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)
Image by Daniel Sampaio Donate if you want (Paypal) from Pixabay

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.

Image by Victor Vote from Pixabay

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!

Image by Amanda Oliveira from Pixabay

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
Image by A_Different_Perspective from Pixabay

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!


Book Review: Staying Sober Without God

Munn wrote this book because, as a nonbeliever, he felt the 12 steps of AA didn’t fully translate into a workable program for atheists or agnostics. This inspired him to develop the Practical 12 Steps.

Reviewed by Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP

I stumbled upon Staying Sober Without God while searching for secular 12-step literature for a client who identifies as atheist. Jeffrey Munn, the book’s author, is in recovery and also happens to be a licensed mental health practitioner.

Munn wrote the book because as a nonbeliever he felt the 12 steps of AA didn’t fully translate into a workable program for atheists or agnostics. (For example, the traditional version of Step 3 directs the addict to turn his/her will and life over to the care of God as they understand him. If you don’t believe in God, how can you put your life into the care of him? Munn notes that there’s no feasible replacement for a benevolent, all-knowing deity.)

The whole “God thing” frequently turns nonbelievers off from AA/NA. They’re told (by well-meaning believers) to find their own, unique higher power, such as nature or the fellowship itself. (The subtle undertone is that the nonbeliever will eventually come around to accept God as the true higher power.)

In Staying Sober Without God Munn asserts, “There is no one thing that is an adequate replacement for the concept of God.” He adds that you can’t just replace the word “God” with “love” or “wisdom.” It doesn’t make sense. So he developed the Practical 12 Steps and wrote a guide for working them.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

The Practical 12 Steps are as follows:

  1. Admitted we were caught in a self-destructive cycle and currently lacked the tools to stop it
  2. Trusted that a healthy lifestyle was attainable through social support and consistent self-improvement
  3. Committed to a lifestyle of recovery, focusing only on what we could control
  4. Made a comprehensive list of our resentments, fears, and harmful actions
  5. Shared our lists with a trustworthy person
  6. Made a list of our unhealthy character traits
  7. Began cultivating healthy character traits through consistent positive behavior
  8. Determined that the best way to make amends to those we had harmed
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would cause harm
  10. Practiced daily self-reflection and continued making amends whenever necessary
  11. We started meditating
  12. Sought to retain our newfound recovery lifestyle by teaching it to those willing to learn and by surrounding ourselves with healthy people

The Practical 12 Steps in no way undermine the traditional steps or the spirit of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, they’re supplemental; they provide a clearer picture of the steps for the nonbeliever.


Before delving into the steps in Staying Sober Without God, Munn discusses the nature of addiction, recovery, and the role of mental illness (which is mostly left untouched in traditional literature). He addresses the importance of seeking treatment (therapy, medication, etc.) for mental disorders while stressing that a 12-step program (secular or otherwise) is not a substitute for professional help. In following chapters, Munn breaks each step down and provides guidelines for working it.

The last few chapters of the book provide information on relapse and what the steps don’t address. Munn notes that sustainable recovery requires more than just working the steps, attending AA meetings, and taking a sponsor’s advice. For a balanced, substance-free lifestyle, one must also take care of their physical health, practice effective communication, and engage in meaningful leisure activities. Munn briefly discusses these components in the book’s final chapter, “What the Steps Miss.”

Image by xxolaxx from Pixabay

Staying Sober Without God is well-written and easy to read. The author presents information that’s original and in line with current models of addiction treatment, such as behavioral therapy (an evidence-based approach for substance use disorder). Working the Practical 12 Steps parallels behavioral treatments; the steps serve to modify or discontinue unhealthy behaviors (while replacing them with healthy habits). Furthermore, a 12-step network provides support and meaningful human connection (also crucial for recovery).

In my opinion, the traditional 12 Steps reek of the moral model, which viewed addiction as a moral failure or sin. Rooted in religion, this outdated (and false) model asserted that the addict was of weak character and lacked willpower. The moral model has since been replaced with the disease concept, which characterizes addiction as a brain disorder with biological, genetic, and environmental influences.

The Practical 12 Steps are a better fit for what we know about addiction today; Munn focuses on unhealthy behaviors instead of “character defects.” For example, in Step 7, the addict implements healthy habits while addressing unhealthy characteristics. No one has to pray to a supernatural being to ask for shortcomings to be removed.

Image by m storm from Pixabay

The Practical 12 Steps exude empowerment; in contrast, the traditional steps convey helplessness. (The resulting implication? The only way to recover is to have faith that God will heal you.) The practical version of the steps instills hope and inspires the addict to change. Furthermore, the practical steps are more concrete and less vague when compared to the traditional steps. (This makes them easier to work!)


