Coping skills are activities people engage in to tolerate their distress at any given moment. Everyone has coping skills, but not all of them are healthy methods. There are both positive and negative coping skills.
A negative coping skill might work in the moment, but could have consequences that aren’t congruent with life goals. For example, many people abuse alcohol or drugs, engage in self-injurious behavior, develop an eating disorder to cope with their feelings at a certain time. While those “skills” seem helpful, they will provide only a short-lived feeling of relief. The consequences of negative coping mechanisms vary, but could be life threatening, or lead to legal repercussions. Therefore, finding healthier options is beneficial, but it will require time and effort.
Regarding coping skills, not everyone achieves the same outcome. Even with a positive result, certain skills work at different times. Sometimes patients say, “Danielle, coping skills don’t work! I don’t feel better after using them!” To which I respond,“What are you defining as working?” What did you try? How long did you try it? When did you try it?” All of those questions are important when determining the right coping skills for you.
I believe that a coping skill works if an individual doesn’t engage in a negative coping skill or revert to their disorder. I prefer that someone tries many different coping mechanisms, even if they don’t believe the methods work. Trying in of itself is a success, as it forces a patient to forget what is “comfortable” or “known” to them. Coping skills are not always magical relief, and that’s why people struggle to use them over their current maladaptive strategies. Coping skills are kind of like place holders, used until you can work through therapy sessions. Over time, these skills will be easier to use, or needed less frequently as we find and work through the underlying cause.
Until then, I encourage my clients to make a master list of coping skills discussed in session, or select a few from a list I provide. When a distressing situation arises, clients can turn to their card and begin utilizing the new, healthy coping skills. I ask clients to rate their distress levels before and after using the new skills. Clients should continue this process throughout the week to identify which skills have better success. If someone’s level of distress is 8/10, they should try a new skill from their card. If it doesn’t work, maybe try that skill at a distress level 3/10 before discarding it completely. Many skills that are helpful at a 4/10 will not be helpful at a 9/10 and that’s okay. Over time, we will identify strategies that work with all levels of distress. These skills will provide alternative and healthier relief than the previous negative coping skills. While this process can be time consuming, it will be very beneficial in the long term.