When you begin therapy, there is often a discussion, or several, about coping skills- the things we do to help ourselves manage stress or troublesome symptoms. How do you manage your anxiety, panic attacks, or depression? How do you handle stressful situations like conflicts at work or in relationships? What about major adjustments like divorce or a big move?
Most folks live life on a sort of auto-pilot. Things happen, we react, and then we realize that we feel some kind of way about it. Sometimes with anxiety and depression, we don’t even fully understand where those feelings are coming from or why they are there. Those symptoms seem to just exist and make coping with day to day stressors very difficult.
One of the first steps I like to explore around developing coping skills is what level of awareness you have about the things that bother you and how are you currently dealing with those things? A great starting point is to just recognize what is already working for you. As you develop insight around your triggers for stress and symptoms, you can start to be more proactive and intentional about how you respond: no more auto-pilot.
As that insight develops, it can be helpful to figure out what gaps need to be filled in.
Filling in those gaps might look like exploring what your needs are when you’re feeling a certain way. For example, if you get very anxious and you have identified that talking on the phone is a trigger, then perhaps proactively using a coping skill like deep breathing before making a needed phone call is worth trying. Keep in mind that not everyone finds comfort in the same coping skills, so some amount of trial and error may be necessary to figure out what will work best for you.
Some common coping skills to start with:
Deep Breathing- this helps to regulate the nervous system, signaling we’re safe. It allows for increased oxygen flow to the brain and can center us in the moment to focus on the breath rather than the stressors.
Journaling- this helps us to process thoughts. It can help to clear out rambling thoughts and offer an outlet for expressing our feelings and emotions rather than holding them in. If you’re not sure where to begin with journaling, a prompted journal or workbook can be a great start for some guided support. Check out my previous blog for some suggestions on prompted journals or workbooks to try.
Light exercise- Yoga, going for a walk, or doing other light physical activity can increase endorphins and provide a physical outlet for the physiological distress that comes with anxiety and other stressors. Exercise also has the benefit of breathing because again, you’re increasing that oxygen flow. Getting exercise can also be a good excuse to give us a reprieve from a stressful environment.
Challenging negative or unhelpful thoughts- The things we tell ourselves have a bigger impact on how we feel than you might realize. This skill can be explored more fully in therapy. We often have automatic thoughts that we accept as true, even when they are not. For example, we might have thoughts like, “I can’t believe I made that mistake, I’m so dumb.” It is is really important to recognize when we’re doing this so that we can check those thoughts and begin to challenge and eventually change them to be more helpful- “I am disappointed that I made that mistake, but I know I’m capable of doing better next time.”
Affirmations- These are things we can repeat to ourselves in difficult moments to help keep up more helpful self-talk rather than allowing the unhelpful thought cycles to take over. I recommend identifying affirmations that are specific to you and your situations- the things that you most need to hear when distressed or anticipating a stressful situation. For example, if going for a job interview is causing overwhelming anxiety, affirmations might sound like, “I am qualified for this job and I will do my best” or “I am talented and worthy regardless of the outcome.” If you recognize that getting an interview scheduled is a trigger for your anxiety, then this is when you’d want to start repeating these affirmations.
These are just a few options to get started and many more can be explored as needed.
Now, what are your expectations for these coping skills? For many folks, they try out a coping skill and when it doesn’t work right away, they write it off saying, “well that didn’t work.” If this is the case, you’re doing yourself a disservice! Just like most things, coping skills take some practice to be effective. Additionally, coping skills are not meant to completely rid you of the undesired feelings or thoughts. Their purpose is to help you COPE through them. They can help to take the edge off and allow you to sit through the discomfort until it passes. Some folks do these things intuitively and that’s wonderful! Building some intention around them can provide a greater sense of control.
And finally, it is so important to know when to ask for help. If the coping skills you’re trying just aren’t working or you begin feeling worse, more support may be necessary. If you feel you can’t turn to the folks in your life, there are hotlines and local resources that might be able to help if things are overwhelming.
Check out the following resources if you are in crisis or need extra support.
The National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
Or you may call 911 (sometimes it helps to ask if a mental health officer is available) or present to your local ER.