5 Steps to Better Coping Skills

You have 5 seconds to tell me what you would do if you broke your leg. Ready, GO! 

I bet you easily said that you’d go to the doctor to get your broken leg fixed right? 

Afterall, it is our first reaction.

Let’s try another one.

You have 5 seconds, tell me what you do to cope with stress. Ready, GO! 

Can you do it?

It has been ingrained in us since we were little. If we suffer a physical injury, we get a bandaid or go to the doctor. It seems easy, right? 

When it comes to our mental health and using coping skills, we freeze. 

Or it takes us a lot longer to think of what to do. 

Many of us weren’t taught how to cope with stress. Our parents may have modeled how they dealt with stress but if it wasn’t in a positive way, we may be repeating negative coping skills or lacking them all together. 

When I teach middle schoolers this lesson, it can be eye-opening for them. Why not teach the same thing to adults?

Here are 5 steps to building better coping skills. 

Step One – Identify Your Negative Coping Skills

This may seem silly when this post is about learning better ways to cope with stress but identifying our negative coping skills gives us a starting point. In order to use positive coping skills, we need to identify our negative ones first. 

When we do that it helps us see what we tend to do and then choose when/how to replace these with positive coping skills. For example, I am a person who uses food to cope with stress. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I want to eat everything in the pantry. 

However, when I’m feeling sad or emotionally hurt, I lose my appetite. Both of which are negative coping skills.

Other negative coping skills might include;

  • Food (overeating or undereating)
  • Alcohol
  • Other Drugs
  • Shopping
  • Gambling
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Yelling/Screaming
  • Self-Harm
  • Shutting down

Now that we’ve identified our negative coping skills it brings awareness to when we are feeling stressed. If you suddenly realize you are online shopping with no need for any actual items, you might need to reach for a better coping skill. 

Step Two – Understand Your Specific Emotion

Learn to identify your specific emotion. Different emotions often need different coping skills. For example, when I am feeling overwhelmed with all the stuff I have to do I need to organize my thoughts to make me feel better. Making a list helps me feel less overwhelmed. If my list is really long, I break it down into three. I take a post-it note and from my long list, make a smaller list of three tasks. 

Simplifying helps me prioritize and focus but also helps me feel accomplished when I can check things off of the small list. On the other hand, if my emotions are hurt or frustrated, making a list isn’t going to help. I would need to reach for a different coping skill. Understanding emotions take skill. Asking yourself “why” over and over again can be your best bet in finding out what your true emotion is. 

For example, we tend to say we are “mad” a lot. That’s a very surface-level emotion. If you ask yourself “why am I mad?” you might find a completely different and more specific emotion. For example, I am eight months postpartum and I find myself frustrated with my significant other. On the surface I am angry but when I dig deeper and ask myself why I discover that I feel resentment because I don’t have as much freedom as I used to or as much as he has. 

Now that I have identified my specific emotion, I know what I can do about it. Our coping skills are emotion-specific. I clearly need more me-time and some freedom to have that. Specific emotion equals specific coping skill… 

Step Three – Make a list of things that make you feel calm.

Brainstorming this list might take a little while, and that’s OK. It can be as simple as deep breathing, a hot cup of coffee, meditation, fresh air or music. Having both short-term and long-term options is great as well. 

Sometimes we need a quick 30-second calming exercise for in-the-moment stressors. Other times we need a more extended one that we might incorporate into our weekly plans. 

These are also ways to clear our minds. Long-term options can be things like going hiking, playing golf, yoga, writing, cleaning and organizing, drawing, painting, or reading a book.

Step Four – Make a list of things that spark joy in your life, or simply make you laugh.

Do the same thing with things that make you smile or laugh. For me, that’s watching videos of my son giggling. There is no better sound in the world for me than that. It might be exercise, watching funny cat videos or listening to your favorite song. Anything that releases your happy hormones!

Step Five – Create a Plan

Finally, create a plan. Fill in the blanks. 

When I feel         (emotion)       , I will         (coping skill)        .

For example:

When I feel overwhelmed, I will create a list and select my top three tasks.

When I feel hurt, I will take deep breaths (short term) or go for a walk (long term)

Identifying and using coping skills doesn’t mean we ignore the problem. If someone did something that hurt you, you don’t use your coping skills and then ignore what happened. 

Using your coping skills is a way to calm down and get back to a mindset where you can address and resolve the problem. Coping skills don’t make the problems go away. They are there to help us cope, or manage stress, as we work through the problem. 

Share with us your favorite coping skills in the comments!

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