Coping Strategies for Life Stressors
Are your coping strategies working? No, are they really working?
Do you feel like the captain of your ship, sailing through the sea of life; or are you simply keeping your head above water? If you think there’s more to life than just coping through it, then read on.
Perhaps the focus on ‘just coping’ is the problem. Everywhere you look, someone is offering the latest and greatest coping strategies to fix difficult thoughts and feelings.
What was the last quick fix promotion that had you thinking, “This will be the one that makes me happy.”? Thanks to the immediacy of the Internet and social media platforms, we’re bombarded by messages to simply subscribe to the newest meditation app, drink herbal tea, think positively and BAM! Your depression, anxiety, trauma, pain, and conflict with that testy co-worker will subside. It seems that whatever happens in your life, feeling anything other than pleasant emotions means that you’re somehow doing life wrong.
So, what’s the cost of investing in all these coping strategies? Well, the more you focus on coping (aka short-term fix), the less you focus on what truly matters to you in life (aka long-term life satisfaction).
An Exercise in Your Core Values and Problematic Coping
Let’s try a quick (and painless) exercise to see if your coping strategies are getting in the way.
Answer these two questions:
- What do I want in life (i.e., What kind of person do I want to be? What do I want to be doing? Who do I want to be surrounded by? How do I want to be living? How do I want to be treating myself?)?
- What do I not want in life (i.e., feelings, thoughts, desires, life situations, etc.)?
Write it down if it helps.
For example, as a Registered Psychotherapist,
- I value helping people and I strive to be a compassionate person who is there for people that are struggling.
- I struggle with social anxiety and I start to worry about what others are thinking. Sometimes this makes me less connected and less present if I’m stuck in my thoughts.
So logically you might say, “I want to be a more helpful person, BUT I need to get rid of my social anxiety first.”
It’s only natural for me to try to cure my anxiety with coping strategies:
- Try to think more positively,
- Meditate regularly,
- Relax with breathing exercises,
- Try to convince myself with rationalizations, such as, “People like you!”, “There’s nothing to worry about!”, “You’re awesome!”, “Don’t have anxiety!”
Does it work? Sure, for a while, until my social anxiety shows up again in some other situation. There I am again, trying my best to not feel it, which takes me out of my life and into my head. I struggle to avoid it since ‘fixing it’ or reducing it permanently doesn’t work.
Cue more coping strategies. Now, I could get caught up in avoidance strategies like aimlessly watching Netflix, drinking a few beers at night, or just finding some way to numb my brain. All serving the function to avoid what I couldn’t fix and ‘forget’ if even for a moment.
Now I am so focused on “fixing” my social anxiety – or what I don’t want in life (remember Question 2?) – that I have completely forgotten about what I really want out of life (Question 1). I’ve been too busy sacrificing my time and attention on just surviving that I’m suffering throughout all of it and wishing time away.
Did you catch that? Look at your answers to Questions 1 and 2. Notice where your attention, focus, energy, and time goes.
Are you living a life trying to fix [and avoid] what is going on inside, so much that you’ve neglected what truly matters to you?
If you are realizing, “Yup, this is me”, please know that you are not alone. There are methods for learning how to suffer less even when things are happening that we don’t want (Q#2), while learning how to take steps towards what we do want in life (Q#1).
Learning How to Thrive
What do coping strategies really do? What is the cost of focusing on coping? There may be something missing – thrive strategies.
Coping strategies have one common purpose: To decrease stress and tension you experience inside your body and mind from perceived stressful situations. We use them to mitigate anxiety, fear, sadness, grief, and/or symptoms of trauma.
Coping strategies are deemed “positive” if they decrease our perceived stress (i.e., meditation, breathing exercises, self-soothing) and “negative” if they increase our perceived stress (i.e., experiencing anxiety after binge-watching Netflix, an unproductive or even painful morning after excess alcohol consumption).
All of us have times when we are so consumed by trying to control our thoughts, emotions, and internal experiences that we start to forget what we were striving for in the first place (i.e., what kind of person we wanted to be, and why we do the things that we do).
Many approaches to therapy benefit people by teaching them healthy coping strategies; those designed to help people tolerate, distract, or reduce painful thoughts and feelings, particularly when they feel unbearable. You may know them well; they are relaxation strategies, focusing on your breath, cognitive reframing, and applying a nice smelling lotion. These are efforts to control our internal states.
Don’t get me wrong, coping skills are a completely valid and a critical domain of mental health. They have saved lives. They help us tolerate symptoms of anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma throughout the day. The question becomes; are we satisfied with the short-term effects and do they come at a cost? Perhaps the cost is not taking action on the outside to what really matters to you in life.
I invite you to consider the following scenario: reflect on the past 2-5 months.
- How much time/attention each day was focused on trying to control or reduce painful or difficult thoughts/emotions?
- If your coping strategies were effective, how long did it last before you had to pull them out again?
- How much of your time was spent actively doing what was important to you? Being the person you want to be? Were you present with loved ones? Did you make changes at work?
The thing is, if I use daily coping strategies to temporarily reduce or distract from my social anxiety, then I survive the day. What’s the cost of living this way every day? You could fall into life that is surviving rather than thriving. And, if you made it through the day by tolerating difficult thoughts and emotions just enough, then real, actionable changes may be cast aside.
In other words, you may be distracted from doing what matters to you in life.
Riding the Wave of Emotions
If you are well-versed in coping skills and still feel as if you are climbing an uphill battle, then you might have already noticed that coping skills tend to have short-term effects of relief. That’s because life is full of stresses and challenges; whether it’s related to finances, relationships, health, work, school, or family and there is bound to be another hurdle around the corner. If our beliefs about the quality of life that we can achieve ends at coping skills, then it will continue to feel like an uphill battle.
The unfortunate truth is that pain is inevitable in life; it is part of the human condition. Pain is uncomfortable and unpleasant, so it is only natural to want to get rid of it. As you might have learned by now, you can only push away painful emotions or distract from distressing thoughts for so long before they come popping back up. A perhaps unintended consequence of relying on coping skills to feel better may be perpetuating the notion that unpleasant emotions should not be present if one is to live a life of happiness. This is the essence of “the Happiness Trap” that ACT trainer, Russ Harris, explains in his book, The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living.
Emotions are like waves; they come and go and they will continue to do so until the day we die [and possibly after, depending on your beliefs]. If we are to truly experience life – and stop waiting to feel good – then wouldn’t our time and energy be better spent dropping the battle with painful emotions and our thoughts that exacerbate them?
What’s the difference between coping and thriving?