So what are coping strategies anyway? When we are in stressful situations most of us experience strong emotions and unhelpful thoughts. Coping strategies are skills that help reduce the intensity of these feelings and create a bit of “mental space” from unhelpful thoughts.
I know they sound complicated when I explain them like that, but I assure you that you are doing A LOT of them already, and probably just calling them something else!
They could be things like taking a washroom break at work to stare at yourself in the mirror and breathe, telling yourself “you’ve got this” before your presentation, or slowly drinking a cup of coffee, noticing the heat, the taste, thinking about where those beans were grown.
So when do these practices become “coping strategies”? Simply when you name them as such, and decide to intentionally use them like tools to help you cope.
Coping strategies are typically grouped into three different categories- behavioural strategies (things you do to cope), cognitive strategies (strategies to change the way you are thinking about the situation you are in), and social strategies (people/ social groups that to help you cope). I often encourage clients to learn strategies in each of these categories to build a comprehensive “tool kit” that they can draw from to manage different kinds of stressful situations as they arise.
There are many many great articles and lists out there of different types of coping strategies so I won’t spend more time elaborating about them here. (A quick google search of coping strategies will yield many finds!).
Instead, for fun and inspiration(!), I would like to share with you some fabulously creative unconventional strategies that friends, clients, and others in the field have shared with me, along with my guesses as to how they work.
Here are some of the more unconventional coping strategies I have heard about:
-Eating something very sour or super spicy in a moment when feeling very angry, impulsive, or “stuck” in unhelpful thoughts
How I think this works: I think that the super sour or spicy sensation can act as a distraction from your thoughts, and/or shift your thinking to different types of thoughts. This can give you a bit of “breathing room” in stressful situations, perhaps allowing you to make decisions that are more balanced and less driven by your emotions in that given moment. To practice this consider keeping some lemon wedges in your fridge, sour candies in your purse, or carrying around a mini Siracha, as I have heard others do.
-Lying on the floor staring at the ceiling or out the window
How I think this works: I can attest that lying flat on the floor with my whole body in contact with the ground is.. grounding. And by “grounding” I mean makes me feel present and alive in the moment. I am also guessing that lying on the floor may help put things in perspective when you start to narrow in and magnify what’s bothering you. Looking up, and feeling small and centred can act as a reminder that there is a world outside of your problems.
-Going to the dog park, pretending you own a dog, and petting other’s dogs
How I think this helps: Cute dogs are a mood booster for most people, and may be effective in shifting your thoughts away from whatever is bothering you, for a short while. Petting animals is also a soothing sensory experience for many people. Engaging in soothing sensory experiences like petting dog fur can signal to your sympathetic nervous system (the fight/ flight system) that you are safe, and it is ok to calm down.
-Memorizing a poem
How I think it helps: I think this practice can give you some mental space from unhelpful thoughts, and is a form of “thought switching,” a CBT skill where you notice unhelpful thoughts (thoughts that make you feel anxious, depressed, overwhelmed etc.) and consciously shift your thinking to a more neutral thoughts. Depending on the poem you choose (maybe not one by Sylvia Plath please!), the self recitation may also become a way you soothe or encourage yourself in stressful moments.
-Thinking “what if things went right..”
How I think this helps: Most of us spend a lot of our time anticipating failure, worrying about what’s to come, and planning for the worst case scenario. Flipping this thinking style on its head by considering “what if it all went right” can help to create some balance in our thoughts, and maybe even generate some feelings of optimism.
Hopefully this short list inspires you to take count of your coping strategies, and consider what new skills you could add to your toolkit.
I would love to hear what conventional, or unconventional coping strategies are working well for you these days! Feel free to comment below!