In sum, Munn’s concept of the steps helped me to better understand the 12-step model of recovery; the traditional steps are difficult to conceptualize for a nonbeliever, but Munn found a way to extract the meaning of each step (without altering overall purpose or spirit). I consider the practical steps a modern adaptation of the traditional version.

I recommend reading Staying Sober Without God if you have a substance use disorder (regardless of your religious beliefs) or if you’re a professional/peer specialist who works with individuals with substance use disorders. Munn’s ideas will give you a fresh perspective on 12-step recovery.


For working the practical steps, download the companion workbook here:

Note: The workbook is meant to be used in conjunction with Munn’s book. I initially created it for the previously mentioned client as a format for working the practical steps. The workbook is for personal/clinical use only.

Where Can I Find Help?

Where can you find the help you need? While there are plenty of resources out there for mental health and recovery, they’re not always easy to find… or affordable. (Plus, the Internet is full of scams!) This article is a starting point for getting help when you aren’t sure where to turn. This post offers practical guidelines; all of the resources in this article are trustworthy and reliable… and will point you in the right direction.

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

This post is not comprehensive; rather, it’s a starting point for getting the help you need. There are plenty of resources out there for mental health and recovery, but they’re not always easy to find (or affordable). The resources in this post are trustworthy and reliable… and will point you in the right direction.

If you need treatment for mental health or substance use, but aren’t sure how to find it…

If you have insurance, check your insurer’s website.

For substance use and mental health disorders, you can access the SAMHSA treatment locator. You can find buprenorphine treatment (medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction) through SAMHSA as well.

Consider using Mental Health America’s interactive tool, Where to Get Help. NeedyMeds.org also has a locator to help you find low-cost mental health and substance abuse clinics.

Additionally, you could contact your local Mental Health America Affiliate for advice and/or referrals.

If you can’t afford therapy…

EAP (employee assistance programs) frequently offer free (time-limited) counseling sessions.

At campus counseling centers, grad students sometimes offer free or low-cost services.

You could look into community mental health centers or local churches (pastoral counseling).

In some areas, you may be able to find pro bono counseling services. (Google “pro bono counseling” or “free therapy.”) You may also be able to connect with a peer specialist or counselor (for free) instead of seeing a licensed therapist.

As an alternative to individual counseling, you could attend a support group (self-help) or therapy group; check hospitals, churches, and community centers. The DBSA peer-lead support group locator tool will help you find local support groups. Meetup.com may also have support group options.

Additional alternatives: Consider online forums or communities. Watch or read self-help materials. Buy a workbook (such as The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression: A Step-By-Step Program) from amazon.com. Download a therapy app.

Lastly, you could attend a free workshop or class at a local church, the library, a college or university, a community agency, or a hospital.

If you’re under 18 and need help, but your parents won’t let you see a counselor (or “don’t believe in therapy”)…

Some, but not all, states require parental consent for adolescents to participate in therapy. Start by looking up the laws in your state. You may be able to see a treatment provider without consent from a legal guardian. If your state is one that mandates consent, consider scheduling an appointment with your school counselor. In many schools, school counseling is considered a regular educational service and does not require parental consent.

Self-help groups, while not a substitute for mental health treatment, provide a venue for sharing your problems in a supportive environment. (If you suffer from a mental health condition, use NAMI to locate a support group in your state. If you struggle with addiction, consider AA or NA.)

Alternatively, you could join an online forum or group. (Mental Health America offers an online community with over 1 million users and NAMI offers OK2Talk, an online community for adolescents and young adults.)

You could also contact a Mental Health America Affiliate who would be able to tell you about local resources and additional options.

If you’re in crisis, call the Boys Town Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. Alternatively, you can text HOME to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor.

Lastly, consider talking with your pastor or a trusted teacher, reading self-help materials, downloading a therapy app, journaling, meditation or relaxation techniques, exercising, or therapy podcasts/videos.

If a loved one or friend says they’re going to kill themselves, but refuses help…

Call 911. If you’re with that person, stay with them until help arrives.

If you are thinking about or planning suicide…

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Veterans Crisis Line. Alternatively, you can text HOME to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor. Call 911 if you think you might act. 

If you are grieving…

Check local hospitals and churches for grief support groups; some areas may have nonprofits that offer free services, such as Let Haven Help or Community Grief and Loss Center in Northern Virginia.

Additionally, a funeral home or hospice center may be able to provide resources.

If you are a veteran, you and your family should be able to access free counseling through the VA.

The Compassionate Friends offers support after the loss of a child. Call for a customized package of bereavement materials (at no charge) or find a support group (in-person or online).

GRASP is a grief and recovery support network for those who have lost a loved one through substance use. You can find suicide support groups using the American Association of Suicidology’s directory or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s support group locator.

