Coping Skills

Coping skills in times of distress

This post discusses why it is sometimes helpful to have short term coping skills that we can use to manage our stress.  

What is a Coping Skill?

A coping skill is a way to help relieve high levels of emotions, and help to shut down any overwhelming thoughts you may be having.  

In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, coping skills are taught as a way of reducing distress, when people feel that they are in a crisis.   However, these skills can help anyone who feels a strong emotional reaction, which leads them to have an urge to do something that may be unhelpful.  

What is the difference between stress and distress?

Stress is a normal reaction to life events, which has some adaptive features. Moderate levels of stress have been found to increase our attention and memory, it can help to motivate us to achieve a goal, and finding ways to get through stressful situations makes us more resilient.

Distress is a severe, prolonged version of stress, which is likely to include feelings of suffering and being overwhelmed. A useful was of thinking about distress is as a personal suffering. Marsha Linehan’s conceptualises suffering as:  

Suffering = Pain + Non Acceptance of the Pain

Marsha Linehan

Stress may cause us to feel some emotional or physical pain.  However, it is our own interpretation of this, and negative reactions to it, that will impact on this becoming distress.  

Distress may lead to strong emotional responses, big expressions of anger or impulsiveness.  But we may also have ‘hidden distress’, which could come out in different ways including: 

  • Increased physical health complaints.
  • Continual episodes of illness – always feeling ‘under the weather’
  • Obvious intense pain.
  • Extreme fatigue.
  • Excessive problems with sleeping – either under or over sleeping.

We may get stressed at work because of a particularly big workload; this can motivate some people to become more efficient and prioritise.  However, we could also become distressed if we constantly worry that we are not good enough, cannot complete things, and will fail.  

We may get stressed at work because of a particularly big workload; this can motivate some people to become more efficient and prioritise.  However, we could also become distressed if we constantly worry that we are not good enough, cannot complete things, and will fail.  

We are likely to feel stressed if we have an argument with a loved one.  This could become distress and overwhelming if we ruminate on what was said, and start to believe that this means that they do not love us and will leave.

When might I use these skills?

The skills sheet below can be used at times when you need to give your brain ‘a break’. This may be when you feel that you are in a crisis, and no amount of talking or thinking helps (it may actually make it worse).

You could also use these skills when you are feeling lower levels of stress, but you may be in a situation where this is not going to go away. Maybe you have a heavy work load that is continuing for some time; you may be unwell and unable to do what you normally do; there may be ongoing stressors in the family.

Many of these coping skills are about giving yourself some time to stop, and focusing on yourself. Therefore, it can also be helpful to use them as a part of your daily routine to reduce the potential for distress. Listening to music that makes you feel happy each morning, or spending time writing down your thoughts for five minutes a day, can help you to be aware of what is going on for you inside.

This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need. 

Kristen Neff

They seem very simple – will they really help?

When we are feeling high levels of distress, or feeling overwhelmed, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain stops processing information as well as usual.  The ‘fight or flight’ system may be triggered, which focuses on building energy so that we can protect ourselves, but also makes us more alert to threats and more sensitive to situations. When we are in this state, if we try and use strategies that involve a lot of thought, or effort, we are likely to make mistakes or react based on our emotions rather than facts.  

The aim of the strategies here are the first step in managing these feelings.  They are meant to be short, simple ideas that do not take a lot of thinking/ planning, so that they can help to firstly reduce our emotional response.    They help us to move away from distress.    The second step, when these strategies help you to feel calmer, is to be in a better place to solve a problem, think things through or have a calm conversation with others.  

Coping Skills Handout
Coping Skills Handout

What category should I use?

Think about the last time you felt distressed, or overwhelmed.  What urge did you have?  This can help you to work out which strategies may be best for you.  If you: 

  • Had an urge to shout – try an ‘express’ technique
  • Felt like hiding away for hours, or drinking alcohol to de-stress – try a calming option
  • Had thoughts to self-harm – try the release ideas.
  • Felt completely overwhelmed and the idea of doing anything was too much – try to divert your attention to something else.  

It may be that each time you have higher levels of stress or distress you need to choose a different kind of strategy depending on the context and what is going on at the time. If you:

  • Are in a situation where you have a lot of thoughts going round in your head, and you just need to get them out to help make sense of them, use one of the ‘express’ tools.
  • Feel like you just need to switch off for a while, so you can think a bit clearer later, the divert strategies could help most.
  • Are having a sensory overload – for example struggling to cope with high levels of noise – then doing something to calm yourself will help.
  • Feel high levels of physical tension or pain in your body, linked to your emotions, then letting go may be the best option.

If you are suffering from ongoing crisis and feel that you may put your life in danger, please contact one of the crisis support lines listed here.

A PDF version of the above handout is available here:

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