Self

The 'Master' Coping Skill You Can Activate Any Time You Feel Overwhelmed

Photo: platinumArt / Shutterstock.com
Woman checks her list of coping skills on her phone

Handling it, getting by, making do…whatever you call it, coping is a big part of life.

It’s so common we don’t even think about it. We just do it.

You’re using coping skills in one way or another every single day. But spending a few minutes thinking about your coping strategies can pay huge dividends.

And there's a way to make sure you have your coping skills at your fingertips anywhere, any time.

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We have at our disposal a vast number of options to help us cope our way through problems and challenges.

Psychologists often divide these into ways we cope “pretty” — think mindfulness, regulating emotions, or re-framing the situation - and ways we cope “ugly” like overeating or over-drinking.

Despite what you might think, research shows that there’s no objectively right or wrong way to cope. And there’s no one best way for any given situation. Each coping technique has its time and place, costs and benefits. Even “ugly” coping has its uses.

However, what tends to happen is that each of us develops a few “go-to” methods that we come to rely on without much conscious thought. And because of this, we’re often missing out on better options.

For instance, an initial reaction of self-criticism, denial, withdrawal, meltdown, big tears, lashing out, or binging might be protective and even helpful in the moment.

But these are less effective as ongoing strategies. At some point, it’s probably better to go ahead and have the tough conversation rather than distract with another snack. Or reappraise your latest relationship issue to see if there isn’t a way to frame the events that feels better and opens the door to a solution. Or to bring in self-compassion which research shows works far better than self-criticism in the long run.

Knowing when and how to best cope is a complex calculation. However, there is an easy, practical master skill that you can implement in the next few minutes that can dramatically improve your ability to cope. It’s so simple that it’s often overlooked.

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This master skill is making and keeping a handy list of your coping options.

That’s right, by taking out your phone and setting up a reminder list of available coping methods you are activating your brain to better support you in every future coping situation.

This works because when we’re stressed our body rapidly switches into the physiology of either fight/flight or freeze. Nature wants us to run, not think.

This is an ancient evolutionary survival strategy meant to keep us alive in dangerous circumstances. It’s automatic and for the most part unavoidable. Yet today’s stressors more likely require other, more nuanced, responses.

This is the crux of the problem because while in fight/flight or freeze physiology we aren’t able to fully access the parts of our brain that house creativity, willpower, and problem-solving. This explains why we fall back on habitual behaviors whether or not they are the best choice.

It explains why our first instinct is often to lash out, shut down, or run away from the problem. And it explains why we don’t remember that we have other skills and why we reject good advice when others remind us.

While in the physiology of stress it can feel highly uncomfortable and even impossible to try something different. To counter this we only need to pull out our own list and contemplate the options.

To ensure that your list works optimally don’t just write down strategies but add a note by each reminding yourself of a time you used that strategy successfully. This makes it harder to reject your options because there is proof that they have worked in the past, not just for others but specifically for you.

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It looks like this:

Strategy option — Take 6 deep breaths. Used when stuck revising this article and found the perfect re-write after.

Strategy option —Stopped for quick lunch rather than grabbing cookies when overwhelmed by difficult family news. Felt stronger and enjoyed the cookies more later.

Having a list like this forces you to pause. And it provides a substitute for the times that you don’t have access to your whole brain. The act of contemplating options helps your body come out of stress physiology and helps you get back in touch with your problem-solving powers.

In these ways having a list brings your power of conscious evaluation back online so that you are less likely to automatically fall back on habitual or unwanted behavior.

Being able to approach challenges flexibly also allows you to switch strategies over time rather than become mired in unproductive ways of coping.

Instead of repeatedly hitting your head on the wall you will be better able to find another way around. When one strategy stops working you will be able to see the value of trying other options.

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This is part of a bigger idea of developing a flexible mindset.

Staying flexible in our thinking is important because it keeps us motivated toward productively engaging with our challenges. It helps us “do the work” rather than give up.

The concept of a flexible mindset combines elements of other popular positive psychology concepts such as growth (as opposed to fixed) mindset and the idea of hardiness, or its more modern cousin, grit. All of these characteristics — flexibility, growth mindset, and grit — support the “holy grail” of coping which is resilience.

Because when we’re resilient we are able to stand strong in the face of adversity. When adversity blows us over we bend and bounce back rather than break.

When we’re resilient we don’t just cope better, we are better – stronger, happier, and less bothered by setbacks. And we’re less likely to automatically trigger stress physiology resulting in better physical and psychological health in an upward spiral.

So pull out your phone and start brainstorming. Think about the ways you have successfully managed difficult situations in the past and isolate how you did it. Think about how you’ve seen others successfully cope with different obstacles, or even ask them.

These don’t need to be big or high-minded. Be sure to include practical strategies such as distraction (tomorrow is another day as they say), lowering your expectation (always a good idea), or taking a walk around the block (or better yet a nap). You aren’t being lazy, you’re building your flexibility, growth, grit, and ultimately your strength and resilience.

It all starts with a list.

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Lisa Newman, MAPP is a positive psychology practitioner and certified intuitive eating counselor. You can find out more here

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