Unconventional Coping Strategies

A list of uncommon strategies for coping with stress, depression, and anxiety. Includes a free PDF version of the list to print and use as a handout.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

With Lauren Mills, MA, LPC-Intern (Contributor)

Effective coping skills make it possible to survive life’s stressors, obstacles, and hardships. Without coping strategies, life would be unmanageable. Dr. Constance Scharff described coping mechanisms as “skills we… have that allow us to make sense of our negative experiences and integrate them into a healthy, sustainable perspective of the world.” Healthy coping strategies promote resilience when experiencing minor stressors, such as getting a poor performance review at work, or major ones, such as the loss of a loved one.

Like any skill, coping is important to practice on a regular basis in order to be effective. Do this by maintaining daily self-care (at a minimum: adequate rest, healthy meals, exercise, staying hydrated, and avoiding drugs/alcohol.)

As an expert on you (and how you adapt to stressful situations), you may already know what helps the most when life seems out-of-control. (I like reading paranormal romance/fantasy-type books!) Maybe you meditate or run or rap along to loud rap music or have snuggle time with the cats or binge watch your favorite show on Netflix. Having insight into/awareness of your coping strategies primes you for unforeseeable tragedies in life.

“Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.”

Virginia Satir, Therapist (June 26, 2019-September 10, 1988)

Healthy coping varies greatly from person to person; what matters is that your personal strategies work for you. For example, one person may find prayer helpful, but for someone who isn’t religious, prayer might be ineffective. Instead, they may swim laps at the gym when going through a difficult time. Another person may cope by crying and talking it out with a close friend.

Note: there are various mental health treatment approaches (i.e. DBT, trauma-focused CBT, etc.) that incorporate specialized, evidence-based coping techniques that are proven to work (by reducing symptoms and improving wellbeing) for certain disorders. The focus of this post is basic coping, not treatment interventions.

On the topic of coping skills, the research literature is vast (and beyond the scope of this post). While many factors influence coping (i.e. personality/temperament, stressors experienced, mental and physical health, etc.), evidence backs the following methods: problem-solving techniques, mindfulness/meditation, exercise, relaxation techniques, reframing, acceptance, humor, seeking support, and religion/spirituality. (Note that venting is not on the list!) Emotional intelligence may also play a role in the efficiency of coping skills.

Current research

In 2011, researchers found that positive reframes, acceptance, and humor were the most effective copings skills for students dealing with small setbacks. The effect of humor as a positive coping skill has been found in prior studies, several of which focused on coping skills in the workplace.

A sport psychology study indicated that professional golfers who used positive self-talk, blocked negative thoughts, maintained focus, and remained in a relaxed state effectively coped with stress, keeping a positive mindset. Effective copers also sought advice as needed throughout the game. A 2015 study suggested that helping others, even strangers, helps mitigate the impact of stress.


Examples of coping skills include prayer, meditation, deep breathing, exercise, talking to a trusted person, journaling, cleaning, and creating art. However, the purpose of this post is to provide coping alternatives. Maybe meditation isn’t your thing or journaling leaves you feeling like crap. Coping is not one-size-fits-all. The best approach to coping is to find and try lots of different things!

The inspiration for this post came from Facebook. (Facebook is awesome for networking! I’m a member of several professional groups.) Lauren Mills sought ideas for unconventional strategies via Facebook… With permission, I’m sharing some of them here!    

Unconventional Coping Strategies

1) Crack pistachio nuts

2) Fold warm towels

3) Smell your dog (Fun fact: dog paws smell like corn chips!) or watch them sleep

4) Peel dried glue off your hands

5) Break glass at the recycling center

6) Pop bubble wrap

7) Lie upside down

8) Watch slime or pimple popping videos on YouTube

9) Sort and build Lego’s

10) Write in cursive

11) Observe fish in an aquarium

12) Twirl/spin around

13) Solve math problems (by hand)

14) Use a voice-changing app (Snapchat works too) to repeat back your worry/critical thoughts in the voice of a silly character OR sing your worries/thoughts aloud to the tune of “Happy Birthday”

15) Listen to the radio in foreign languages

16) Chop vegetables

17) Go for a joy ride (Windows down!)

18) Watch YouTube videos of cute animals and/or giggling babies

19) Blow bubbles

20) Walk barefoot outside

21) Draw/paint on your skin

22) Play with (dry) rice

23) Do (secret) “random acts of kindness”

24) Play with warm (not hot) candle wax

25) Watch AMSR videos on YouTube

26) Shuffle cards

27) Recite family recipes

28) Find the nicest smelling flowers at a grocery store

29) Count things

30) Use an app to try different hairstyles and/or makeup

31) People-watch with a good friend and make up stories about everyone you see (Take it to the next level with voiceovers!)

32) Wash your face mindfully

33) Buy a karaoke machine and sing your heart out when you’re home alone

34) On Instagram, watch videos of a hydraulic press smash things, cake decorating, pottery/ceramics throwing, hand lettering, and/or woodwork

35) Shine tarnished silver

36) Create a glitter jar and enjoy

37) Tend to plants

38) Color in a vulgar coloring book for adults


Download a PDF version (free) of “Unconventional Coping Strategies” below. This handout can be printed, copied, and shared without the author’s permission, providing it’s not used for monetary gain. Please modify as needed.


Lauren Mills, MA, LPC-Intern (Supervised by Mary Ann Satori, LPC-S) is a therapist in Texas and a current resident in counseling.     

