Written by: Perrin Jones, LCMHCA
Coping skills go beyond just being a therapy buzz-phrase. Entire therapy modalities focus on teaching and implementing coping skills. “What coping skills did you use?” is a phrase that those in the therapy chair have probably heard quite often. It’s no surprise, then, that the immense focus upon coping skills can get repetitive or even seem contrite. Sometimes coping skills may not feel like “enough” or may feel like putting a very temporary band-aid on a problem or hurt. The truth is that coping skills won’t “fix” your problem or get to the root of that uncomfortable emotion, but there’s a reason that coping skills are so often discussed in therapy sessions. Read on to learn more about the function and benefit of using coping skills.
In our last blog in this series, we discussed a little bit about the nervous system and how being in a fight or flight state when we are emotionally overwhelmed impacts our ability to think rationally and logically. Using a coping skill, particularly body-based skills such as breathing or physical grounding, can help reengage the frontal lobe and return you back to your resilient zone where you can be calmer and more stable. Intentional deep breathing and grounding help teach the body that we are safe and not under attack, as our minds and bodies think that we are when we are experiencing a trigger or are overcome with emotion. Once we feel that we are safe, we’re better able to think critically about how to solve or problems or more effectively handle our emotions.
This may be a controversial statement, but, at the end of the day, all coping skills really are? Distractions. Switching our focus to our breathing, a hobby, something that we enjoy, mindfulness, or exercise simply distracts our minds from what is stressing us out or bothering us for the time being. Oftentimes, just taking our mind off of whatever it is does give us enough time to experience re-regulation as explained above and can offer us a new perspective on whatever we’re going through. If we’re not constantly focusing on our stressor, our nervous system can calm down because we stop releasing cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones), which may be continued to be triggered by thinking or worrying about our stressor. Even 5-10 minutes of a break can allow us to feel more safe and calm.
Time for another therapy buzzword… yep, resilience. Resiliency is our ability to bounce back from negative experiences. Using coping skills regularly can increase our resilience by allowing us to acknowledge and move through challenging situations more effectively (and often more quickly) than if we had not used a skill. Cultivating resiliency is important because it allows us to eventually spend more time in a regulated nervous system state and less frequently experience fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers and stressors.
The bottom line is that coping skills buy us some time. Using a skill early on when confronting an uncomfortable emotion, trigger, or stressor allows us to regulate so that we can better proceed and process the experience. It’s important to practice using coping skills even when we’re not facing the biggest stressors or emotional experiences to allow us to strengthen up our skills so that they’ll be more useful when we are in a state of overwhelm. The more that you’re able to practice using skills, the more resilient you will become.