The Art of Coping by Megan Nielsen, LCSW

Written by: Megan S. Nielsen, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

We all know the age old saying, “follow your gut”. Mothers, teachers, mentors say it to people in distress as if it is supposed to send us down the “right path” full of enlightenment and clear answers. When you listen to your gut, you can never go wrong and the solutions to life’s problems will always find you…right? Wrong. For the person experiencing depression, their gut may be telling them to jump off the Main Street Bridge. For the person experiencing anxiety, their gut may be telling them to carve into their skin with razors until they bleed. For the person experiencing an eating disorder, their gut may be telling them to binge on everything in the fridge and then throw it all up. For the person experiencing post-traumatic stress, their gut may be telling them to take a gun to the movie theatre and kill everyone in sight. When a person is suffering from a mental illness, it literally and metaphorically blocks one’s ability to make clear, meaningful, and positive decisions.

Developing healthy coping skills is essential for anyone that suffers from a disorder that alters how decisions are made and how one lives. The presence of healthy coping skills, can create an environment for success, happiness, and insight into one’s mental health. Millions of people around the world, live productive, healthy lives despite being diagnosed with a mental health problem-this is directly due to education about their diagnosis and identifying coping skills that work for them.

Inevitably on our search for peace and happiness, people often pick up some unhealthy coping skills along the way. It is not uncommon for people to use and abuse these negative habits in order to try and fill the void they are experiencing. This place is where addiction is usually born. Addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, relationships, drama, anger, gambling, shopping, or instability.

Finding the correct cocktail of coping skills that works for you, can be a grueling process. It is an art that must be mastered through persistence and perseverance. Some people have an innate ability to tap into their creative side in order to relieve the pain of mental illness. While others, may search for a lifetime to identify what their way is to cope. The goal is to never stop trying to find “that thing”. That one thing that makes you feel alive, like yourself, and at peace. Below is a list of healthy coping skills that are often recommended to people who are in the beginning of their search to finding their inner peace. Of course this list is just a starter kit to coping…be creative, think outside the box, and never be afraid to try new things in order to live a happy, healthy life!

Music

“Music is the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife.” 
-Kahlil Gibran

Many people have found music to be both a prevention based coping skill as well as a crisis intervention coping skill. Whether it is playing, making, or simply listening to it, the effects of music can be incredibly powerful on the human brain. Studies have shown that music can directly affect mood depending on the type and tone of a melodic melody. For instance, if a person is heightened and listens to hard rock, rap, or electronic music, they are more likely to remain in a heightened state. If a person is heightened and listens to acoustic, classical, or soft music, they are more likely to become calm and tranquil. Scientists at The University of Missouri have found that listening to positive, upbeat music can actually improve a person’s daily happiness and overall quality of life!

Creative Outlet

“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.” -Mary Lou Cook

If you look at most famous artists (musicians, painters, composers, comedians) in history, their lives are littered with trauma, mental illness, addiction, and family dysfunction. It is no coincidence that some of the most brilliant minds are also some of the most disturbed ones. If it weren’t for the music, art, or love of making people laugh, most of these people would have never thrived or been able to deal with their inner demons. The beauty of finding a creative outlet is that the possibilities are endless and anything that you find that keeps your mind and your hands busy is going to be a step in a positive direction: learn how to sew, take a computer class, make old furniture into new, work on home improvement projects, take up photography, garden, collage, knit…

Social Support

“Good friends help you to find important things when you have lost them… your smile, your hope, and your courage.” -Doe Zantamata

There are few replacements in life for a good friend and a cup of tea when you are feeling blue. It is absolutely vital to remember to not only identify but utilize your social support systems. Those supports could be family, friends, coworkers, church members, or support groups (online and in-person). One common mistake that people make when using social supports as a coping skill is trying to choose who you want the supports to be instead of letting the supports choose you. It is very natural (especially for women experiencing depression, anxiety, etc.) to want their significant other to be their primary support system. This is not always possible and actually can be unhealthy for a relationship as well. When identifying your support systems, it is important to remember those who have genuinely offered support or help and those that have consistently been present through good times and bad. When we experience episodes of a mental illness, we often want to retreat, withdrawal, and isolate but it is important to resist that temptation.

Spirituality

“People need to know that they have all the tools within themselves. Self-awareness, which means awareness of their body, awareness of their mental space, awareness of their relationships – not only with each other, but with life and the ecosystem.” -Deepak Chopra

When we think about the pillars of a healthy and well-rounded lifestyle, one may not always remember to include spiritual health. Spiritual health is often neglected because people associate it with “religion” or “religious practices”-when in reality, they are very different. Tapping into one’s spiritual side can be an incredibly powerful coping skill for those in crisis as well as maintenance. This could include using various forms of nurturing your spirit-Meditation, Prayer, Yoga, Scripture, Tai Chi. Some of these practices may seem overwhelming or requiring much guidance but don’t let this deter you from trying. ‘Youtube’ a 5 minute guided meditation video or look-up a free tai chi class offered at your local community park.

Vitamin C/Sunshine

”Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit.  When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open.” -B.K.S. Iyengar

The lack of Vitamin C can do incredible things to the body. A recent Vanderbilt study suggested that “the deprivation [of Vitamin C] causes depressive and submissive behaviors as well as an increased preference for sugar. More importantly, there were decreases in dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Low levels of dopamine and serotonin are linked to high levels of anxiety and depression.” Consider taking a Vitamin C supplement, eat more fruits and vegetables, or simply go outside and soak up some sunshine.