Hello Grief provides resources and education for children and adolescents who are grieving.

There are also online communities, forums, and support groups, including groups for suicide survivors such as Alliance of Hope and Parents of Suicides – Friends and Families of Suicides.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or domestic violence…

If you are sexually assaulted, call 911 or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 (or live chat). Find help and resources at National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

For male survivors of sexual abuse: MaleSurvivors.org

For domestic violence: The National Domestic Violence Hotline

For gender-based violence: VAWnet

For teen dating abuse: LoveIsRespect or Break The Cycle

LGBTQ: National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs for LGBT Communities

If you’re a victim of sex trafficking…

Access Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking or call National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 (or text 233733).

 

If you’re a victim of or stalking…

If you believe you are in immediate danger, call 911. Find help and info at Stalking Resource Center and Stalking Awareness Month.

 

If you can’t stop gambling…

Call or text the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700. Access screening tools and treatment at National Council on Problem Gambling. Attend a Gamblers Anonymous Group or other support group for problem gambling.

If you or a loved one has an eating disorder…

If you want to approach a loved one about his or her eating disorder, start by reading some guidelines (such as Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder from HelpGuide.org).

Contact the National Eating Disorders Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. (Alternatively, there’s a “live chat” option.) For support, resources, screening tools, and treatment options, explore the National Eating Disorder Association site.

Find support groups, recovery tools, and local treatment centers at Eating Disorder Hope.

Attend an Eating Disorders Anonymous meeting (in-person or online). You may also want to consider an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

 

If you are engaging in self-harm and can’t stop…

Call 1-800-DONT-CUT or attend an online support group, such as Self Mutilators Anonymous.

Read personal stories, learn coping skills, and access resources at Self-injury Outreach and Support.

Join an online community like RecoverYourLife.com.

Try one of these 146 things to do instead of engaging in self-harm from the Adolescent Self Injury Foundation.

 

If you’re concerned about the drinking or drug use of a friend or family member, but they don’t want help…

If you’re considering staging an intervention, know that there’s little to no evidence to support the effectiveness of this tactic. 

Instead, read guidelines for approaching the issue (like What to Do If Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs or How to Talk about Addiction). Learn everything that you can about addiction. Explore treatment centers in the area; if your loved one changes their mind, you’ll be prepared to help.

Explore Learn to Cope, a peer-led support network for families coping with the addiction of a loved one. Alternatively, you could attend Al-Anon or Nar-Anon.

Keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to help someone who doesn’t want it. You can’t control your loved one or force them into treatment. Instead, find a way to accept that there’s no logic to addiction; it’s a complex brain disorder and no amount of pleading, arguing, or “guilting” will change that.

If a friend or family member overdoses on heroin or other opioid…

Call 911 immediately.

How to recognize the signs of opiate overdose: Recognizing Opiate Overdose from Harm Reduction Coalition

You can receive free training to administer naloxone, which reverses an opioid overdose. Take an online training course at Get Naloxone Now. You can purchase naloxone OTC in most states at CVS or Walgreens.

For more information about how to respond to an opioid overdose, access SAMHSA’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit (for free).

 

If you want to quit smoking…

In addition to talking to your doctor about medication, the patch, and/or nicotine gum, visit Smoke FreeBe Tobacco Free, or Quit.com for resources, tools, and tips.

Call a smoking cessation hotline (like 1-800-QUIT-NOW) or live chat with a specialist, such as LiveHelp (National Cancer Institute).

Download a free app (like QuitNow! or Smoke Free) or sign up for a free texting program, like SmokefreeTXT, for extra support.

Attend an online workshop or participate in a smoking cessation course; your insurance provider may offer one or you may find classes at a local hospital or community center. You could also contact your EAP for additional resources.

If you or a loved one have a hoarding problem…

Read guidelines for approaching a hoarding issue with someone such as Hoarding: How to Help a Friend.

Learn more about hoarding and find help (support groups, treatment, etc.) at Hoarding: Help for Hoarding.

 

If your therapist is making unwanted sexual remarks/advances…

Contact the licensing board to file a complaint. Each state has a different licensing board. Additionally, contact the therapist’s professional association (i.e. American Counseling AssociationAmerican Psychological Association, etc.) Provide your name, address, and telephone number (unless filing anonymously). Identify the practitioner you are reporting by his or her full name and license type. Provide a detailed summary of your concerns. Attach copies (not originals) of documents relating to your concerns, if applicable.

Read NAMI’s How Do I File a Complaint against a Mental Health Care Facility or Professional?

 

If you want to take a confidential online assessment for mental health or substance use disorders…

Free and anonymous screenings: Screening for Mental Health, Inc. or Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Mental Health Screening

For additional sites, self-help guides, literature, etc., check out the resource page.

If you know of a great resource, post in the comments below!