Coping Skills: Avoiding The Pitfalls. Life is constantly offering us new sources of distress. Finances, interpersonal relationships, school and work related situations, along with a zillion other things can provide an endless supply of anxiety.
Sometimes it seems we are bouncing between one stressful event and another all throughout our lives. You’d think we’d be experts at coping with this stuff after awhile, right? We do get used to dealing with stress, but sometimes the ways we learn to cope aren’t as healthy as they could be.
What are your top five coping strategies?
If we’re to be completely honest with ourselves, most of us probably use a few that are bordering on unhealthy. Coping strategies can be considered a spectrum of sorts.
On one end of the spectrum are the healthy coping strategies such as exercise, talking to friends or creating artwork; in the middle of the spectrum are more neutral strategies that don’t actually offer a therapeutic benefit, but are helpful in their distraction (activities such as watching tv, going on social media, etc).
The other end of the coping skills spectrum is a more destructive approach to dealing with stress. These behaviors often involve numbing tactics such as consuming alcohol, smoking or using drugs, but can also include other anesthetizing behaviors such as excessive shopping or binge eating.
There is always an end-goal when we engage in any behavior,
even if it isn’t consciously recognized. Generally coping strategies offer relief of some sort; we participate in certain activities in an effort to “feel better.”
Coping strategies are all about the trade-off. Healthy coping strategies have positive outcomes but require effort, while neutral strategies don’t offer a lot of actual benefit, are passive activities and often feel like time drains. Unhealthy coping strategies have many negative outcomes and often the impact worsens over time.
Unhealthy coping strategies can be tempting because they offer immediate gratification.
The spike in dopamine in the brain is what makes these fast-acting coping strategies such a temptation. The problem is that the benefits are short lived and only offer a disconnection from the feelings rather than actual healing.
While that disconnection feels great in the moment, the difficult feelings that are being masked are waiting on the other side.
The benefit of temporarily checking out with alcohol, drugs or some other self-destructive behavior is cancelled out after the effects wear off. particularly, if the behaviors impact relationships with others or ability to do necessary tasks.
Shame, guilt and decrease in self worth then factor in and soon the very behavior that was being used to lower stress has caused its own stress.
It becomes a vicious cycle of self medicating, dealing with the fallout from it, and still struggling with the original stressors that lead to the negative coping strategy to begin with.
Using healthy coping strategies takes extra work and determination.
It requires you to sit with your discomfort and stress, and ask yourself what you “really” need in that moment to help you feel better. Healthy coping strategies are best built out of your value system.
What do you value most in life?
What gives your life meaning and a sense of direction?
Often the answers to these questions can help guide us toward the most beneficial coping skills.
Unhealthy coping strategies can be especially compelling to those who have a void in other areas of life or who struggle with long standing emotional pain. Perhaps a pattern of unhealthy coping was learned from a young age within the family system.
People who have dealt with trauma sometimes resort to unhealthy coping strategies as a quick fix to escape painful memories, flashbacks or physical manifestations of traumatic stress, such as sleep problems, panic attacks or pain. Traumatic events are best managed through professional services. There are specialized forms of therapy to help people who have dealt with traumatic events and these have shown remarkable benefits.
Those who have a limited support system may also resort to unhealthy coping strategies in an effort to feel better.
If you feel like you’re alone in the world, it may feel as if there is little reason to stay away from these behaviors; the idea that “it’s not hurting anyone else” may seem like a good enough reason to use unhealthy coping strategies.
Part of the struggle in this scenario is the recognition that YOU are worth it. Even if no one else is aware of your unhealthy behaviors, your relationship with self will suffer, and depending on your particular behavior, your suffering may extend to physical health issues or other losses.
Going back to the question of “what do I really need,” a person with limited supports or trauma history may identify the need for support, compassion and connection with others.
Isolation is a tragic side effect of these conditions that only worsens the impact over time.
A licensed therapist may be able to help identify barriers that block your progress and help you gain the confidence to reach out to others. Therapy can also be useful to learn healthy coping strategies that match up with your value system and true needs.
The best coping strategies are the ones that reflect who you are. Identifying ways to honor yourself, your culture and your values, while decreasing stress is an ideal worth pursuing. Healthy coping strategies aren’t necessarily the easiest ones, but in the long run they will give you a greater sense of peace and self worth.
If you are looking for some ideas for healthy coping skills, there are plenty of lists available to choose from. Some guides even help determine what kind of coping strategy you may need, from physical outlets to cognitive strategies.
Treat yourself with as much compassion as you would treat someone else.
Consider your underlying needs and practice some healthy coping skills that will honor your worth and help you feel better in the long term. In time, healthy coping strategies will become more automatic.
When this occurs, your sense of self control and improved self esteem will be natural rewards that are well worth the effort.