This month, our mental wellbeing expert, Philippa Saunders, has advice on unhelpful coping strategies vs The Stockdale Paradox

We all need to find a way to cope with what life throws at us and the tough emotions that come with it. Coping skills are the strategies people use to deal with stressful situations. They are key to getting you through tough times. They help you tolerate, minimise and deal with those difficult situations. But sometimes, they can do more harm than good.

Unhelpful coping mechanisms arise when the actions employed to protect yourself are more damaging in the long run, even if they might relieve stress in the short term. Sometimes people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid what they fear most: the uncomfortable feeling.

Examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms:

Need to control

Engaging in ‘What if…’ scenarios

Avoidance tactics, social withdrawal

Drug/alcohol use


Negative self-talk

Over worrying


Coping skills are actually a matter of belief. Your belief in your skills and resources to respond positively and adaptively to situations that take you out of the safety of your comfort zone.

Great British Life: Avoid 'what if' scenarios'Avoid 'what if' scenarios'

Examples of healthy coping skills:

Ability to cope with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings

Confronting challenges head on

Focusing on what you can control

Positive self-talk

Making the best of situations


Practising gratitude

Problem solving mentality

When talking about coping skills, I wanted to tell you the story of James Stockdale. He was a US naval pilot in the Vietnam War who was shot down, captured and put in a prison (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton). During his eight-year imprisonment, he was regularly tortured and beaten. When he was released, his shoulders had been wrenched from their sockets, his back broken and his legs shattered. Despite the terrible ordeal he had faced, he came out of the prisoner of war camp almost completely psychologically intact, unlike many of the other prisoners. In his book about Stockdale’s experiences, Good to Great, Jim Collins discussed a conversation he had with Stockdale about how he coped in the POW camp: “I never doubted not only would I get out but also that I would prevail and turn the experience into the defining event in my life, which, in retrospect I would not trade”, he said.

Great British Life: Focus on what you can controlFocus on what you can control

When asked who didn’t make it, Stockdale replied: “Oh, that was easy, the optimists. The ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. Christmas would come and it would go. Then they’d say ‘we’re going to be out by Easter’, then Easter would come and go, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas again. They died of a broken heart.”

It might seem odd that those who were the most optimistic were the ones that suffered most and didn’t survive. There is lots of research to suggest optimism is generally very helpful in living a healthy and successful life. Stockdale stated: “This is an important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end (which you can never afford to lose) with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality, whatever they might be”.

Stockdale had the faith that he had the skills and resources to survive captivity, and to eventually escape. He didn’t pray every day for the war to be over, he didn’t keep hoping that someone would just appear and rescue him. He had an internal locus of control (he felt powerful about his influence on his life) and a belief he could manage the whole situation. Particularly, he had a strong belief in his coping skills; he knew he could deal with whatever was thrown at him. At the same time, he had ‘the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’ – otherwise known as perspective.

This was labelled the Stockdale Paradox: Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties

And at the same time: Confront the brutal facts of your reality, whatever they might be

An example of this could be living with a major illness. Take Jack, who had recently received the devastating news that he had cancer that was not curable.

On hearing that, some people might become very depressed, lose the will to live and feel powerless about this. Jack, however, was one of the most positive, powerful, calm, and charming people despite the fact he had started chemotherapy and had been told he only had 12 months to live. Why? He understood his cancer is happening to him (an external event he can’t control) but by having strong foundations, a positive attitude and having a strong immune system, he can fight it as much as possible. He has strong coping skills. He can’t control the cancer (though he’s putting in effort to fight it) but he can control how he reacts to it. Despite being told he doesn’t have very long to live, he is thriving and making the most of life.

If you’re having difficulty seeing the wood from the trees, it can help to remind yourself of Stockdale’s story and ask yourself “What would Stockdale do?”. It might help you remember that the answer to any problem is a question of belief, coping skills and perspective.

Philippa Saunders is a licensed Thrive Coach based in Knutsford. You can find her online at