What Is Coping?
Coping is whatever we do to deal with the more difficult parts of life. It can be dealing with difficulty in a relationship or problems with a job or not having one. It might be handling a serious medical diagnosis or a chronic illness, even if it's not your own. It might be the struggles of recovery, anxiety or depression. Coping is something all of us have to do, so how do you do it smoothly and gracefully instead of poorly or self-destructively?
What Are Coping Strategies?
While coping is what we do in difficulty, coping strategies are how we do it. Sometimes we call these strategies skills or "mechanisms," but they're actually habits. Like all habits they can be changed or replaced and if you are at the point you want to do that, we're going to take a look at what makes good strategies work and how to minimize and replace bad ones.
What Makes a Strategy "Good" or "Bad"?
We talk about strategies being "good" or "bad" based on long-term consequences. Good strategies are not only helpful right now; they are good for you and others over the long haul. What does this look like? A good strategy doesn't have bad long-term health consequences like smoking, drinking, drugs or serious acting out do. Good strategies also maintain or enhance relationships unlike blowing up in anger, arguing or getting threatening or violent. Good strategies also tend to make us emotionally and mentally stronger and more resilient.
How Else Do Strategies Differ?
Coping strategies can simply be the things we do in the moment to handle something right now or the things we do all the time or regularly that make it easier or harder to handle problems or stress when it eventually arrives.
Strategies can also be emotion-focused or problem-focused. Emotion-focused strategies work on handling problems internally. We tackle our own feelings to keep them in check or calm them down. These skills are helpful but often work on the symptoms rather than the underlying problem. Problem-focused strategies work on changing the problem and change the way we feel as a by-product. Problem-focused strategies are generally better, but not always possible. There are a variety of problems we can't change or at least can't change any time soon, so emotion-focused coping may be required while we're working toward problem-focused solutions.
|Healthy Skills||Unhealthy Skills|
|Exercise or play an active sport||Show off your attitude and argue|
|Write in your journal||Drink or do drugs|
|Take a hot bath or shower||Binge or comfort eat|
|Go for a walk||Be passive-aggressive|
|Do some gardening||Shut down or pretend to not care|
|Talk to a good friend||Destroy something|
|Watch a movie or read a book||Gossip or spread rumors|
|Work on a puzzle||Hurt yourself|
|Work on a craft or home project||Ruminate and blame other|
What emotion-focused strategies generally have in common is getting our minds off what's going on long enough for our emotions to change. This often doesn't take very long. If we don't think or act in ways that keep an emotion fueled, it generally fades in 2 to 10 minutes. When we're in a crisis or other serious situation, thoughts and random stuff can instantly retrigger emotions and we may need to do something to cope again.
What good long-term coping strategies generally have in common is making us physically and sometimes mentally stronger or more resilient. They are not focused on problems or coping directly. They are focused on being prepared in general. Feeling healthier and happier are powerful in and of themselves in preventing us from feeling like we have to cope to start with.
The Basic Healthy Coping Strategies
We've talked about all the ideas below before. They aren't just "good habits" or "ways to handle stress better." They're coping strategies, too. Doing a few simple things to help your body be healthier helps you cope better and makes you more resilient. Here are six basic healthy coping strategies. Remember, you don't have to get carried away. Just paying attention and doing a little more, more often, makes a surprising difference.
- Eat a little better. Eat more vegetables, less sugar, bread, potatoes, rice and pasta as well as less fat and salt.
- Get the right amount of sleep. Work on getting 6 to 8 hours of good sleep every night. You know sleeping too little makes you tired and stressed out but sleeping too much can also be a problem and add to stress and depression.
- Be more active. Get a little more exercise. Walk more. Get up and move around throughout the day.
- Pay more attention to how you think and feel. Notice how you are thinking and feeling regularly. Are your feelings driving your thoughts? Thoughts and feelings aren't reality. They're data. You decide how true they are and how much weight to give them in any given moment.
- Take a few minutes to meditate. Practice a few minutes of meditating every day. This has two benefits. It helps your body discharge accumulated stress and start to recover from high levels of cortisol and muscle tension. It also lets you slow your mind down and be less reactive.
- Have a daily routine. It doesn't need to be written in stone, but it should have plenty of routine while still being flexible enough to be practical. Being disorganized is not the same thing as being spontaneous. Your body develops a better internal rhythm when you have more routine or consistency in your life. This reduces stress and gives you more room to handle the unexpected. Routine also provides structure for children, so more routine in your life will make your life easier with them and for them.
Questions for Journaling
- What are your 3 best coping strategies?
- What are your 3 worst coping strategies?
- When do you tend to use the bad ones instead of the good ones? What makes the difference?
- Whose coping skills do you admire the most? Why?
- What other strategies have you thought about developing?
Connie Haxby, Coping Skills
Put the Shovel Down, Relapse Triggers and Coping Skills (Recovery Concepts 8)
Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It(2016)
Matthew McKay, PhD; Jeffrey C. Wood, PsyD and Jeffrey Brantley, MD; The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook (2007)
Alexander L. Chapman, PhD and Kim L. Gratz, PhD; The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anger (2015)
Alexander L. Chapman, PhD; Kim L. Gratz, PhD and Matthew T. Tull, PhD; The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety (2011)
Quotes of the Week
Problems are not the problem; coping is the problem.
Stay away from negative people, they have a problem for every solution.
Some days you just have to create your own sunshine.
Verse of the Week
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. (New Living Translation)
Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. (Good News Translation)
Prayer for the Week
Help me this week to begin to pay attention to what I react to and how I cope with it. I want to take better care of myself, so that I can have more and be more in my relationships. Amen.
Blake Flannery's Master List of Coping Methods and Skills
- Write, draw, paint, photography
- Play an instrument, sing, dance, act
- Take a shower or a bath
- Take a walk or go for a drive
- Watch television or a movie
- Watch cute kitten videos on YouTube
- Play a game
- Go shopping
- Clean or organize your environment
- Take a break or vacation
- Talk to someone you trust
- Set boundaries and say "no"
- Write a note to someone you care about
- Be assertive
- Use humor
- Spend time with friends and/or family
- Serve someone in need
- Care for or play with a pet
- Role-play challenging situations with others
- Encourage others
- Make a gratitude list
- Brainstorm solutions
- Lower your expectations of the situation
- Keep an inspirational quote with you
- Be flexible
- Write a list of goals
- Take a class Act opposite of negative feelings
- Write a list of pros and cons for decisions
- Reward or pamper yourself when successful
- Write a list of strengths
- Accept a challenge with a positive attitude
- Tension Releasers:
- Exercise or play sports
- Catharsis (yelling in the bathroom, punching a punching bag)
- Get enough sleep
- Eat healthy foods
- Get into a good routine
- Eat a little chocolate
- Limit caffeine
- Deep/slow breathing
- Pray or meditate
- Enjoy nature
- Get involved in a worthy cause
- Drop some involvements
- Prioritize important tasks
- Use assertive communication
- Schedule time for yourself