Coping Skills Lead to Better Health and Longer Life

Data show that how you respond to life’s ups and downs can predict long-term health. Your response, known as a defense or coping mechanism, is a skill you can develop. Learn the benefits of mature defense mechanisms as well as seven ways to strengthen them. 

Dr. George Vaillant, former director of Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, categorized 11 defense mechanisms on an adaptive scale: from mature defense mechanisms—the most adaptive—to immature, which are the least adaptive:

  • Mature defenses: sublimation, suppression, anticipation, altruism, humor
  • Intermediate defenses: displacement, repression, reaction formation 
  • Immature defenses: projection, passive aggression, acting out, denial

If you use mature defenses, you approach everyday stress constructively. You’re more likely to reframe challenges, suppress reactions so you don’t emotionally explode, or focus on something more productive versus replay the same negative event. A 2018 Psychology Today article describes mature defenses as simply “sound advice for life… that will allow you to harness your energy toward productive pursuits, control your emotions rather than letting them control you, prepare well for the challenges ahead, be kind and useful to others, and laugh.” 

Vaillant’s 2013 Personality and Individual Differences Journal article found that mature defense mechanisms in midlife consistently predicted better physical health at ages 70, 75, and 80. Furthermore, they reinforce positive health outcomes and are “linked to better relationships, mental health, and subjective well-being.” (See Cultivating your Social Power.)  

With these findings, Vaillant included mature defense mechanisms as one of the seven dominant predictors of successful aging within some personal control.

Everyone faces adversity in their lives, and how you respond to it matters. Here are seven practices you can try to develop mature defense mechanisms and minimize immature ones: 

Practice acceptance. Acceptance is the ability to allow people, circumstances, and situations to be as they are without reacting, judging, or controlling them. Accepting emotions diffuses their power over you and can help you remain calm.

Try cognitive reappraisal. Reappraisal reframes the challenge with potential positive outcomes. You can look at the big picture, feel grateful the situation isn’t worse, feel relief that the adversity is ending, look for the silver lining, or visualize a future best-case scenario. 

Get out and exercise. If you’re struggling, exercise helps. It can distract your mind from the issue and release endorphins that naturally improve your mood. Exercising is also one of the seven dominant predictors of successful aging that are within your control (See Build an Active Mindset.)

Practice forgiveness. How often do you blame others for your problems rather than owning up to them? You don’t need to absolve anyone from what happened or condone the situation; you simply need to release it from your life. The biggest beneficiary of your forgiveness is you. 

Do something for someone else. Doing something in service of others increases feelings of purpose, which increases happiness. (See Power of Purpose.)

Write it out. Ruminating about negative emotions keeps them an active part of you. Think of how these negative emotions make you feel and why you chose to hold onto them. Write about these feelings to let them go. 

Take a deep breath. Deep breathing is an excellent calming technique. If you find deep breathing effective, you may want to explore meditation. Meditation is generally known to help reduce stress, build emotional resilience, and improve your outlook.

The information provided is to be used for educational purposes only. It shouldn’t be used as a substitute for seeking professional care. If you are in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Throughout the “Top Priorities” section of this blog, we will provide data-backed insights for a long, active retirement.


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