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  • Writer's pictureKate Bradshaw

Developing Coping Skills

We all know life can be can be pretty challenging and having healthy coping skills can be the key to getting through tough times.

Coping skills help you tolerate, minimise, and deal with stressful situations in life. Managing your stress well can help you feel better physically and psychologically and it can impact your ability to perform your best.

Not all coping skills are created equal and sometimes, it’s tempting to engage in strategies that will give quick relief but might create bigger problems for you down the road.

It’s important to establish healthy coping skills that will help you reduce your emotional distress or rid yourself of the stressful situations you face. In this blog we give you some pointers on defining the different types of skills required and how you can improve these skills over time.

When you’re feeling distressed, ask yourself, do I need to change my situation or do I need to find a way to better cope with the situation? Then, you can decide which type of coping strategy will help you best proceed. There are two main types of coping skills: problem-based coping and emotion-based coping:

Problem-based coping is helpful when you need to change your situation, perhaps by removing a stressful thing from your life. For example, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, your anxiety and sadness might be best resolved by ending the relationship (as opposed to soothing your emotions).

Emotion-based coping is helpful when you need to take care of your feelings when you either don’t want to change your situation or when circumstances are out of your control. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it’d be important to take care of your feelings in a healthy way (since you can’t change the circumstance).

There isn’t always one best way to proceed. Instead, it’s up to you to decide which type of coping skill is likely to work best for you in your particular circumstance.

Healthy Emotion-Focused Coping Skills

Whether you’re feeling lonely, nervous, sad, or angry, emotion-focused coping skills can help you deal with your feelings in a healthy way. Healthy coping strategies may soothe you, temporarily distract you, or help you tolerate your distress.

Sometimes it’s helpful to face your emotions head-on. For example, feeling sad after the death of a loved one can help you honour your loss. So while it would be important to use coping skills to help relieve some of your distress, coping strategies shouldn’t be about constantly distracting you from reality.

Other times, coping skills may help you change your mood. If you’ve had a bad day at work, playing with your kids or watching a funny movie might cheer you up. Or, if you’re angry about something someone said, a healthy coping strategy might help you calm down before you say something you might regret. Here are some examples of healthy emotion-focused coping skills:

Exercise, Write in a journal, Draw, Listen to music, Take a bath, Play with a pet, Spend time in nature, Read a book, Meditate, Use aromatherapy, Play a game with your kids, Practice breathing exercises, List the things you feel grateful for, Spend time in the garden, Take a yoga​ class, Spend time thinking about something that you enjoy, Give yourself a pep talk, Smile, Use a relaxation app, Go for a walk.

Healthy Problem-Focused Coping Skills

There are many ways you might decide to tackle a problem head-on and eliminate the source of your stress. In some cases, that may mean changing your behaviour or creating a plan that helps you know what action you’re going to take.

In other situations, problem-focused coping may involve more drastic measures, like changing jobs or moving house . Here are some examples of healthy problem-focused coping skills:

  1. Work on managing your time better (for example, turn off the alerts on your phone)

  2. Establish healthy boundaries (tell your friend you aren’t going to spend time with her if she makes fun of you)

  3. Ask for support from a friend or a professional

  4. Engage in problem-solving

  5. Walk away (leave a situation that is causing you stress)

  6. Create a to-do list

Unhealthy Coping Skills to Avoid

Just because a strategy helps you endure emotional pain, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Some coping skills could create bigger problems in your life. Here are some examples of unhealthy coping skills:

  • Drinking alcohol or using drugs: Substances may temporarily numb your pain, but they won’t resolve your issues. Substances are likely to introduce new problems into your life. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant that can make you feel worse. Using substances also puts you at risk for developing a substance abuse problem and it may create legal issues, financial problems, and a variety of social issues.

  • Overeating: Food is a common coping strategy. But, trying to “stuff your feelings” with food can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food—and weight issues. Sometimes people go to the other extreme and restrict their eating (because it makes them feel more in control) and clearly, that can be just as unhealthy.

  • Sleeping too much: Whether you take a nap when you’re stressed out or you sleep late to avoid facing the day, sleeping offers a temporary escape from your problems. However, when you wake up, the problem will still be there.

  • Venting to others: Talking about your problems so that you can gain support, develop a solution, or see a problem in a different way can be healthy. But studies show repeatedly venting to people about how bad your situation is or how terrible you feel is more likely to keep you stuck in a place of pain.

  • Overspending: While many people say they enjoy retail therapy as a way to feel better, shopping can become unhealthy. Owning too many possessions can add stress to your life. Also, spending more than you can afford will only backfire in the end and cause more stress.

  • Avoidance: Even “healthy” coping strategies can become unhealthy if you’re using them to avoid the problem. For example, if you are stressed about your financial situation, you might be tempted to spend time with friends or watch TV because that’s less anxiety-provoking than creating a budget. But if you never resolve your financial issues, your coping strategies are only masking the problem.

Proactive Coping

Coping skills are usually discussed as a reactive strategy—when you feel bad, you do something to cope. But, research shows that proactive coping strategies can be an effective way to manage the future obstacles you’re likely to face.

For example, if you have worked hard to lose weight, proactive coping strategies could help you maintain your weight after your weight loss program has ended. You might plan ahead for circumstances that might derail you, like the holiday season or dinner invitations from friends to help you cope. You also might plan ahead for how you’re going to cope with emotions that previously caused you to snack, like boredom or loneliness. You might prepare a mantra that you’ll repeat to yourself when you’re tempted to give into temptation.

Proactive coping has been found to be an effective way to help people deal with predictable changes, like a decline in income during retirement. However, coping can also be used to help people deal with unexpected life changes, such as a major change in health. A recent study found that individuals who engaged with proactive coping were better able to deal with the changes they encountered after having a stroke.

It has also been found that people who engaged in proactive coping were better equipped to manage their type 2 diabetes. Participants who planned ahead and set realistic goals enjoyed better psychological well-being. So, if you are facing a stressful life event or you’ve undergone a major change, try planning ahead. Consider the skills you can use to cope with the challenges you’re likely to face.

When you have a toolbox ready to go, you’ll know what to do. And that could help you to feel better equipped to face the challenges ahead.

Find What Works for You

The coping strategies that work for someone else might not work for you. Going for a walk might help your partner calm down. But you might find going for a walk when you’re angry causes you think more about why you’re mad—and it fuels your angry feelings. So you might decide watching a funny video for a few minutes helps you relax.

It's important to develop your own toolkit of coping skills that you’ll find useful. You may need to experiment with a variety of coping strategies to help you discover which ones work best for you. You might find that certain coping strategies work best for specific issues or emotions. For example, engaging in a hobby may be an effective way to unwind after a long day at work. But, going for a walk in nature might be the best approach when you’re feeling sad.

When it comes to coping skills, there’s always room for improvement. So assess what other tools and resources you can use and consider how you might continue to sharpen your skills in the future.

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