Evaluating Coping Skills | Counseling | Therapy

Evaluating Coping Skills

Alex Robboy , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director


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Evaluating Coping Skills image

This tip is designed to help you answer a few questions about using coping skills for anxiety and depression. So, in order to begin a discussion about coping skills and how to use them, it is first important to understand what the essential terms mean. Cope means: to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success. Or to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner. For example: “I will try to cope with his rudeness.” Skill means: the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc., to do something well or competent excellence in performance; expertness; dexterity. For example: “Carpentry was one of his many skills.” Putting the two together, you get Coping Skills, which are: Abilities, or exercises we perform in order to deal with or face struggles within our lives. To put that in simple terms, coping skills are things you can do or use when your anxiety and depression feels like its getting the best of you. You might be thinking that at times there is NOTHING that will make your anxiety or depression go away, but that’s not exactly the purpose of a coping skill. Coping skills are designed to be a quick fix, like a band-aid. You can use them in the moment to get a grip on the depression or anxiety symptoms, get back to your task at hand, and deal with root causes of anxiety and depression later on.

What are some examples of coping skills? A coping skill can be ANYTHING from sleeping, laughing, fighting, drinking, playing music, crying, working a lot, exercise or running away. This is a very limited sample of the plethora of coping skills you could choose. So, what do you pick in the moment when you’re already feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, mad, or frustrated. It’s important to begin by discussing the short, medium, and long term benefits and consequences using coping skills. You might be thinking that you know some coping skills are clearly better than others such as going for a walk after a stressful meeting rather than skipping work to go to the bar. While this is true, it is important to note, that even the healthiest copings skills can cause long term negative effects. Think of it this way: coping skills are designed to get us over the initial surge of emotion and back on task. However, if we begin to rely too strongly on them, even good ones, we will perpetuate a cycle that could lead to avoiding emotions and causing more difficulty, especially with relationships. Let’s look closer at this.

For this tip imagine you’re working as a business professional in a well-established position and your boss informs you that you have been fired. You’re probably feeling anxious, worried, frustrated, sad and like a loser. In this situation it might be difficult to share these strong emotions with friends and family because of pressures to keep up appearances. In the short term, you might choose to call a friend who is also having a rough time and go on a shopping spree. This will certainly make you feel better fast, give you a social outlet to talk to a friend, and help distract you from your thoughts. Focusing on someone or something else is a common coping skill because it makes it nearly impossible to focus on your own worry. While receiving a distraction and some new clothes are benefits of refocusing your worry, potential consequences are overspending with no assurance of money coming in, putting off looking for a new job, and denying that anything is wrong.

To expand our assessment of the coping skill of “refocusing worry on someone or something else” you will find that mid-term benefits include feeling a sense of purpose by volunteering to help others, feeling satisfied in your role as a friend or spouse, getting things done around the house, and being able to keep up those appearances that you “have it all together.” However, mid-term consequences of this behavior include avoidance of the negative feelings you have about yourself and your situation, not letting your friends and family know what’s really bothering you and taking it out on them, and prolonged feelings of anxiety and depression. In the long-term, what you can get out of refocusing your emotions is that you can learn a pattern of behavior where you don’t allow yourself to get “derailed” by emotions. In some instances, such as a business deal, this will be seen as a positive characteristic and you will be viewed as strong, independent, and resourceful. You may be the person that others come to in a crisis because you can keep your cool.

Nevertheless, we have to discuss possible consequences of repeatedly avoiding and refocusing emotions. Within the context of friendship, others may view you as cold if emotions become so tricky for you that you try to refocus others’ feelings too. If you consistently channel your emotions into work, school, volunteering, etc. your spouse and family may begin to think that you are avoiding them, feeling unsatisfied, or not pleased with what they bring to the relationship. If you don’t share negative emotions with them, in the long run sharing positive emotions will also become difficult to share. A consequence of this is that relationships can be compromised because others will not know what you are thinking, feeling, and expecting from them and will therefore always fall short. Going through this example is not meant to scare anyone away from trying to use a coping skill to reduce anxiety and depression, rather the purpose was to expose both sides and reinforce that while coping skills help in the moment, we need to be cognizant of potential short, mid and long-term effects of creating a behavioral pattern and relationship dynamic.

You might be thinking it is possible to find something that is good in the moment and long-term. This example isn’t meant to make anyone feel bad, but to explain that when we choose a coping skill in the moment, we are often picking things we naturally learned to do. These things have become comfortable because in our families of origin and early relationships they worked well at some point. However, once you evaluate the effects your coping skills have on your current situation, you might see that its not bringing the long term goodness you wanted. In order to grow, you’re going to have to try new things and have your coping skills evolve just like you have grown and evolved as a person over time. As you’re doing this you may begin to feel uncomfortable because you’re trying new things and what works for some situations won’t necessarily work for all. By simply making very subtle differences you can discover more adaptive ways of dealing. Remember everyone uses coping skills that have benefits and consequences, which is why coping skills help you get past the overwhelming feelings so you can move on and fully process your anxiety and depression at a later time. The important thing to know is to choose your coping skills based upon the desired outcome because you’re not just coping with anxiety and depression, you trying new ways to cope for the future.

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