The Truth about Coping

We live in a fast-paced and often high stress culture. At times we are drawn to the “next big thing” and continually look toward the future or analyze the past.

In our competitive culture there are two paths to choose in response to stress: decrease stress by changing factors we can control or manage stress by increasing resources. Both may require a change in the way we live life. This post focuses on resourcing, specifically coping. Resources are anything that help us manage stress—our support system, our faith, our beliefs and our strategies (i.e. coping skills).

Chances are you already know about coping skills and perhaps have a few that work for you. I have found in my work with individuals and groups, there are common misconceptions when it comes to coping. These misconceptions include the expectation that coping will change how we feel and provide immediate relief. To combat these misconceptions, I believe effective coping should be grounded in the following truths:

Coping skills are best used as prevention in a regular and predictable way.

To prevent crisis or burn-out, I need to be in the daily habit of self-care. I care for myself not because I am reacting to crisis but because I am worth caring for. We often care for our bodies physically in this way (although we are not always good at it). For example, if I drink water only when I am dehydrated it will be very hard for me to recover. Instead, I drink water throughout the day to prevent dehydration and all the complications it entails. Emotionally, if I cope through mindfulness I need to practice it regularly, so it is effective. If only practice being mindful when I am angry or depressed I am going to assume it doesn’t work well or often and realistically it probably won’t.

Coping is not about changing what we feel it is about tolerating what we feel.

It is tempting to numb our feelings or find strategies to distract us from our feelings. When we numb or distract we are often relying on things that provide us with immediate gratification to change our feeling state. I don’t believe healthy coping works this way. In fact, many things that numb or distract are potentially addictive. I believe that we were created to feel and emotions, even negative ones, have a purpose. Coping does not get rid of feelings. It helps us to tolerate them. When I can tolerate what I feel rather than running from it I am able to communicate more authentically, I am able to practice self-compassion, and I have more empathy and connection to others.

Coping alone will not change your situation but it may make it more manageable.

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We are human. We live in a world that will always be broken. A world where others will hurt us and where we will hurt others. Coping will not “fix” everything (or anything) and it will not change these hard truths. However, healthy coping will make my life more manageable. If we again apply this to our physical bodies—caring for myself physically (getting rest, exercising, eating healthy food) will not guarantee a life free of illness and injury, but it might make illness and injury more tolerable.

Healthy coping increases my ability to handle stress without numbing or avoiding which will increase my resilience over time and will lower my baseline level of stress. Healthy coping allows us to experience the emotions we were created to feel in a way that is safe and congruent with our circumstance. Trauma and grief make healthy coping difficult and lower our tolerance for emotion. Those healing from trauma or grief may require additional support to establish healthy care for self. It is never as easy as it sounds. Begin by identifying coping skills that work for you (cognitive practices, spiritual practices, physical care, mindfulness, etc) and establish a schedule to practice. Take care of you!

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