Chaos comes in a variety of packages that can range in scope and severity. For example, finding that your car has been stolen is different from having what you thought was a promising date canceled at the last minute. But despite the differences, both of these situations deliver an emotional blow that can leave you with a sense of internal chaos.
In moments like these, it’s important to have techniques that help you to re-center and move toward a state of calm. Coping strategies do just that.
How not to cope
Before diving into what healthy coping is, let’s be clear about what it’s not. Coping is not numbing feelings. Numbing is when we leap into action in an effort to avoid feeling discomfort.
Let’s return to one of the examples above — the disappointment of a canceled date. Imagine that you’re feeling great about going out with someone you’ve been chatting with for a couple of weeks. On Friday afternoon, you’re feeling confident with a little pep in your step. As you hop out of the shower, you check your phone to find a text reading: “I can’t make it to dinner.”
That’s it. No explanation.
You try to take the high road, and return the text, “Hope everything’s alright… rain check?” And then you wait. As you wait, you’re feeling some type of way… a way that, well, sucks. In this circumstance, a common means of “coping” would be to catapult into a numbing strategy — say, going out for cocktails with friends to soothe the sucky feelings.
While that might seem like effective coping in the moment, alcohol is a depressant. The next morning may meet you with a hangover, the return of uneasy feelings, and almost certainly get you further away from the peace you want.
What does healthy coping look like?
In contrast to reactions like numbing, healthy coping strategies accelerate a return to calm. Building a personal arsenal of go-to coping techniques that are effective for you will help you to create a foundation of mental fitness.
Like just about all things related to the psyche, coping skills sound simple — and they are. But just because they’re simple does not mean that they’re easy. So, here are a couple of hard and fast rules that should help you acquire your go-to techniques, as well as an intro to actual strategies to try.
1. Establish strategies that are effective for you.
Before you find yourself in the throes of chaos, you should figure out how you best cope. Just like airlines introduce safety protocols before the plane leaves the ground, you should identify and practice strategies for calm when you’re in an average state of mind.
2. Recognize that coping strategies are not one-size-fits-all.
Mental fitness, just like physical fitness, requires a personalized approach. This means that you need to try different coping strategies on for size. Examine the possibilities, eliminate those that aren’t you, and give those strategies that do resonate a genuine try.
3. When you find a strategy that works, practice it regularly.
The goal here is for healthy coping to become your first inclination when chaos rears its head.
Three coping strategies to follow
There are a near infinite number of coping strategies that you can try. Rather than to provide yet another list, I’m going to describe and illustrate the different types of coping. These strategies fall into three categories:
A new example: Imagine that your job requires that you manage accounts. One of your clients is particularly demanding and you’ve consistently gone above and beyond to accommodate them. On a Friday afternoon, just as your work week comes to a close, an email from this client hits your inbox titled “Unacceptable.”
Your stomach drops, you open it. Immediately you note that your boss is copied, and you read on to find a scathing critique of the service that you’ve bent over backward to provide. Your body is abuzz with anger and you want badly to reply with a rage-filled review of your own. Chaos has arrived — how will you find calm?
The distraction coping strategy
Distraction differs from numbing in that while numbing aims to dull the emotional experience, distraction aims to create distance from the source of emotional distress so that you’re able to process those uncomfortable feelings. Coping techniques that qualify as distraction require that you go from an emotionally-driven story that your mind can spin, and shift into the present.
For example, you can distance yourself from the situation by packing up your things and heading home for the day. Believe me — the email will still be there tomorrow. Note, I’m not advocating for avoidance. Avoidance would mean that you never confront this dilemma. You will come back to face this email, but not until it’s less emotionally activating. Other distraction techniques include grounding and mindfulness.
The soothing coping strategy
There are two types of soothing strategies: external and internal. Both work to bring your emotional state back toward baseline.
External soothing activities require you do something that you enjoy that provides comfort. This can range from the simple act of taking 10 deep breathes, to more complex activities like getting a massage or creating art. Other examples of external soothing include:
- going for a run
- playing with your kids
- listening to your favorite music
Internal soothing strategies come from within. For instance, if you find your internal dialogue to be harsh, take a minute to imagine how you’d talk to a friend in your shoes and try that language on for size.
The balancing coping strategy
Balancing helps you to bring logic into the equation. It includes making lists, being honest about how you’re feeling, and asking for help — each of which can be applied to this scenario. You can list examples of work that you’ve done for which you’re proud. You can also say to yourself that you feel angry and hurt.
In these circumstances, you may just need to lean into the sucky feeling. Be angry, be disappointed, pout. Yes, it sucks to have received this email, so let it. It will not last forever.
Finally, you can ask for help. Contact a friend and ask them to help you think through your options. When emotions are running high, you’re prone to blind spots. Help from someone who has distance from the problem can provide insight to solutions that you might not have access to on your own.
These are just some ideas to help you find out what helps you cope with negative situations and feelings in a positive, healthy way. With a bit of effort, you can acquire your own set of coping strategies that will allow you to handle difficult situations more comfortably. You got this!
Coley is the co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Level Therapy, a mobile platform that provides treatment tools and video access to licensed psychotherapists. Level is working to decrease barriers to accessing excellent mental healthcare. Coley’s a bilingual licensed therapist that has taught university level psychology in the United States and Mexico. She specializes in clinical art therapy and is a registered art therapist. Coley has worked in various settings with many populations, ranging from private practice work in Mexico City and Los Angeles, to trauma-focused community mental health work with youth in Compton.