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Coping Skills

What are coping skills and why does my therapist want me to use them?

Clients in therapy will often hear the term “coping skills”. Are you using your coping skills? What coping skill could have helped with that? Etc. Coping skills are simply behaviors that help you cope with difficult emotions or difficult situations. It is important to note that a coping skill is not a problem solving skill. We use coping skills when a problem or a situation can’t be solved or at least can’t be solved right now. Problem solving skills are more focused on resolving the problem but for today we are just talking about coping skills.

We all have coping skills whether we call them coping skills or not. Think back to the last time you were angry. What did you do to calm yourself down? That is a coping skill. Think back to the last time you were overwhelmed. What did you do to deal with that feeling? That is a coping skill. For example, when I feel overwhelmed I make to-do lists. It gives me a sense of organization and it helps my brain feel less overwhelmed to put things down on paper. When I feel angry I find funny videos on YouTube to watch. This helps me to laugh and pulls me out of my anger. While coping skills don’t solve problems, they put us in a better mindset. If we’re in a healthy mindset, we are much better problem solvers :)

We all have coping skills. Some people have more coping skills than others and some people have more adaptive coping skills (we’ll talk more on that in a minute). We really want to increase the amount of coping skills we have. Here’s an analogy I give to clients: Let’s say I’m a handyman and I go to a customer’s house to do my handyman stuff. My customer says they have a clogged toilet, a loose electrical outlet, and a hole in the wall. Now let’s say I look in my toolbox and the only tool I have is a hammer. How effective am I going to be at taking care of this customer? Not very effective because while a hammer is a tool, it’s not a tool that is going to help with any of these problems. In order to be an effective handyman, I need a lot of tools in my toolbox. The same goes for coping skills. We come across many different situations and we experience many different emotions. If I only have one or two “tools” aka coping skills in my figurative toolbox, I’m underprepared for what life is going to throw my way.

Adaptive, aka healthy, and maladaptive, aka unhealthy coping skills. Some coping skills are healthy and adaptive while others are unhealthy and maladaptive. Healthy coping skills are skills that are effective at helping me cope in the moment AND they don’t make the problem worse or add even more problems to my life. Unhealthy coping skills are skills that are often very effective at the moment but they create more problems in my life. Some examples of unhealthy coping skills are things like substance abuse, shopping or “retail therapy”, physical or relational aggression. These unhealthy “skills” may be effective in the moment, meaning they make me feel better temporarily, but then they create more problems down the road. If I consistently turn to substances, I may run the risk of addiction which then adds additional problems. If I turn to shopping, I may feel better at that moment but it could be adding financial stress down the road. If I turn to physical or relational aggression it may be satisfying temporarily but then I’m dealing with broken items, broken relationships, possibly legal repercussions, etc. So while both healthy and unhealthy coping skills technically work at the moment, unhealthy coping skills ultimately create more problems. So we really want to actively work at developing healthy and adaptive coping skills.

There is also a difference between a coping strategy and a coping skill. A strategy means I have an idea of what could help at the moment but haven’t really started to practice it. A skill means I have developed that strategy and have become “skilled” at it. Often I will have clients say to me that they didn’t use their coping skills because they just didn’t have any situations where they were needed. I tell them that it’s in those moments of calm that we should be actively working on our skills. Another analogy I like to give is to think of a skill you have developed in your life. Maybe you learned to play the piano or another instrument. Maybe you play sports. You only become skilled through practice. You don’t want to wait until the day of the piano recital or the day of the big game to suddenly work on your skills. You want to be practicing them in the calm moments when there’s not as much at stake. This helps you hone your skills so when the recital or the game comes, you are prepared. Coping skills work the same way. We need multiple healthy and adaptive skills and we need to be using them regularly. This way when those difficult moments come your skills are readily available. It’s like muscle memory. The more we use it, the less we have to think about it when it is needed. It just comes to us.

Some examples of healthy and adaptive coping skills include things like going for a walk, journaling, coloring or drawing, being with other people, TV or movies (in moderation), a mindful activity like Sudoku or a wordsearch, playing a musical instrument, listening to music, watching funny YouTube videos, cleaning, singing, relaxing in a bath, playing with animals, meditation, going for a drive, working on a hobby, making a gratitude list, stretching, gardening, serving others, working on a puzzle, playing sports, etc. This list is by no means exhaustive and what works for one person may or may not work for another. Look at this list, see what might work for you, add to it, and work on becoming skilled at coping!

Therapy is also a wonderful way to help improve your coping skills toolbox. Tranquility Counseling Services have therapists available to help you on your journey. Reach out today!

(801) 845-4406


Sherrie Nebeker, MA, LMFT


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