I’d like to acknowledge all members of Therapist Toolbox – Resources & Support for Therapists who submitted ideas!

If you have an uncommon coping skill, post in a comment!


References

Association for Psychological Science. (2015, December 14). Helping others dampens effects of everyday stress. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 13, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151214084744.htm

Canisius College. (2008, January 26). Laughter is the best medicine. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 13, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080124200913.htm

Loyola University Health System. (2018, September 21). Boosting emotional intelligence in physicians can protect against burnout. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 12, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180921140200.htm

Scharff, C. (2016). Understanding and choosing better coping skills: You can change your mood without drugs. Psychology today. Retrived from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/ending-addiction-good/201609/understanding-and-choosing-better-coping-skills

University of Alberta. (2005, June 18). A good game of golf: Mind over matter. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 13, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050617235448.htm

University of Kent. (2011, July 14). Positive reframing, acceptance and humor are the most effective coping strategies. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 12, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110704082700.htm

Wiley-Blackwell. (2008, April 9). Humor plays an important role in healthcare even when patients are terminally ill. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 13, 2020 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080408112104.htm

5 Instant Mood Boosters

Discover five ways to instantly boost your mood and uplift your spirits.

By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

Need a boost? Here are five quick (evidence-based) fixes for when you’re feeling down.


Listen to music

Turn on the radio or search for your favorite song on YouTube. Music can evoke a powerful emotional response. Listen to something upbeat with a positive message. Music activates areas in the brain that are responsible for processing emotions.

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” 

Confucius

Be mindful while listening to a happy tune; pay attention to your emotions and challenge yourself to feel happier. In one study, participants who listened to upbeat music experienced improved mood as well as increased happiness over the next two weeks. A 2017 study indicated that listening to your favorite songs impacts the brain circuit involved in internally focused thought, empathy, and self-awareness. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter what type of music you choose; the effect is consistent across genres. Music may play a role in restoring neuroplasticity or as a therapeutic intervention. In 2013, researchers found that listening to uplifting concertos from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was linked to enhanced cognitive functioning. An additional benefit to listening to music is improved mental alertness; memory and attention in particular may be enhanced.

Find a green space

Go hiking, find a sunny spot to sit outside, or simply open the window and listen to the sound of the rain falling. According the U.S. Forest Service, spending time in nature can reduce stress, improve mood, reduce anger/aggressiveness, and increase overall happiness. If you’re upset or frustrated, you’ll recover more quickly in a natural setting, such as a forest. Alternatively, consider a stroll in the park for a boost. Researchers found that individuals with depression who took an hour-long nature walk experienced significant increases in attention and working memory when compared to individuals who walked in urban areas. Interestingly, both groups of participants experienced similar boosts in mood; walking in an urban area can be just as effective!

More recently, researchers found that people who regularly commute through natural environments (i.e. passing by trees, bodies of water, parks, etc.) reported better mental health compared to those who don’t. This association was even stronger among active commuters (walking or biking to work). If you commute through congested or urban areas, consider an alternate route, especially when you’re feeling down.

Spending time outside does more than just improve your mood. A 2018 report established a link between nature and overall wellness. Living close to nature and spending time outside reduces the risk of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm birth, stress, and high blood pressure. Exposure to green space may also benefit the immune system, reduce inflammation, and increase sleep duration.

Read/view something inspiring or humorous

Do you have a favorite inspirational book or collection of poems? Do you like viewing motivational TED Talks? Do you enjoy comedy shows? Maybe you like watching videos of baby goats or flash mobs on Facebook. (I do!) One study found that viewing cat videos boosted energy and positive emotions while decreasing negative feelings (such as anxiety, annoyance, and sadness). Internet cats = Instant mood boost. However, if Internet cats are not your thing, search around to find something enjoyable to read or watch for your happiness quick-fix.

Plan your next adventure

I’m happiest when I’m traveling the world. Unfortunately, I have limited vacation days (as well as limited funds), which means I don’t get to travel as often as I’d like. Happily, planning a trip may produce the same mood-boosting effects as going on a trip. In 2010, researchers found that before taking a trip, vacationers were happier compared to those not planning a trip. A 2002 study indicated that people anticipating a vacation were happier with life in general and experienced more positive/pleasant feelings compared to people who weren’t. In both studies, researchers attributed happiness levels to anticipation. (The brain releases dopamine during certain activities, causing us to feel pleasure. Dopamine is also released in anticipation of a pleasurable activity.) To increase happiness, start planning!

Cuddle a pet

Spending time with your fur baby will instantly boost your mood. According to research, pets are good for your mental health. Teens undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse experienced improved mood, positive affect, attentiveness, and serenity after brushing, feeding, and playing with dogs. A 2018 study indicated that dog therapy sessions reduced stress and increased happiness and energy in college students. Earlier this year, researchers found that just 10 minutes of interaction with a pet reduced stress by significantly decreasing cortisol (a stress hormone) levels. Other studies suggest that animal-assisted therapy reduces anxiety and loneliness and combats homesickness.

Research indicates that pets help seniors and older adults cope with physical and mental health concerns. Dog ownership is also linked to better cardiovascular health and a longer life.

“Happiness is a warm puppy.”

Charles M. Shultz

The next time you’re having a bad day, listen to your favorite song, go hiking in the woods, watch a TED Talks, start planning your next vacation, or spend some quality time with a furry friend… you’ll feel better!