My Favorite Coping skills

We could all add to our resiliency toolbox right now. Here is my list of science-based practices drawn from ACT and DBT to manage tough emotions (and tips to help amplify them).

  • Comparisons: Consider 5 ways this situation could have been worse but ISN’T.
  • Cold Temperature: Put a freezer bag on your face or for the hardcore (who have no cardiac issues), submerge your face in ice water for 20-30 seconds to stimulate the diving relaxation response. Splashing cold water on your face can help too if you’re not at home.
  • Cognitive: Give your emotion-mind time to cool off.
    • Think of categories and name examples (e.g. football teams, dog breeds, cars), Do puzzles. Subtract serial 7’s from 100 (93, 86, 79…)
  • Get moving to change your physiology: Go walk, do 10 pushups, shake out your limbs, stretching
  • Paced Breathing to stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, calming you: 10 slow exhales
  • Mindfulness: Notice new things about your immediate environment (e.g. 5 things you see, 4 you hear, 3 you feel, 2 you smell, and 1 thing you can taste)
  • Opposite to emotion action: Engage in a behavior that is inconsistent with the emotion you are trying to change (e.g. dance when depressed, lie down and look at the sky when you’re fidgety, empowering music when you’re fearful).
  • Radical acceptance: acknowledge reality for what it is right now. Be compassionate to yourself and the difficulty of this situation. It cannot last forever.
  • Self-soothe: Find sensations that calm you. Good scents, bath, weighted blanket…
  • Mastery: Find some small, easy task to regain a sense of control (e.g. clean up a small area).
  • Social Support: Call a trusted love one. Tell them what you need (e.g. just validation, feedback, problem-solving or nothing but listening).
  • Top 5: Put things in perspective. Is this event immediately threatening the very most important things in your life? If not, thank your body for its alarm in alerting you and know you can handle it. If you’re not, ask the future you 3 years from now, how big a deal is this?
  • Cope Ahead: If the concern is future-oriented, create a clear, effective plan to deal with the most realistic bad outcome that may happen. Visually imagine yourself dealing with it well. Keep reminding yourself, you’re prepared with options.
  • Worry time: Set a timer to spend 10 minutes worrying and writing concerns down as well as one step you can take. Then move on. Remind yourself you have already addressed this topic and will revisit it during tomorrow’s worry time when those worry thoughts arise again.
  • Access your wisemind: Take a breath, consider what you would recommend to a dear friend in your situation.
  • Gargle water for 30 seconds several times, hum a song, or massage your scalp to calm your fight, flight, stress response
  • Consult your mental tribe. You probably have some strong opinions, urges, and feelings going on. Notice these as characters in a village (e.g. scared 7yo, judgy old man) that will share ideas/opinions, but ultimately don’t have to listen to.  

Maximizing their Impact:

  • Practice: Most of us can list lots of ways of coping when we are feeling good, but when big emotions show up, it’s hard to think of anything, much less change up patterns and try out new behaviors. I often ask people to test out these strategies in advance. That rehearsal experience may feel silly, but can dramatically increase the likelihood that we’re able and willing to use skills when we need them.  Also, with practice our bodies learn from using skills, can begin to anticipate what is coming and calm more quickly over time.
  • Matching: The more intense the emotion often the more intense the skill we need.   For many people, if you are feeling panic, sitting meditation isn’t a good fit. The skill should match the emotion.  
  • Layering: You might also need to layer multiple skills to get your distress down (i.e. intense exercise, calling someone and then self-soothing).  
  • Expectations: When we are in emotional pain, we want it to stop, right now, without too much effort (and preferably never come back). Sometimes, coping skills are about keeping our head above water rather than relief. This can buy time and prevent us from making decisions that make things worse.

For when they aren’t working:

I am so thankful that crisis lines exist and that people I deeply care about are willing to use them in difficult times.  

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