alcohol, they can generally be broken up into four types: problem-focused, emotion-focused, meaning-focused, and social coping.1,2,3,4,5

Problem-focused Coping

Problem-focused coping is identifying a stressful problem and then coming up with action-based solutions to help manage it. Problem-oriented coping is usually best used when the stressful problem we face is in our control.2

For instance, if you are unable to resolve losing someone close to you, problem-focused coping would not be recommended since that’s beyond your control. Instances such as school– or work-related stress would be a good time to try problem-focused coping.2

Examples of problem-focused coping skills include:

  • Making a list (e.g., to-do lists or pros and cons lists)
  • Setting boundaries with family members
  • Improving your time management
  • Cleaning your apartment
  • Making new friends
  • Thought challenges (e.g., considering if you would say your thoughts to someone else, practicing DBT or CBT skills)

Emotion-focused Coping

Emotion-focused coping attempts to reduce negative feelings or distress when the problem isn’t in your control, or you do not want to change it. As such, losing a loved one would be an appropriate time to utilize emotion-focused coping.

Examples of this type of coping mechanism may include:

  • Distracting yourself (e.g., watching TV, texting a friend, reading, playing a game, etc.)
  • Journaling
  • Lowering expectations
  • Exercising or engaging in joyful movement
  • Grounding exercises (e.g., using your senses, walking on the grass barefoot)
  • Finding a way to release emotions (e.g., laughing, dancing, yelling, screaming)
  • Finding solace in religion
  • Practicing radical acceptance
  • Using positive reframing

Meaning-focused Coping

Meaning-focused coping aims to use cognitive strategies that draw from a person’s beliefs to find meaning in a situation. Research reveals that meaning-focused coping, such as hope, has a positive impact on long-term stress. Additionally, it’s been found that meaning-focused coping may even be helpful for chronic pain, such as that associated with rheumatoid arthritis.6

Examples of meaning-focused coping may include:

  • Praying
  • Meditating
  • Assessing your values
  • Adapting goals
  • Shifting or reordering priorities

Social Coping

Social coping pulls from seeking support from your community. Feeling like you have someone to go to or speak with when you are stressed can be beneficial. Social coping support may include:

  • 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
  • Non-12-step programs, like SMART Recovery
  • Attending therapy
  • Spending time with friends
  • Attending church
  • Joining a sports team
  • Joining a meet-up group

Because coping is fluid, specific strategies can shift between categories depending on what you are doing with them. For example, if you are struggling with feelings of depression, cleaning your apartment could be problem-focused coping, in which you clean to help with the messiness of your apartment, thereby having a positive effect on your mood. Or, if it is emotionally-focused coping, cleaning your apartment could be a momentary distraction from the extreme sadness you are feeling.

Coping skills can be extremely useful, but certain coping skills may be more useful at specific times. For example, distraction coping skills can be temporary and do not address any issue at hand but may allow you to “ride the wave” of a craving without turning to alcohol. Attending AA meetings or setting boundaries with family members may help triggers or urges, which may have a longer-term effect on your alcohol use.

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Coping Skills in Addiction Treatment

Understanding the underlying cause of your need to use alcohol as a coping mechanism requires reflection and insight. It can be helpful to seek a mental health or substance abuse professional to guide you in this process.

Coping skills can be taught in different types of treatment settings for sobriety from alcohol, including:

Sobriety from alcohol is possible through various addiction treatment modalities. Learning and implementing new coping strategies can make alcohol sobriety before and after look entirely different.

