Whether you call it coping skills, self-care, relaxation, stress relief, bucket filling or something else, everyone has coping strategies. One theme I have noticed recently with my clients is that some of our key coping strategies are no longer working. You may notice that some particular global events outside of our control are causing more stress for many of us (I’m referring to the pandemic!). I’ve noticed with many of my clients that with all the changes to our daily living, many of us are not able to do activities that functioned as coping and stress relief. For example, many of my clients use exercise or spending time with friends and family as coping. Both of these activities have been heavily modified or are not possible anymore, which means that some of us aren’t able to release stress in the same way that we used to.
I have a wonderful worksheet that I use with clients to help us brainstorm effective coping or self-care strategies. This worksheet asks clients to sort and define coping strategies into the following categories. Each category provides something important, and each person’s list will be entirely different. A coping skill that works for me might not necessarily work for anyone else, however everyone still needs coping skills that serve the same functions for us.
Thinking about coping strategies in this way can explain why sometimes using a coping skill doesn’t work the way we expected. Sometimes we need different things when we are stressed, anxious, or are otherwise feeling a negative emotion. For example, if I am struggling with some negative thoughts about myself, a better strategy might be to thought challenge, rather than distract myself. On other days, I may find that practicing self-love may be better. No two people will have the same exact coping skills inventory.
A therapist can be helpful in coaching you through creating your own inventory and learning why and when these strategies are best for you.
As you read through this list, think about the activities you enjoy the most, and think about any activities in these categories that you might be missing. Do you need more thought challenging activities? Are you doing as much self-love as you used to?
Thought challenging coping skills are the kind of strategies we often talk about in therapy. These strategies are very individualized, and tend to centre around the kinds of negative automatic thoughts and core beliefs that bother us. If you have ever completed any sort of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) work, you probably have some thought challenging strategies.
My favorite thought challenge is to ask myself: If a friend was having this worry or thought, what would I tell them?
Self-Love is fairly self-explanatory. These are the things we do for ourselves that show us that we are worth being loved and looked after. My favorite self-love strategy is to take a bubble bath while eating an entire bag of chocolate mini-eggs (other good strategies include working out, eating well, and saying positive affirmations). I always caution my clients to make sure that self-love doesn’t end up harming us in the long run. As good as it feels to eat a whole bag of mini-eggs, I usually end up with a tummy ache. Challenge yourself to complete self-love strategies that have only positive after-effects. If you feel guilty about practicing self-love, talk to your therapist. This is a common problem that can get in the way of coping.
These kinds of strategies help us release any pent-up feelings in a healthy way. If you are the type of person who enjoys angry cleaning (me!), this is a perfect example of healthy emotional release. Other examples can include listening to loud music, working out, playing a musical instrument, doing art projects or creating things.
Talking to your therapist can also provide great emotional release! The goal is always to allow yourself the space to process any negative feelings you have, and let them go in a productive and healthy way. At the end of an emotional-release activity, you should feel lighter, happier, and more relaxed.
Sometimes not thinking about what’s bothering you can be a welcome short-term strategy. Just as I cautioned you about the self-love strategies earlier in this list, make sure you are evaluating the benefits of these coping skills, and make sure distracting doesn’t turn into avoidance. The difference is that distracting is short-term coping, and avoidance is a longer term not-wanting-to-deal-with-it! My advice is to set a timer or limit for distracting as coping. Watch only one netflix show, or set a 15 minute timer while you read your favorite book.
You may have heard about grounding and mindfulness strategies already, either from your therapist or your friends. There is a reason why grounding has become so popular, and why your therapist might mention it so often.
Grounding is almost the opposite of being distracted. Grounding and mindfulness focuses just on the here and now, not anything else.
Grounding can include breathing exercises, meditation, or any activity where you focus solely on the activity itself, and not on anything else (like to-do lists, or an upcoming event, or negative thinking). Gardening or even walking the family dog can be a grounding activity.
After reading this list, really look at all of the enjoyable activities and hobbies you do in a week. Which of these do you find fulfilling and relaxing and look forward to? If you are finding that you are lacking coping skills in one or more areas, it might be time to talk with your therapist about how to bring these skills back into your routine.
I find at times we already have amazing hobbies and ways of coping, we just need a little boost and help in recognizing how they can function better in our lives.
All of my clients and the other therapists at MyLife know I keep chickens – and I’m sure that anyone else who knows me is expecting some kind of honourable mention of them in this article. I’ve always thought that pets can be a wonderful, wonderful source of stress relief and coping. My chickens are an excellent example of the different ways pets can provide different types of coping – they are a perfect distraction at times, and at other times they can help us ground and focus just on the here and now. Pets are also excellent thought-challengers when we feel down on ourselves. If you saw yourself the way your pets see you, you would never have a negative thought again!