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Feeling stressed or overwhelmed? Unsure how to handle uncomfortable situations? This is where building a robust set of coping skills will come in handy. Coping skills help you manage everyday stressful situations and even the rare significant events many of us experience in our lives.
However, not all coping skills are good for you. Some may create quick relief from your stress but can lead to bigger problems down the road. It’s important to develop healthy coping skills that help you reduce emotional discomfort now, while setting you up for future success.
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What are coping skills?
Coping skills are the techniques you use to help manage stressful and difficult situations. Your coping mechanisms help support your emotional health and well-being. They can help with:
- Losing a loved one
- Anxiety and depression symptoms
- Stress management
- Substance abuse
- Taming irrational thoughts and helping you calm down
- Day-to-day challenges
Coping is anything that helps ease emotional discomfort to make the stress more bearable. Healthy coping strategies typically focus on emotional, cognitive (mental), physical, or spiritual health. While some techniques may target one of these types, any area of coping tends to benefit other areas.
There isn’t one coping skill that will work in every situation or for all negative feelings. Sometimes, you may need downtime to recharge to find the best solution, while at other times, tackling the situation head-on may be your best option.
It’s best to develop many coping skills to give yourself options if one type isn’t available. For example, you can always do breathing exercises by simply taking deep breaths, but you can’t always pause what you’re doing to work out. A wide range of strategies means you always have something to lean on.
Weighted blankets for anxiety: do they work?
Emotionally and cognitive-focused coping skills
Coping skills in the emotional and cognitive-focused areas aim to reduce negative emotions and find meaning in the situation (Algorani, 2021). This list of coping skills may help you manage negative thoughts and complex emotions healthily:
- Meditation and mindfulness: Research shows meditation improves mental health in multiple ways (Shankland, 2021).
- Journaling: Simply writing down your thoughts may help reduce overwhelming negative thought patterns and stories.
- Talking with friends or family members
- Talking with a therapist
- Write a gratitude list: Write down five things you are grateful for in your life.
- Positive self-talk: If you find it’s too hard to give yourself a positive pep-talk too in your current mood, try adding more neutral thinking. For example, if you can’t go from believing “I had a terrible day” to “I had an amazing day,” try simply telling yourself, “I had a day.” It may sound like an odd description, but taking the negative words you use in your own narrative can help reduce negative thinking.
- Accept your emotions: Allow your feelings to simply be there instead of resisting them. If you’re feeling sad, allow yourself to cry and feel the physical sensations caused by your emotions.
- Watch TV
Physically-focused coping skills
These coping skills focus on behaviors and taking actions to relax your body. Research shows people who use physical activity as a coping strategy are less likely to use more unhealthy coping strategies, like drinking alcohol (Cairney, 2014).
When you’re feeling stressed, it can lead to muscle tension and high blood pressure (Yaribeygi, 2017). So finding ways to relax the body may help reduce your overall stress levels and negative feelings.
- Deep breathing exercises: Diaphragmatic breathing exercises, which involve taking deep breaths so that your belly expands, help improve mood and attention, and decrease stress hormone levels (Ma, 2017).
- Progressive muscle relaxations: During this relaxation technique, you tense a group of muscles while breathing in, then relaxing the muscles when you exhale. You continue until you have tensed and relaxed each group of muscles.
- Workout: Getting your muscles working and your heart pumping can help calm you down and cope with negative emotions.
- Drinking tea: Multiple types of teas help aid relaxation. For example, green tea contains the amino acid L-theanine, which can lead to increased relaxation, attention, and memory (Dietz, 2017).
- Getting enough sleep
- Squeezing a stress ball
- Getting a massage
Types of meditation: what’s most effective?
Spiritual coping skills
When most people hear spirituality, they likely think of religion. But really, your spiritual health can be thought of as your connection to the world around you and having a sense of purpose. This can come in the form of religion for some people, but for many others, it might be a connection to something else.
Spiritual coping skills may include:
- Religion and prayer
- Walking in nature to connect to your environment
- Reflecting on your purpose
- Practicing rituals, like a yoga routine, expressive dance, religious rituals, and singing
- Playing music
Potentially unhealthy coping skills
Unhealthy coping skills can be behaviors that are generally considered harmful or destructive to your long-term quality of life. Sometimes, these can even include behaviors generally good for self-care but are taken to an unhealthy level.
Here are some potentially unhealthy coping skills:
- Overconsumption: Even healthy things can be overdone, especially if done to avoid emotions or stressors. This includes watching too much TV, overeating, overdrinking, spending too much time on social media, shopping too much, and any other behavior that begins to interfere with your life in other ways.
- Tobacco and substance abuse: Substance use is a common unhealthy coping habit. It may help relieve stress in the short term, but it can lead to serious long-term health consequences.
- Avoiding people or situations: Taking time and space to yourself can be healthy. But avoiding people, places, or situations too much may become an unhealthy coping skill and may even progress into social anxiety disorder.
- Negative self-talk: Unhelpful and negative self-talk can interfere with your relationships and ability to get work done.
- Undereating: Undereating can be used as a way to control one area of your life by controlling how much food you eat. However, this creates a false sense of control and dramatically impacts your health in harmful ways.
- Violence: Physical or verbal aggression can happen when people are unsure how to handle their emotions. Engaging in aggressive behaviors can release those emotions quickly. Still, violence is an unhealthy way to cope with emotions and can lead to significant consequences in both the short and long term.
Mindfulness exercises: benefits and where to start
It’s never too late to develop new coping skills. Even if you’ve been practicing primarily unhealthy coping skills, you can still learn more positive coping skills to manage your daily stresses.
If you’re unsure how to cope with stress, consider working with a mental health professional. They can help you find ways to manage emotions and develop effective coping skills.
- Algorani EB, Gupta V. (2021). Coping mechanisms. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK559031/
- Cairney J, Kwan MY, Veldhuizen S, & Faulkner GE. (2014). Who uses exercise as a coping strategy for stress? results from a national survey of canadians. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 11(5), 908–916. doi: 10.1123/jpah.2012-0107. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23493043/
- Dietz C, & Dekker M. (2017). Effect of green tea phytochemicals on mood and cognition. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 23(19), 2876–2905. doi: 10.2174/1381612823666170105151800. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28056735/
- Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, Zhang H, Duan NY, Shi YT, et al. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers In Psychology, 8, 874. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
- Shankland R, Tessier D, Strub L, Gauchet A, Baeyens C. (2021). Improving mental health and well-being through informal mindfulness practices: an intervention study. Applied Psychology. Health and Well-being, 13(1), 63–83. doi: 10.1111/aphw.12216. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32851775/
- Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. (2017). The impact of stress on body function: a review. EXCLI Journal, 16, 1057–1072. doi: 10.17179/excli2017-480. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.