Several empirically supported treatment modalities offer various coping strategies and skills within these treatment environments to protect your sobriety from alcohol. Some treatment modalities and their corresponding coping mechanisms include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps change thoughts, thereby changing behaviors. CBT has an individual look at specific “irrational” or unhelpful beliefs or cognitive distortions. Using the ABCs of CBT, you can identify situations that induce problematic or negative thoughts how the thoughts make you feel. The ABCs of CBT stands for Activating Event, Beliefs about the event, and Consequences of your emotional or behavioral response to the event. You then work on challenging those negative thoughts or beliefs, which then change the way you feel and perceive a previously triggering event.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): DBT helps teach distress tolerance skills, like urge surfing, which helps you ride out the wave of discomfort, as well as skills for interpersonal relationships. Urge surfing can be beneficial for individuals in recovery, as it works on sitting in discomfort while delaying urges. An individual learns to ride the wave of the peak, which will inevitably come down. One of the best-known DBT skills uses the acronym DEAR MAN, which teaches an effective strategy for communication. The acronym DEAR MAN includes:
    • Describing the facts of a situation without judgment
    • Expressing your emotions with “I” statements
    • Asserting what you need or want
    • Reinforce the other person’s positive response, if given
    • Mindfulness of goals of the conversation
    • Appear confident with the use of body language and tone
    • Negotiate while staying confident in your boundaries, be willing to compromise.
  • Motivational Interviewing and Enhancement: Motivational Interviewing (MI) attempts to look at an individual’s stages of change and identify how willing they are to enact change. Motivational Interviewing also uses relapse prevention tools, like relapse prevention plans. Relapse prevention plans may be useful for someone who is in recovery or has had a recent slip or relapse after long-term sobriety. Relapse prevention plans are action plans and include:
    • Triggers
    • Cravings
    • Support system
    • Coping strategies
    • Emergency contact information
    • Goals
    • Challenges
    • Feelings or behaviors that may lead to a relapse
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT shies away from the more suppressive methods of changing thoughts and behaviors and focuses on teaching coping strategies that allow an individual to feel thoughts and emotions more flexibly. These include coping strategies like values clarification work, being present, willingness, and cognitive defusion, which allows for creating distance with difficult thoughts or feelings. Examples of cognitive defusion strategies include:
    • Treat the mind as a separate person (e.g., “My mind tells me I should be anxious right now.”)
    • Thank your mind (“Thank you mind. You are doing a great job at keeping me isolated.”)
    • Label your thoughts as thoughts (e.g., “I am having the thought I should hang up the phone, so I don’t look stupid.”)
    • Imagine thoughts are passing by, like a parade, or cars driving by, or a stream flowing.
    • Ask yourself, “How has that thought worked for me?” If it hasn’t worked, ask yourself, “Should I listen to my mind or my experience?”

While AA is not considered a professional treatment modality, AA’s peer-support model can be helpful in learning effective coping mechanisms from peers who have been in similar situations. The coping strategies that can be learned in AA include:7

  • Learning acceptance
  • Abstinence
  • Understanding and Implementing the 12 Steps
  • Increased social support
  • Identifying reinforcement and rewards that compete with sobriety

If you or someone you know needs help quitting or abstaining from alcohol use, treatment can help. Call 800-948-8417 Who Answers? to speak to an addiction treatment specialist about alcohol rehab options. Someone is available 24/7 to assist you.


  1. Dijkstra, M. T., & Homan, A. C. (2016). Engaging in rather than disengaging from stress: Effective coping and perceived control. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.
  2. Algorani EB, Gupta V. Coping Mechanisms. [Updated 2021 May 3]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan.
  3. Stanisławski K. (2019). The Coping Circumplex Model: An Integrative Model of the Structure of Coping With Stress. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 694.
  4. Juth, V., Dickerson, S. S., Zoccola, P. M., & Lam, S. (2015). Understanding the utility of emotional approach coping: evidence from a laboratory stressor and daily life. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 28(1), 50-70.
  5. Schoenmakers, E. C., van Tilburg, T. G., & Fokkema, T. (2015). Problem-focused and emotion-focused coping options and loneliness: how are they related? European Journal of Ageing, 12(2), 153-161.
  6. Gruszczyńska, E., & Knoll, N. (2015). Meaning-focused coping, pain, and affect: a diary study of hospitalized women with rheumatoid arthritisQuality of life research : an international journal of quality of life aspects of treatment, care and rehabilitation24(12), 2873–2883.
  7. Marcovitz, D. E., McHugh, K. R., Roos, C., West, J. J., & Kelly, J. (2020). Overlapping Mechanisms of Recovery Between Professional Psychotherapies and Alcoholics Anonymous. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 14(5), 367-375.
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