Why write about the wrong way to use coping skills?
I get so many phone calls and emails from parents asking me to teach their kids coping skills. In the past few weeks, the misuse of coping skills has come up repeatedly, and it’s inspired me to write about coping skills…and their limitations. I’ve written about this previously, but I think it’s important enough to write about again in a bit of a different way.
It’s probably no surprise to you if you’re reading this that we all need coping skills to make it through life. Depression, anxiety, trauma, anger, frustration, barely annoyed: all things that must be coped with. Without coping skills, we would literally be unable to handle pretty much any stressor…at all…ever. Life would be more than a little difficult for us – and everyone around us – if that were our situation. Somehow, though, we all do tend to make it through difficult things the vast majority of the time.
So why would we believe so often that our kids just need coping skills if they’re already making it through that stuff? Here are a few possibilities.
- “Coping skill” is a really catchy term. It sounds like this really cool “snap your fingers and it’s done” type trick that we can do to just feel good. Simple, right?
- We hear about coping skills All. The. Time. when it comes to mental health. Hearing something over and over can stick. There’s an old Eddie Murphy movie where Eddie’s character runs for office and is elected based solely on having a familiar name.
- How about this – Coping skills keep you from feeling bad, or as bad. They distract you, then you don’t have to think about or experience those nasty feelings.
I hear people talk about using coping skills all the time. They usually just don’t know that’s what they’re talking about.
So, what are coping skills? Like for real?
Basically, they’re things you do that you enjoy and/or make you feel good. Things that take the sting away or prevent things from stinging as much.
Here’s a fun list of what people think coping skills have to be, and another list of what they actually can be.
What people think coping skills are:
- Exercising and dieting
- Closing your eyes and completely clearing your mind
- Reading books that talk about self-esteem
- Writing poetry and journaling (but only deep thoughts about feelings)
- Organized sports
- Losing weight
- Being “productive” (?)
- Having “responsibilities”
- Volunteering. Allllll the volunteering.
What coping skills can really be:
- Simply move your body from time to time (we do not diet as a healthy coping skill)
- Taking a walk and noticing the flowers, grass, sun, etc.
- Reading or writing anything you like
- Listening to music
- Playing with your pet (or someone else’s pet)
- Visiting the zoo
- Watching movies
- Social media
- Checking your phone 25 times in 30 minutes
- Drugs and alcohol
I want you to notice a couple of things here. One is that there are a lot less rules about coping skills than people think. Second, coping skills aren’t necessarily healthy. They can be extremely unhealthy. Finally, please don’t feel like coping has anything to do with beating yourself into the ground with exercise, living in misery so you can lose weight, or needing to change anything about yourself.
Any coping skill is an unhealthy coping skill when you use it as a default to avoid your feelings.
How are you supposed to use coping skills?
I explain this in terms of a car. You change your car’s oil, right? You don’t wait until the motor is smoking to change it, though. Oil changes prevent the motor from breaking down. It’s not a magical fix when the engine is puffing smoke and throws a rod through the block (if you don’t speak mechanic, that means the motor broke). So ideally, we use coping skills on a somewhat consistent basis to help ourselves stay in a good place.
Take a walk every now and then, not wait for a panic attack to sprint a marathon distance. Read a little every day or every couple of days, not check out for 2 straight days trying to ignore depression. Rest when you need it instead of staying in bed 18 hours/day for a week because life caught up. Write about whatever you want or whatever hits your mind every day or 2 (or 3 or 4), and I bet you’ll work some things out without even trying.
Simply put, I see people use them most often to avoid feelings. What makes this worse is that most people really think this is what coping skills are for. As if we aren’t supposed to feel things that are anything less than good, or neutral at worst. Here’s the thing though. It can actually work for a while.
How are coping skills most often misused?
But we can’t just cope ourselves out of our feelings. Sorry, it’s just not possible. Those feelings are still there, whether you pay attention to them or not. The thing that we really don’t like is being in those feelings. Sitting there, feeling them, and figuring out what exactly is going on with them. And that’s ultimately going to be part of therapy most of the time.
Sure, strengthening your coping skills is almost always part of therapy. But if you want lasting results, you’ll most likely need to go through processing your feelings, sitting with them, being uncomfortable, being honest and vulnerable. It’s not always fun. It’s hard to do sometimes. But that’s what you have therapists for. To help you (or your kids) on that journey. And a little secret…most of us are constantly on our own journey with that, too.
Interested in Therapy?
We specialize in working with teens and young women, and are LGBTQ+ affirming and welcome everyone as they are.
To start in Tennessee, follow these simple steps:
- Contact Cody and Edge to schedule a free 15-minute consultation for you or your teen.
- Meet with Cody and Edge for an initial counseling session.
- Begin therapy, online or in person.
Counseling services offered by Cody Higgs and his therapy assistant dog Edge:
In addition to online and in-office therapy, Edge and I offer a variety of counseling services in Franklin or online throughout the state of Tennessee. More specifically, we offer teen therapy, young adult counseling, and walk + talk therapy. I specialize in working with folx experiencing anxiety, as well as depression, trauma, and generally feeling lost or trying to figure out who they are. To get to know Edge and me further, please contact my counseling office.