Yes, coping skills. I know, I know. Therapists just cannot stop talking about coping skills. It’s like “blah blah coping skills this” and “coping skills that” or “have you tried using your skills when ________ happens?” If you’ve done a little bit of therapy, you know exactly what I mean. And if you’re like a lot of people I’ve met, you’re sick of hearing about them. But here’s the secret though, we keep talking about them because they work. Shocking, right?
WHY COPING SKILLS ARE IMPORTANT
Let’s start off by talking about why coping skills are even important. I’m a pretty upfront therapist, if something isn’t important or is unhelpful, we’re not going to waste our time on it in session (or outside of it) because I want you to actually get benefits from our time together. However, coping skills are the first assignment I give to pretty much all of my clients–they are that important.
The reason being two-fold: 1) Because you need relief from your immediate symptoms. Whether it is anxiety, depression, self-harm urges, or whatever it may be, you need to start experiencing some relief in order to see that change is possible. If we don’t have hope, we don’t have anything. 2) Because we can’t do the deeper work until we lay a foundation of trust. Not only trust with me as a clinician, but trust in yourself that we can touch on or explore painful topics without the fear that we’ll start emotionally flooding and it won’t stop. So many of my clients fear opening up emotionally because they are afraid they will never be able to turn the emotions off again. They are afraid that they will become “a mess” and won’t be able to handle their daily responsibilities (e.g. work, family, parenthood, romantic relationships, etc). The secret though, is that if we learn effective coping skills we can actually build up trust with ourselves that we can talk about hard topics and be able to emotionally regulate–at the same time. It’s amazing and it allows us to do the deeper work of healing so that those emotions (or situations, or beliefs) don’t feel so overwhelming anymore. Coping skills help us treat the symptoms AND allow us the room to look for the “cure.”
WHY YOUR CURRENT SKILLS AREN’T WORKING
On nearly a daily basis I hear new clients I encounter both in my outpatient therapy practice and in the hospital say that “coping skills don’t work for me.” These people are frustrated and just want some relief. All that seems to be offered is a “have you tried journaling?” from their therapist. Now, journaling totally has its place in a healthy coping plan, but when someone is highly emotionally activated and panicking, it’s probably not going to cut it.
Here’s what so many people get wrong with coping skills–Different coping skills work for different levels of emotional activation. Let’s think of your emotional activation in terms of a stoplight where we have red (urgent/need to stop), yellow (take caution) and green (good to go) levels. Green represents a neutral emotional state–one in which you can be calm, cool, collected. This is the state in which most of us live our daily lives. It allows us to go about our days and do the things we need to (e.g. school, work, taking care of ourselves or family). Yellow is an elevated emotional state in which we may notice ourselves becoming more activated by small triggers. We may become more tearful over a perceived slight, more frustrated with a small irritancy, start having more intrusive thoughts, and more. This is a level of activation where we aren’t quite in a full blown emotional meltdown, but if we don’t use caution (hello Yellow light) we will be. The last is the red level. This is the highest level of emotional activation and we need more urgent skills to help us quickly calm ourselves down and get back in a more manageable state. When someone is in crisis, emotionally flooding, or having suicidal thoughts, they are in the red level.
WHAT SKILLS WORK BEST AT EACH LEVEL
Now that we have a basic understanding of what these levels represent, let’s talk a little more about what kind of skills are best at the different levels. We will find that while some skills work at certain levels, they may not work for all levels.
When you are at the green level (neutral emotional state) maintenance coping skills are awesome. These are skills that you do more daily and they help you stay in that nice neutral place. These may include activities such as going for a walk, gratitude journaling, or spending time with friends. These maintenance skills are key to keeping us in a nice neutral emotional space so that we can perform in our daily lives without getting as easily thrown off track.
When you reach the yellow level (low to mid levels of emotional activation) we want to start using coping skills that will help us express and process those feelings in a healthy and productive way. This is the level that we can do the most work in and reap the most benefits by stopping ourselves before we hit the red level (aka crisis mode). The problem is though, that a lot of people don’t have awareness of when they are in the yellow level. When we start gaining more awareness of this ramping up period we can start implementing the best tools for this stage. This may include more involved skills like progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, containment journaling, or others.
When we get to the red level that is when we are at the highest point of emotional activation. This is what I typically call the red alert or crisis stage. When we get to this level of activation we may be experiencing emotional flooding, dissociative episodes, suicidal ideation, full blown anxiety attacks, self harm, binge/purge behaviors, or more. We need basic, effective coping skills and we need them right now. Skills that require too much thought just aren’t effective at this level because we aren’t really able to think when we’re in crisis, we’re working off of a more primitive part of our brain which is telling us we’re in danger. This is where our grounding skills and other really embodied coping skills come into play. We need to feel present in the here-and-now and we need to calm the nervous system down. One great way to do that is to engage the senses (e.g. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 sensory exercise, aromatherapy, deep breathing exercises, counting to 100, sitting on the literal ground sometimes). Another way to calm the nervous system is by providing a sense of safety and soothing. This can include a variety of interventions such as reminding yourself of where you are–that you are safe, safe/calm place imagery, butterfly hugs, and containment exercises.
WHAT DO I DO NOW?
As you can see, when we’re in different stages of emotional activation, different coping skills will prove more beneficial. We must become mindful of what stage it is that we’re in and start to work on realizing how our mind/body respond to the various coping skills we try. Remember that practice makes perfect. Much like how we wouldn’t get “ripped” if we lifted weights one time, our coping skills won’t be strong if we only use them every once in a great while. Use them regularly and watch them grow.
And, while this is not an exhaustive list of all the coping skills you can use, it does give you a place to start. If you want to further this conversation and see how you can create a more effective coping skills strategy and gain the self awareness necessary to really utilize that strategy, I suggest reaching out to mental health professional like myself or someone else.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hi, I’m Jess. I’m an EMDR therapist here is St. Louis, MO. I use EMDR in combination with CBT, attachment theory, and family systems theory to help adult individuals, adolescents, couples, and families work through the issues that have been holding them back from the life they want. I work with clients who face a range of issues including: eating disorders, trauma, attachment issues, body image, anger issues, self-hate, grief, anxiety, depression, and family/relational issues. If things have not been feeling “quite right” in your life, let’s chat! Give me a call at 314-484-1196 for a free 15 minute consultation or send me an email at email@example.com.
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