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.
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!
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