Life is full of stressful situations we can’t control. What we can control, however, is our response to those situations. It might feel impossible, but this is where coping skills play an important role in our mental health. By improving our tools for coping with stress, we can take a step back from our immediate reaction and give ourselves space to find a better approach.
Say, for example, you’re frustrated by a situation at work. The immediate reaction might be to quit or send a slew of angry emails. This might feel good in the moment, but it won’t help you in the long run. You could be left thinking, “Why did I just do that?” after the dust settles. Instead, a coping skill will soothe or distract you from the frustration, and then you can act from a place of intent rather than instinct.
Unhealthy Coping Skills
When negative thoughts or feelings are overwhelming, or we’re stuck in rumination mode and they don’t go away, we naturally develop coping strategies. Humans don’t want to feel badly for very long and we’re experts at finding ways to numb or avoid these negative feelings. Research shows that people with childhood trauma are more likely to rely on unhealthy coping skills. Some examples of unhealthy coping skills include drinking alcohol, using drugs, unregulated eating (too much, too little, or bad quality), and spending too much money.
Those are not effective coping skills because they don’t actually make us feel better. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant and you’ll wake up feeling worse after an attempt to drink your problems away. It can also cause substance dependence. In general, healthy coping skills will lead us to clarity, while unhealthy coping skills lead to bigger problems. If you have a tendency to use unhealthy strategies, it can be helpful to work with a therapist to identify your triggers and replace the unhealthy activities with more beneficial choices.
The Two Types of Healthy Coping Skills
According to the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, healthy coping skills are either problem-focused or emotion-focused.
Problem-focused coping skills
With problem-focused activities, you’re finding practical ways to reduce or solve the issue that’s causing you stress. In a work-related situation, for example, you might talk to your manager directly, establish boundaries for time management, or apply for another position. People who like to write to-do lists and check off items might prefer problem-focused coping skills.
With that style of coping, it’s important to remember that baby steps are okay. You need to balance positive momentum with self-compassion. You can’t solve everything right now, but you can find a few things that can greatly improve your stressful situation. The good news is that you’re not numbing or avoiding the problem and leaving it to fester. Some issues have very clear solutions and anything we can do to move toward our goal will help lower our stress.
Emotion-focused coping skills help you manage feelings caused by the situation rather than the event itself. There might not be a problem to solve, or it’s a singular occurrence that can’t be avoided. In this case, you need to soothe or balance your emotions with the right activities for you. This could be exercising, petting a dog, taking a bath, spending time in nature, or watching a movie. Sometimes we just don’t want to handle a situation quite yet and we need more downtime. An emotion-focused coping skill helps to nurture and repair, recharging for the next step.
To make sure that you’re nurturing and not numbing your emotion, make sure that you can name the feeling. If you’re not sure what you’re feeling, try consulting a feeling wheel. This style of coping isn’t intended to chase away the emotion — instead, sit with it for a while. Be nice to the feeling. Don’t judge yourself for having the feeling. Have faith that, in time, the feeling will pass. Mindfulness-based meditations can be a great way to process emotion-based stress.
The Difference Between Coping Skills and Self-Care
Coping skills are activities or tactics you use when you’re in a stressful situation. They’re strategies you can use when you need to buy a bit more energy or time. Self-care, on the other hand, is something that you do regardless of your stress level.
Experts say that self-care is a preventative measure that can decrease the need for coping skills in the future. This is because attending to your emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical health will decrease extreme distress and burnout that require us to cope in the first place. When we’re “running on empty,” we’re more sensitive to stress and less likely to adapt to stressful situations.
There will still be times when life challenges us and this is when your knowledge of healthy coping skills can best be put to use — to get you through the tough times. Every so often, we all need to hit the “pause” button, use our coping skills, and then resume life again when we’re ready.