Learning to effectively cope with situations that are out of our control is an important skillset to have. It is evident now more than ever as we go through the COVID-19 crises and political divide how much of an impact external matters can have on our mental health. Increasingly more people are experiencing mental health issues as they try to find ways to manage the anxieties, fears, and worries we are encountering every day.
What is Coping?
Coping describes the act of investing conscious effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems. People cope to manage the levels of distress they are feeling in any given moment. Although people use coping to solve problems, this does not necessarily mean that coping eliminates problems in the long-term. This is especially true when we are coping with events that occur which are outside of our control. Coping can be used to put a pause on the stress that such problems are having on our lives, however it is to be expected that stressors will return. For this reason sometimes coping can be categorized as effective for getting rid of the immediate stressor, and ineffective in long-term removal of that stressor.
It is important to understand that we all have coping skills. From the beginning of our life we’ve been programed to find ways to cope with stress. A baby learns really fast that sucking on a nipple, thumb, or pacifier helps them feel better when they are feeling upset. They learn this so fast that after it only takes few times of introducing them to the coping mechanism (the nipple, thumb, or pacifier) before they eventually begin to seek it out and rely on it.
So if we all now how to cope, why do some people seem to handle stress easier than others?
From a distance it may appear that some people have the ability to cope while others don’t. However, I want move away from the idea that people who are having a difficult time with the challenges currently happening in our society, need to learn to cope. I argue that they already know how to cope. The issue is that they are coping in ineffective ways.
It is important to understand that coping is an action. Some people are great at using coping to help them with short-term and long-term stress. Other people don’t really know how their coping helps them. And that is a key difference effective vs. ineffective coping.
Ineffective coping is not putting any thought into why you are doing what you are doing to cope. It is doing things that make you feel better immediately without truly assessing the short-term and long-term effects of those coping actions.
Let me give you an example of when I’m coping ineffectively:
I feel behind on my goals because I have not worked on them in 2 weeks. I feel like crap. I decide to put on my favorite personal development podcast to help me gain some motivation and stop feeling bad. 10 minutes into the podcast I notice I am zoning out. On the surface it appears like I am being productive and challenging myself to grow because I’m at least listening to something productive, and this makes me feel good. But If I truly pay attention to what is happening while I’m listening, I notice that my attention is in and out of what the people are saying in the podcast. I am distracted in my thoughts and feelings. I am feeling inadequate, like a failure, and negatively comparing myself to the people on the podcast. The dialogue in my head goes something like this “Listen to these people, they figured out how to be successful and you haven’t. You’re never going to be able to reach your goals”. As a result of all this, I continue to feel like crap and immediately search for other podcasts to help me avoid those feelings. Once I find another podcast, the cycle continues to repeat itself. After hours of doing this, I end up feeling exhausted and depressed.
The example shows you that the ability to cope is not the problem. The podcast I am listening to is not the problem. The problem is that I am not coping effectively. I am using the podcast to help me feel better and although it helps me feel somewhat productive, at the end of my binge-listening I am feeling exhausted and depressed. It’s just not working.
When I cope effectively I am being diligent and intentional about what I am doing and how it will serve me. I put a lot of thought into the coping mechanisms I will use, by thinking about how they will serve me now and in the long-term. Let’s use the example given above:
I am feeling behind on my goals because I have not worked on them in 2 weeks. I decide to play my favorite personal development podcast to help me gain some motivation. I notice that 10 minutes into the podcast I am zoning in and out. I notice that I’m unable to pay attention to the podcast because I am distracted with thoughts and feelings that are making me feel bad about myself. I stop and ask myself a question. “What have I retained so far from listening to this?” My answer is an honest one. “nothing”. I ask another question, “Is this helping me?”. I think about it and answer, “Well at least I am doing something, so it makes me feel a little better”. I ask “Is this hurting me?” I answer, “well yeah, I still feel like crap and now I feel like crap that I didn’t do anything the last 2 weeks but also that these podcasters are more ahead than I am”. I gather my thoughts. “Okay this clearly isn’t working. I’m feeling more depressed about not working on my goals. I need something else”. I turn off the podcast and decide to journal about my feelings.
I want to highlight a few things in the example above:
1. It was important for me to stop and check-in with myself to assess if my coping mechanism was working effectively. I do this by asking a series of questions.
2. I had to be honest with myself about the short-term impact (making me feel somewhat productive) vs the long-term impact (feeling more depressed). This is important for me to truly know If I am getting what I want from listening to my podcast. What I wanted was the relief from feeling behind on my goals and the motivation to get back on track.
3. I recognized it was not working and I changed it up.
Although the example above makes it appear that it was simple for me to find another coping mechanism. It does not always work that way. Learning to effectively cope requires you to go through trials of ineffective coping and learning from those trials. If you can track how your coping is impacting you in the short term and in the long term, you’ll learn what type of coping is effective for you. You’ll get better at cuing on clues that inform you if your coping mechanism is serving you well.
Start tracking the ways in which you are coping. You can start by choosing a day where you write down everything you are doing. Write down why you are doing it and how it is serving you. Is it making you feel better in some ways? Is it making you feel worse in other ways? Compare the lasting impacts of its effects on your life and your relationships.
If you have a hard time being honest with yourself. Ask someone you spend a lot of time with to help you by giving you feedback about your changes they may notice in you throughout the day. You can try to cross-reference that feedback with your list to see if there is a correlation between something you do and the impact it has on you.
If you already know what your coping mechanisms are. Assess them carefully by seeing how helpful they are to you. Do you use this coping mechanism effectively? Is there a better time you could be using it? Could you be doing it more or less often? Has this coping mechanism become stale? Maybe you need to change it up? How do you feel about the way you cope? Could you proudly share it with a friend or family member?
Every day I’m witnessing the impact of ineffective coping. People are engaging in coping activities that make them feel better in the moment but are really causing more harm to their emotional wellbeing or physical health overall. This spills over to how they treat people in their lives. People who have children are passing on ineffective ways of coping to their children which later impacts their child’s own well-being and ability to handle the stresses they face.
We have a responsibility to pay more attention to what we are doing and how our actions are impacting ourselves and those around us.
Know that this blog is heavily based on the experiences and opinions I’ve gained throughout my life. I appreciate any feedback, comments, questions. I hope this provides some value to you, thanks taking some time to read!