There’s a big difference between thriving vs. coping. The word “thrive” is defined as “flourishing” or “growing well and vigorously.” The word “coping,” however, means simply managing to get by. In challenging times, like those we’re living through during COVID-19, sometimes coping is the best we can do. But in the long term, coping isn’t enough.
We all deserve the opportunity to thrive—to do meaningful work we care about, to form loving and authentic relationships, and to experience ongoing personal growth. That’s why effective, integrated treatment for young adult mental health and co-occurring disorders focuses on cultivating the resilience, practical skills, and self-awareness that create a foundation for thriving.
Coping vs. Thriving in Young Adults
When young adults enter treatment, they have often been “coping” for a long time. In other words, they have been continuing to function—sometimes even at a high level academically or in the workplace—while struggling with trauma, depression, and/or anxiety. Hence, their mental, emotional, and spiritual growth is stunted, because they’ve been pouring all of their energy into suppressing the symptoms of their mental health challenges.
Furthermore, these underlying issues have likely prevented them from engaging in authentic relationships and being honest with themselves or their loved ones about what they’re going through. And they may have turned to substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, or other behavioral issues as maladaptive coping strategies for blunting the pain and confusion they’re experiencing. Ultimately, it becomes impossible for them to continue “coping,” and that’s often when they come to treatment.
Therefore, the healing journey starts with uncovering the mental health disorders preventing young adults from reaching their full potential. Addressing these underlying issues is essential for sustainable recovery. But comprehensive treatment doesn’t just look back at what caused an individual’s current struggles. It also looks toward the future, providing young people with tools to support them in thriving, not just surviving—so that once they leave treatment, they can flourish as autonomous, connected, and self-motivated adults.
Skills for Resilience and Growth
Resilience—the ability to bounce back from stressors and traumatic events—is a key element of thriving. And research shows that the transition from adolescence to adulthood is a turning point as far as resilience. This is an age when some young people begin to experience mental health challenges, while others turn a corner and become more resilient.
Natural resilience levels depend on multiple factors, including the quality of childhood bonding with parents, access to social support, genetics, etc. However, resilience can always be strengthened through the use of specific skills. In an integrated treatment program, young adults gain these tools through clinical therapy, experiential modalities, and life skills training.
- Evidence-based approaches such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy provide skills for reframing unhelpful thinking patterns, regulating emotions, and tolerating distress.
- Mindfulness practices, including yoga and meditation, activate the nervous system’s “relaxation response,” and cultivate the ability to observe one’s own thoughts without reacting emotionally to them.
- Experiential modalities, such as Adventure Therapy and creative arts therapies, build communication skills, self-confidence, and greater ease in self-expression.
- Life skills training focuses on executive functioning, self-mastery, and self-esteem.
Together, these techniques provide a powerful toolkit for resilience, allowing young adults to thrive.
Self-Care vs. Coping Strategies
Retraining the brain to thrive vs. cope involves learning to recognize triggers and break habitual behavior patterns. For example, a young adult who experienced childhood trauma may be coping with the negative effects of that trauma by binge drinking or playing video games for hours. When that individual is able to identify their trauma triggers, they then have the option to choose a different way of navigating the feelings that come with those triggers.
In her book From Coping to Thriving, Hannah Braime defines coping strategies as “behaviors we use to relieve a sense of pain or discomfort in the short term but don’t serve our well-being in the long run.” In stressful situations, she recommends asking yourself a series of questions to evaluate whether an activity you’re drawn toward is a coping strategy or self-care, including the following questions:
- What need am I trying to meet with this activity?
- Will I regret it afterwards?
- What is the true intention behind this activity?
- Am I looking to escape what’s currently happening in my life, or am I looking to process it?
- Do I want to engage with this particular activity to numb my emotions and get rid of my discomfort, or do I want to take care of the need underneath?
Such questions help young adults understand themselves better and create new, healthier ways of nourishing body, mind, and spirit.
Tools for Authentic Relationships
Studies show that developing supportive relationships in emerging adulthood promotes resilience and thriving. In addition, supportive relationships cultivate compassion for others as well as self-compassion, which is proven to be strongly associated with well-being in young adults.
Childhood trauma, particularly trauma involving parental neglect or abuse, often results in difficulty maintaining positive and nurturing relationships. Young adults with a history of trauma may struggle with boundary issues, lack of trust, and difficulty revealing their true selves. Comprehensive treatment addresses these issues as well, by helping young adults to create authentic connections.
- Family therapy guides emerging adults in building honest and supportive relationships with parents—while maintaining autonomy and a separate sense of self.
- Group sessions with peers foster bonding and decrease the sense of isolation that can accompany mental health disorders.
- Experiential modalities such as Adventure Therapy and music therapy bring young adults together in a shared process of healing.
Experiences that catalyze feelings of connection and well-being create what researchers call an “upward spiral” of positive emotion: Positive emotions create experiences that generate more positive emotions and exponential growth.
Moving Toward Thriving
In summary, emerging adults thrive when they have the opportunity to process past trauma and related mental health disorders; and have gained the skills to navigate triggers, self-regulate emotions, and connect deeply with others. From this foundation of balance and support, they are poised to create a life filled with purpose and meaning. With effective treatment and tools to thrive, young adults can move into the next phase of their lives with confidence, optimism, and hope.