When I have a situation that causes me pain, the first thing I want to do is figure out what I can do about it. After I assess my situation, I can look at my options and try to resolve it. That’s where coping skills come in.
My coping skills are anything I can think or do to make me feel better. They range from meditation and mindfulness to re-watching comedy specials on Netflix and playing with my cat. Some are extremely simple, like reading or cleaning when I’m on the manic side. Others are just statements I reread that I originally had physically written down on index cards kept in my cardboard “toolbox”, which is arguably the most valuable shoebox I’ve ever owned. Now I use this article to “thumb through” my tools at a glance. I’ve divided them into “Truths!” and “Actions!” (with exclamation points because I’m just that enthusiastic about them).
You are strong.
You are so loved.
You have been through this before, and you always come back. It just takes time. Wait it out.
You are enough. You are more than enough. It is unbelievable how enough you are.
You will not let depression win. Just be stubborn enough to not let it take you out.
You are loved. Always. No matter what.
You are worthy.
Stay where your feet are.
This WILL pass.
You are beautiful, inside and out.
Breathe. Breathe. Slow down.
Your life has a purpose of your own choosing.
You will survive this and be happy again.
This is not your fault.
You are loving kindness.
Your loved ones would be heartbroken if you died.
You deserve to be in less pain. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to have your needs respected.
Other people want to help you, so tell them what you need.
You go far away, but you always come back.
Call a friend if you need compassion or to be heard by someone.
Lay down, close your eyes, and relax from toes to scalp if you are tense.
Play guitar if you need a distraction.
Listen to an affirming Spotify playlist if you need to center yourself or re-establish your personality.
Do the big/medium/small ears calming and centering meditation. This is where you sit silently with your eyes closed and imagine your ears are getting bigger. When they are very large, listen to all the sounds you can hear outside of the room you are in. Once you can hear all the sounds, shrink your ears to medium-sized, and listen to everything you can hear inside the room you are in. Then imagine your ears getting very small, and listen attentively to all the sounds inside your body. This helps to ground you in the present moment, and it also helps manage fear and anxiety. It is a very quick and easy meditation, and only takes a few minutes.
Meditate freestyle. Let thoughts occur inside of imaginary helium balloons in your mind, and then let each balloon go up and away as your thoughts come up. Have a thought, but then let it float away.
Drink cold water.
Sing until you are distracted.
Hold ice cubes in both hands and feel them melt. This is good for distracting your brain from your anxiety, which calms you down for a little bit. It’s good for panic attacks, but the relief doesn’t always last, so have another skill prepared for after. This behavior can also be used to replace self-harm during destructive urges.
Walk. Thinking while walking helps you process emotion, partially because of the bilateral stimulation that happens between the two hemispheres of your brain.
Go outside and ground yourself. One way to ground yourself is by noticing an object near you and trying to take in as much information about it as you can. Use sight, smell, touch, color, your emotional response to it, and your best guess as to its history. You can do this with anything. I recommend a tree or a plant.
Meditate any way you like.
Plunge your face into a bowl of icewater. This slows down your heartrate and respiration. If you don’t have that option, splash cold water on your face. It doesn’t have as strong an effect as the bowl of icewater, but it does help.
Watch something comforting you’ve seen before on Netflix. This one is especially great for depressive and dissociative episodes. Comedy specials were a favorite of mine in episodes for years. They have no plot to follow, it’s okay if you tune out sometimes, they have the same volume all the way through (which is good if you are tense, anxious, or agitated), and if you’ve seen it before, you’re not being challenged by trying to take in new information at a time when you already can’t process things you usually know. This also works with TV or movies as long as you’ve seen it before.
Write about all of your feelings.
Talk to someone in your family. It is highly likely that they want to help you.
Think about science.
Color in your coloring book.
Do crunches or lift weights.
Find the present moment. Become completely present. Not worrying about the future or the past, just noticing exactly what is happening right now.
Warm up like you would before a voice lesson (or any instrument).
Make sure you’ve eaten. If you haven’t, have fruit. This one is a good solution for when I don’t want to eat anything at all.
Meditate by watching your breath.
Cuddle with a loved one.
Give attention and kindness to your pet. Take your time. Be present with them. They are always in the moment.
Take an anti-anxiety med if you’re prescribed one. You have options when it comes to psychiatric medication, so keep your doctor informed if something doesn’t work or causes problems. Please note that lorazepam (Ativan), alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam (Valium) all have the potential for abuse and addiction because they work so well. They immediately solve any problem if you take enough of them. This is very dangerous for many people who are in extreme emotional pain and are desperate to feel better. Discuss any addictive tendencies you have with your doctor. Like I said, you have options. There are a few non-habit-forming drugs for anxiety that your doctor could offer you.
How Do I Build My Own Toolbox?
You start the process of building your personal skills by noticing what things calm you down: concrete actions that take place outside of your mind, like reading a book, writing in a journal, playing on social media, eating an apple, meditating, being mindful, or talking on the phone.
Writing down truths or affirmations is equally as important as concrete actions. Write down all of the statements that you need or want someone to say to you in a time of crisis to comfort you. Write down true things that are hard to remember when you are upset, like “I am loved”, “I will feel normal again”, “I am good enough”, I am strong”, “I have survived this before”, or “This will pass.” The fact that you wrote these things down at a time when you believed them will be an enormous boon to their validity when you are hurting. You know that they were objectively true to you at one point in the past and therefore remain true in crisis, regardless of how many negative things you currently believe about yourself and your life. Don’t ever forget; your brain lies to you all the time.
Whenever you find a coping technique that is remotely soothing, write it down. You need to write them down and return to them when you are in crisis. Read your list of truths often. Read, read, read. Most of us will not remember off-hand what to do in the middle of a crisis, even if we’ve been doing it for years. This is why you should write down your coping skills in a place where they will not get lost and that you can refer back to easily and often.
Am I Using My Skills Wrong?
When you have a difficult situation come up, go to your skills and see what fits. The immediate goal is to lessen suffering, not eliminate it. You are not failing by not becoming instantly happy. The more you practice these skills, the stronger your ability to cope will become. You will eventually get to a place where you do use a skill and truly feel better. Use patience with yourself. Speak kindly to yourself. No name-calling allowed. You are not stupid or weak or a burden or ugly or worthless. You officially no longer have permission to call yourself any of those things, even if they feel true. You’re being told what to do by a stranger on the internet, but I know that any voice telling you such an important truth will carry at least a little weight. The truth is that you are a human with intrinsic worth, your experience as a human is valid, there is beauty in you, and you are surviving something terribly difficult. You deserve to be loved, especially by yourself. No more name-calling.
Calming and soothing yourself takes lots of practice, and it is not the only tactic you can use to feel better. Medicine is the cornerstone of many people’s treatment as well as mine personally, and therapy is also enormously helpful. If you do get to go to therapy, enlist your therapist in your efforts to build a set of coping skills. That’s what they’re there for. You have the right as a patient to determine the goals you have for yourself in therapy. My current goal is simply “to reduce suffering”.
Medicine and therapy are my primary treatment strategy, but I know that’s not an option for everyone. Coping skills and tools, however, are free. Remember that you have to build up your skills through practice and that they will become more effective over time. Don’t give up. It is possible to feel better. But “better” doesn’t mean “happy.” It means reducing the amount of pain you feel in the moment.
I highly recommend building your own toolbox, no matter what is causing your struggles. Try mine to find out if they work for you, and add to your kit whenever you find soothing thoughts or actions. It will give you a touchstone whenever you need it.
I wish you the best of luck in developing your own set of coping skills.
By Emily Harrington, The Goldfish Painter
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