Using coping skills to get through a crisis and get calm and then coming back and resolving the problem is the best long-term practice. This ability to pause before choosing an action is an essential skill of emotionally resilient people.
Coping Skills for Crises
Do you ever feel like your brain falls out when you’re emotional? Do you act stupid when infatuated or make bad decisions when scared, or angry?
Most people do.
And there’s a good reason for that. The rational part of your brain shuts down when it perceives a threat. It doesn’t want complex thinking to get in the way of survival.
Examples of this for our ancestors could have been needing to run from a tiger or eat something high in calories so they didn’t starve to death or falling in love so they could reproduce.
Today we experience all these same emotions when things get intense, but the circumstances they happen in are quite different. Our brain may enter survival mode when getting feedback from our boss at work or when we have to talk to a big group of people. We may shut down when getting a bad grade on a school assignment or when we get rejected by our crush.
In these circumstances, allowing the brain to regress into survival mode is not the best strategy. We need a way to slow things down and think clearly so we can make better choices that help us move through uncomfortable situations instead of just reacting to them. Our brain and emotions are incredible, powerful, wonderful things, but sometimes emotions make us act kinda stupid.
In this post, you’ll learn about coping skills. Coping skills are techniques you can use to get out of your emotional brain and back into your rational brain so you can think clearly again.
When I was volunteering in Argentina for 18 months, we had a situation where we had been working hard to help people, really pouring our souls out to try to help people improve their lives. We were physically, emotionally, and spiritually giving everything we had.
One day during a meeting, one of our local leaders, the man supposed to be supporting the work we were doing, basically told us that all the people we were working with were losers and there was no hope and that we were doing a terrible job.
We finished the meeting late at night. We were exhausted, angry, and discouraged. My coworker called the president in tears. We were ready to quit in that area. Our leader listened carefully and said “Hermanas, go to bed. Things will look better in the morning.” He was right.
After we took a break and came back to the problem refreshed after a night’s sleep, we were able to go back to that leader with clarity to confront the issue. And we were able to do some good in that town.
This experience taught me the value of the skill H.A.L.T., which means don’t make any big decisions when you’re Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired (not to mention drunk). Slow yourself down, pause, and wait until you’re feeling centered before making any big decisions. Don’t get married or quit your job or break up with your boyfriend or sign any big contracts when you’re not thinking clearly.
Coping skills are activities we can do that help us calm down. Many of the best ones incorporate brain and body and don’t have negative side effects like emotional eating or drugs do. This is just a short list; there are hundreds of things that people do to calm themselves down.
Be Cautious with Coping Skills
As you know from my previous post (Why I Hate Coping Skills), I’m obviously not a huge fan. But coping skills really do serve an important function in the short term.
They often soothe or comfort us and help us calm down and make better choices. But coping skills do nothing to solve our problems in the long term, and some of them, if used exclusively, can be harmful.
They help us take a break from our discomfort, but also from our life purpose. So that’s why I get a little bugged when I hear that the only skill someone is learning in therapy is how to cope.
Use coping skills to get through a crisis and to get calm, and then come back and resolve the problem. This ability to pause before choosing an action is an essential skill of emotionally resilient people.
When to Use Coping Skills
As we develop emotional muscles, we develop greater capacity to accept and resolve issues that come up for us. However, there will be times when we can’t process the whole issue all at once.
One definition of trauma is “something that happens to us faster than we can process it.” If we react immediately when we haven’t had a chance to work through our thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions, then our actions often make things worse. On the other hand, if we just avoid the problem, we also suffer.
When an issue is just really big or perhaps the time or place isn’t right or safe for processing, we can use coping skills to keep ourselves calm or safe until we can go back to the problem and resolve it.
As you go through this list, it’s important to find a few coping skills that work for you in various settings. So some that you can use at home, some for work, and others for when you’re in a group of people.
Sensory Coping Skills
These are helpful because they incorporate various parts of the brain and body and can soothe the core brain. You can:
- Step outside for a breath of fresh air
- Take a walk
- Listen to music
- Feel a comfortable texture (like a child holding a blanket or an adult holding a rosary)
- Smell an enjoyable smell
- Get a massage
- Take a hot shower or a cold face wash
- Knit or sew or build something
Cognitive Coping Skills
These can help us process the thoughts related to the emotion. Some ideas are:
- Write everything down, like with a brain dump
- Practice mindfulness
- Use guided imagery
- Do a progressive muscle relaxation
Active Coping Skills
These can help us feel safe and supported while facing challenges. You can:
- Play an instrument
- Laugh. For example, watch a funny clip on YouTube.
- Watch TV. Be incredibly careful with this one. TV (and most things with screens) is a powerful distraction that takes up and turns off much of the brain and essentially prevents the brain from resolving issues.
- Read a book
- Do a crossword
- Get out in nature
- Plant some seeds
- Give yourself a facial
- Express your emotions through art or music
Connection Coping Skills
These can help you feel grounded and ready to face problems again. Some ideas are:
- Hug someone
- Pet an animal
- Talk it out with a friend
- Write a letter to someone
- Write your difficulty out in an email before you talk with the person
Using coping skills to avoid our problems creates a dependency on that activity. I have actually worked with people who have had addictions to many of these coping skills. I’ve seen addictions to TV, shopping, food, drugs/alcohol, Scrabble, video games, social media, eating, exercise, and other coping skills. Again, the way to tell if a coping skill is helpful is not only if it makes you feel good, but if it helps you return to resolve the problem.
Write down three activities that you can use to calm down when you’re feeling overwhelmed with emotions: Try to think of at least one that will work in different environments (work, home, school, etc.).
Who are three people who you could contact in case of a mental health crisis?
I have an entire course on Coping Skills and Self-Care: https://therapyinanutshell.teachable.com/p/coping-skills-and-self-care-for-mental-health
Research now: What are some of the mental health resources in your area? What hotlines can you use? For example, In my country and state, these are some resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Safe Utah: https://safeut.med.utah.edu/