Reading/Writing

“Often as writers, we are surprised by what we learn about ourselves. It runs counter to what we’ve thought about who we are. But it is closer to the truth.” 
-Rob Bignell

As a therapist, the first task I assign to every patient I see regardless of their complaint or diagnosis, is to begin writing down their thoughts. The act of journaling has been likened to the power of face-to-face therapy. Not only does it allow you to get your thoughts out but it is helpful to be able to reflect on feelings/thoughts/plans during moments of escalation. Reading can also be used as a similar tool. Reading (depending on the material that you prefer) can transport you to another time and place. It can provide our mind with an escape of sorts and often aids people in “coming back down to earth”. Consider choosing reading material the same way you would choose music…remember that it can affect your mood and mind greatly. Both reading and writing can help a person perform “mindfulness” which can be a coping skill all in its own.

Setting Goals/Planning for the future

“You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.”
-Jim Rohn

Often times, when we are feeling down or hopeless, the last thing we have the motivation to do is set goals for the future. But it can be some of the best medicine for when we are stuck in a deep rut. Short-term and long-term goals can have a varying effect on our mood as well. I always encourage my clients to focus on short-term goals (days/weeks) during times of crisis because progress is able to be measured more easily, making self-esteem and hopelessness more likely to improve. Long-term goals are particularly important for those who struggle with depression, as it allows people to envision themselves as having a future. Setting goals gives structure to life and paints a picture for where you want to see yourself.

Physical Exercise

“Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states.”
-Carol Welch

There is a reason why people say to someone in distress, “Walk it off”. Physical movement-whether it be walking, running, biking, swimming, dancing, rowing-creates the same effect as someone who is “high” on drugs. Research suggests, “When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” That feeling, known as a “runner’s high,” can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.” Physical exercise is a great coping skill to use during times of crisis as well as maintaining stress of day to day life.

Animals

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language to the human soul.” – Martin Buber

The consistent, unconditional love and enduring spirit of an animal can be the perfect match for a person who is feeling out of control. Animals can provide the calm and companionship we crave as humans during times of loneliness and crisis. The healing power of animals is so significant that entire businesses, programs, and therapeutic models have been developed around spending time with dogs, horses, cats, etc. Studies have shown that “physical contact with an animal lowers blood pressure, improves survival rates for heart-attack victims, and releases endorphins which help in the suppression of pain and depression.”

Nature/Outdoors

“If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Of all the coping skills on this list, experiencing nature is by far the simplest yet most impactful. The healing powers that exist in nature have been the inspiration for writers, philosophers, and prophets since the beginning of time. The best part about using nature as a coping skill is that it is available to everyone and usually at no cost. Go sit on a beach and listen to the waves, take a hike through the mountains, go swimming in a lake, watch a sunset, feel a breeze. Being present in nature and taking in the beauty, can aid in the process of being mindful and grounded during times of crisis and maintenance.

Hobbies

“It can be coins or sports or politics or horses or music or faith… the saddest people I’ve ever met in life are the ones who don’t care deeply about anything at all. Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there’s nothing to make it last.” 
-Nicholas Sparks, Dear John

Finding a hobby can give us purpose and meaning in life. Some people are fortunate to have a job that also happens to be meaningful and fulfilling but not everyone can say that. It is important to have a hobby that makes us feel positive and connected. This can greatly increase self-esteem and overall quality of life. A hobby could entail volunteering, being part of a sports team, a social club, philanthropic activities, attending community events…the list goes on and on.

Therapy/Venting

“Secrets that are locked inside us-especially painful, dark, or shame-filled secrets-soon become cancerous and bring multiplying pain.” – Bethaney Haley Williams

For as long as humans have experienced adversity, the process of “venting” has been craved and needed. The act of releasing painful memories or plaguing thoughts has shown to be healing and effective in treating mental health problems. It is not uncommon for people to be intimidated by or have negative ideas about therapy. This often deters people from seeking treatment and getting the help they need. There is a reason that therapists exist and are so successful…because venting and receiving positive support from someone you trust, is incredibly healing. Receiving formal therapy can be helpful for some while simply talking to a trusted religious leader or mentor can be helpful for others. Whoever you choose to vent to, remember the importance of releasing pain and the effect it can have on your happiness.

Setting a Schedule/Staying Busy

“There cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” – Henry A. Kissinger

It’s very easy to start thinking about all the flaws in our life when we have too much free time. There is a simple solution for this-stay busy! The more structure we have in our lives, the less opportunities there are to fall into an episode of mental instability. Setting a schedule requires some discipline but the benefits are invaluable. Some of the keys to setting a productive schedule are: (1) Plan ahead: Look up some recipes and go to the grocery store to have food ready for the week, schedule your days/times to get your exercise, know what meetings/obligations you have coming up. (2) Be consistent with routine errands: We all have to go the grocery store, buy dog food, and go to the bank. So make them a regularly scheduled errand in order to avoid chaos and additional stress. (3) Include fun activities in your schedule: Be sure to include social time, stress reducing activities, and leisure time into your schedule to avoid burnout. (4) Stick to your schedule: It is easy to talk yourself out of going to the gym or getting fast food instead of cooking the healthy dinner you had planned. Be sure to stay on track in order to avoid unhealthy habits.

Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

“If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” – Fred Devito

There is no sweeter way to grow as a person than to push yourself to your limits. There is an infinite amount of change, awakening, and evolution that lives just outside our comfort zone-so tap into it! Take a trip to an unusual place and experience a new culture. Test your limits and run that half-marathon you have been avoiding. Try new foods. Talk to new people. Do something adrenaline pumping. Hike the highest peak of the mountain. Go skydiving. Be more social. Explore your city. Speak in front of a crowd of people. Learn to salsa dance. Face your fears…

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