Oh, coping skills. The two words that you hear over and over again from your therapist, your teacher, your mom and dad, social media, self-help books… You get told to make lists of things to do when you get unhelpful urges, make a list of things to do when you feel angry, when you feel sad. If you are like me, these lists quickly get discarded or put in the bottom of your nightstand drawer, as another list of things that DON’T WORK.
Why do we have such difficulty finding coping skills that actually work for really intense urges or behaviors? My theory (and it’s a working one, only, I’m open to suggestions!) is that when we feel really sad, or mad, or feel like using an unhelpful behavior, our nervous system is on high alert. Meaning, we go “off-line” and super-quick. We get into our deep down protective states, and the only thing we can do is run, or hide, or cry, or yell, or use the behavior. That’s the fight or flight or freeze instinct that you might have heard about, and it happens when our nervous systems get overloaded by a trigger. That overload happens and the list of coping skills gets thrown out, because who has time to take a bubble bath, or play with putty when you just want to scream or punch a wall?
Your therapist is hoping to guide you to use a coping skill so as to help you get you back “on-line.” The goal with the skill is to help you gain 10 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute- that gain may help get your brain back into a space where you can make a more helpful decision.
The trick is that the coping skill has to match the intensity of the urge, or the intensity of the feeling.
The best coping skills are ones that involve a mix of intensities, that can flood your nervous system, but in a more positive/helpful way. Here’s my running list:
- listen to any music that feels right, VERY LOUD and in your ears with headphones if possible (I love Eminem/the National/Brandi Carlile/Kesha for nervous system off-line moments)
- go outside and run hard to the end of the block (with your parents permission if possible)
- draw 10 flowers on your body. Draw 10 more.
- take a warm shower (sometimes heat can be too much for your nervous system, so try warm at first)
- lay under a tree and take 10 deep breaths
- quickly look at pictures of the ocean, of trees, of mountains
- watch a funny tv show. Wait 30 minutes before you take any action (tell yourself you have the option of doing the action, just wait 30 minutes at the end of the show and check back in with yourself). I like Parks and Rec, The Office and Seinfeld for this.
- write in your journal (a tried and true method for many clients, this just seems to work for so many people!)
- text a friend before you take action, and tell them that you want them to tell you it’s going to be ok
- tell your parents you need help and a hug. Have them hug you hard. Let them stay with you.
There is freedom in knowing you have a choice. You have a choice of whether to act on unhelpful behaviors or not.
You have a choice of whether to use coping skills or not. You can try them a little bit, or a lot. Even trying them one time (even if the next time, you decide not to try it) is a success. You have to take small steps to get started in this life.