Everything You Wanted to Know About Coping Skills
Coping skills is a buzzword you’ve probably heard a lot recently. If you do a quick Pinterest search, you’ll find hundreds of pins about coping skills… everything from Coping Skills Bingo to creating your own Wheel of Coping Skills. Blogs and articles like these can provide helpful tips on how to use coping skills, but they don’t always provide some of the more crucial background information… things like what are coping skills and why do you use coping skills? So, this article is my own personal effort to answer questions like those!
As a therapist, I’ve had thousands of conversations with clients about coping skills, which is not surprising. What might be more surprising is that I’ve had similar conversations about coping skills in my personal life, too… with friends, with family, with acquaintances I barely know. It seems that while everyone is talking about coping skills, many people still don’t know exactly what they are:
“What do people mean when they say coping skills?”
What are coping skills?
Let’s start with a broad, yet simple definition. Coping skills (also called coping strategies or coping mechanisms) are tools and techniques you can use to help you handle difficult emotions, decrease stress, and establish or maintain a sense of internal order. They can be helpful to use when you’re feeling angry, anxious, sad, stressed, overwhelmed, or even when you're feeling well, to help you stay level.
I like to break coping skills into two categories. First, coping skills can be simple tactics you can use in the moment if you feel you need to get control over your emotions. For example if you get really angry, if you’ve received bad news, or if you’re having an especially difficult day. Some tactics that can help might be:
· Deep breathing
· Mindfulness exercises
· Grounding techniques
· Counting to 10
· Taking a walk around the block to think
· Making a to-do list of everything that’s rolling around in your mind
Coping skills can also be more habitual practices that you build into your daily life to help keep you sane during life’s stressors. These might be things like:
· Going to bed at a decent hour
· Visualization exercises
· Having regular down time to decompress
· Eating healthy
· Getting exercise
· Connecting with friends or family
· Decreasing or stopping substance use
· Guided Meditations
· Limiting or avoiding caffeine
How many coping skills do people need?
This is a great question with no concrete answer. Generally speaking, people do best with a wide variety of coping skills. That’s because skills that work great for one thing (let’s say anger) may not necessarily help with something else (stress, for example).
I like to think of coping skills as a “tool belt” of sorts… when you’re building something, you likely need more than one tool. You’ll probably need a hammer, a screwdriver, maybe even a wrench or measuring tape. Coping skills work the same way! As you build your tool belt and expand your methods of coping, you’ll start to learn which techniques work best for you in which situations!
How do I know which coping skills will work for me?
It’s important to understand that coping skills look differently for different people and work differently based on the situation or circumstance. What works for your friend or your neighbor might not work for you, and vice versa.
Developing a group of effective coping skills may mean learning more about yourself and getting curious about what helps you and what doesn't. Often, we have to go through some trial and error to figure out which coping skills work best for us. This can mean exploring lots of different ways of dealing with various situations, and holding onto the ones that work and throwing out the ones that don't. It also means testing out new coping skills in less intense situations before testing them out in more intense situations.
In my experience, I’ve found that using something to relax my body – like breathing - works much better for me than counting to 10 when I’m upset. But I also know that I can’t close my eyes and take a deep breath if I’m in the car for example. In that case, playing my favorite music works better.
How can I start building my coping skills tool kit?
Well, the good news here is that you likely already have some coping tools in your tool kit, and you may not even know it! If you’ve ever gone for a drive to calm down when you’re feeling upset, that’s using a coping skill. If you like to take your dog for a walk to think things over when you’re anxious, that’s another coping skill.
While you may have a few go-to skills, you can always work to broaden and strengthen the coping skills in your tool belt. In fact, sometimes we might find that what used to work, doesn’t work so well anymore. When this happens it’s helpful to switch it up. Our go-to coping skills may lose effectiveness for a variety of reasons. It could be because we’re in a new environment or new stage of life or a new relationship.
One thing that’s important to mention is the difference between healthy/effective coping skills and unhealthy/ineffective coping skills. Sometimes people have developed unhealthy or ineffective ways of coping that end up getting in the way more than they help. Some unhealthy coping skills that are common in our culture are over-doing certain activities like eating, drinking, or shopping to help deal with negative feelings. Another unhealthy coping skill is avoiding difficult conversations or tasks because they’re too uncomfortable to face head-on. These techniques may help decrease or distract from uncomfortable feelings in the moment, but they can lead to consequences in the long run. In cases like these, it may be helpful to get some support to help you build more healthy/effective coping skills.
We all encounter difficult times in life when we need some additional support to help us cope. If you feel like you’re stuck or unable to adopt healthy coping skills, individual or group therapy might be a good option (and if you’re in the Atlanta area, I’m available for a complimentary phone consultation to see if counseling is the right choice for you). You can also start exploring new ways of coping by downloading my free printout 25 Coping Skills You Can Try Today. I created this list specifically for people who are struggling to find ways to effectively cope with stress and other difficult emotions. Just type in your email below, and we'll send it to your inbox.
I hope that you now have a better understanding of what coping skills are and how to use them in your life. I also hope you feel free to test out some new coping skills in an effort to build your own personal tool belt. If there’s anything I can do to support you in those efforts, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email and ask!