“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” -Epictetus
Whether it’s a fear, phobia, or stress-inducing objects or situations, what we know is that avoidance of these will only increase the fear and stress associated with them. Can we continue to try our best to avoid everything that stresses us out? Sure. But the reality is that no matter how hard we try to avoid these things, we will inevitably be exposed to them at some point in our life, and if we aren’t prepared for this encounter, the experience will be more traumatic than it needs to be.
Many people believe the best approach to facing a fear is to dive head first into the deep end. But research shows us that this approach can be extremely detrimental to overall success in overcoming the fear. Facing fears requires preparation and strategically designed, incremental steps. For example a person afraid of spiders may first be exposed to a drawing of a spider, then a photograph of a spider, then observe a real spider, then perhaps even touch/handle a tarantula spider. Studies show that each level of exposure, if conducted in the right way, can produce structural brain changes, meaning learning how to cope with stress actually modifies brain function– we adapt.
So how do we prepare ourselves to face stress?
What is a coping skill anyway? Coping skills are methods a person uses to handle stressful situations. They are used to manage and mitigate negative and uncomfortable feelings and emotions that arise from these situations. The important thing to recognize about coping skills is that there are different types that are effective for different situations, and that there are healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Being able to identify how we currently cope and knowledgeably replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy, practiced, coping skills, is a key first step.
We all currently have a default response to stress. Your default is different from mine. Your tolerance is different from mine. But what we know from research is that our default response is malleable and we can change it, over time, through practice.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
It’s fairly easy to determine healthy ones vs. unhealthy ones– like if the way you handle a breakup is pretending you don’t care and binge watching your favorite Netflix show to escape the reality of your relationship status, that’s probably not the healthiest way to cope. Other examples might be overeating, undereating, drinking, smoking, sleeping too much, playing hours of video games, dissociating, etc. One way to identify an unhealthy coping mechanism is asking yourself these questions:
- Does this activity provide quick, temporary relief from the unwanted feelings/distress?
- When I finish this activity, does the situation/stressor/feeling still exist and negatively impact me?
- Do I engage in this activity out of habit or in an addictive way?
- Is this behavior destructive (harmful to myself or others)?
Now that we’ve determined some of the unhealthy ways we cope, let’s discuss implementing healthy ones.
I think coping skills are often misunderstood, and I think it’s mostly because not every coping skill is appropriate for every situation or condition. It’s important to know what types of coping skills are best to practice for your specific need. Coping skills for depression may be very different than ones used for anxiety or panic attacks, and certainly those are different from the way we should cope with anxiety associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They range in different types– they are not always deep breathing related (though that can be an effective one in many cases). Coping skills can be related to physical activity (such as sprinting to release anger), tactile activities, mindfulness, grounding, cognitive or thought related (such as fact checking or socratic questioning), expression-related (such as art or music), or can be simply pausing and doing absolutely nothing for 5 minutes in complete silence. This is not an extensive list. It’s also important to note that we should not rely on one skill to always work for us. If a therapist once told you to put a frozen water bottle on the back of your neck when you’re having a panic attack and it worked once at home, that may be fine and great, but frozen water bottles aren’t readily available when you have a panic attack in the middle of the mall. Or maybe your safe place is a hot bath, but you can’t strip down and take a bath during a meeting at work. These aren’t practical. The bottom line is that there are a lot of coping skills, because there are a lot of emotions that can become distressing, in a lot of different scenarios. Having a variety of coping skills in your toolbox allows you to access and utilize the most appropriate skill for any given situation.
But regardless of the specific coping skill, the truth about all of them is that they must be practiced to be effective. We must prepare for the stress in order to have what it takes to endure it. Resilience requires a building process, it doesn’t just happen the first time we try a coping skill. Additionally, a commonly overlooked aspect of coping skills is that they must be practiced in times when we are not distressed. This may seem counterintuitive, but this is exactly how we build resilience. Developing and practicing the skills is preparatory. We are preparing ourselves to better handle the stress when it arises. We are restructuring our brain over time so that its response to the stressor will be different over time. When we are faced with a stressful situation, we default to what we have practiced. So whether it was through conscious effort or subconscious repetition, whatever we normally do will be what we continue to do in the face of adversity.
In many cases, especially when we are in a lot of distress and discomfort, this is not what we want to hear. Many times people don’t even give healthy coping skills a chance if they don’t experience the immediate relief they are looking for after trying one. Just like any skill, coping skills must be learned and developed through practice and practical application, and this takes time.
As we practice these skills and our brains adapt, we can begin to actually seek environments that will expose us to stress and observe how we handle them differently. Just like the spider example, strategically exposing ourselves to life’s challenging situations will continue to enhance emotional regulation and resilience in our brain.
Still unsure about the power of coping skills? We encourage you to take this information into consideration and give them another try. If you want support in developing skills and building resilience, contact us.