What is Coping?
Coping is a term that is bandied about quite a bit especially in the self-help and therapy circles. It may become one of those terms that we use but do not fully understand. What does coping mean anyway? The definition of cope is 1. to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success 2. to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner. So coping is about calmly dealing with problems and difficulties as they arise in your life. This may be situational or new problems or they may be responsibilities that you have day in and day out. Coping is about how we successfully manage the emotions that arise as the result of challenges we face in life.
In my counseling practice I am forever talking to people about ways to cope with the various problems that life presents us with. Just like with self care though, not all coping is created equally. Also, like with self care, many people do not have go-to methods they use to cope with daily struggles or with surprises or if they do, their methods may not be successful or may bring harm to themselves or others which I call negative coping.
Coping strategies and self-care may overlap to a certain degree. The difference between the two is that self-care is done to relax, to enjoy, to recuperate where coping is done to get through the moment and manage emotions that you are feeling. Self-care could be considered proactive or preventative coping because the more self care you are doing the better able you will be at handling what life is throwing at you.
A Continuum of Coping
I like to think of coping strategies as being on a continuum with positive coping on one side and negative coping on the other. There are various degrees of good coping, neutral coping, and negative coping. You might think of it as good, better, and best although some negative coping really cannot be considered good at all, such as cases where there is a lot of harm happening to self or others (like self harm behaviors). If we are using the definitions from above then I guess technically we cannot consider negative coping “coping” because it is not successful really. However, from a mental health perspective if people are using these strategies to try to deal with problems and responsibilities then they are using them to try to cope.
Remember that we are looking at coping on a continuum. So at the far end of the negative side are things that directly hurt yourself or someone else. This is if you are involved in self-harm behaviors such as cutting, scratching, burning or if you harm others through fighting or bullying in order to try to better handle difficulties. As you move away from the far negative end there are still coping strategies that are negative but not as immediately harmful such as drug use, smoking, drinking, etc. As you continue towards the neutral area of the coping continuum you would find things like eating, excessive exercise, shopping sprees, etc. These things can be harmful if you are spending money you don’t have or exercising more than is healthy.
In the middle of the continuum is neutral coping. Neutral coping is when you are not hurting yourself or anyone else but you are also not working towards a calm state of being where you can best work on whatever the issue is. This would be numbing or distracting yourself from the difficulty. Examples of neutral coping are binge watching TV, playing mind numbing games on your phone, shopping that is not excess, or focusing on someone else’s problems to distract from your own. Neutral coping is when you are ignoring or avoiding the issue or responsibility and while you are not hurting yourself or others you are also not dealing with your emotions in order to reapproach the issue or responsibility from a fresh perspective. Running away from the issue might be a good example of this or doing other things instead of taking care of the problem.
As we move towards the positive side of the coping scale we find strategies that help us to tolerate issues, regulate our emotions, ground and center ourselves. This could include grounding exercises to orient ourselves to place and time as well as using our senses to distract from distress. Our five senses can also help sooth and regulate our emotions. Movement is a great form of positive coping as are breathing exercises. There are many different forms of positive coping. What you are aiming for is something that benefits you, helps create calm and balance in your emotions and state of mind.
Learning Positive Coping
Again similar to self care, coping strategies have to be learned and unfortunately sometimes they are not taught to us in childhood, or, possibly worse, negative coping strategies may be learned as one grows up instead of positive strategies. Negative coping strategies as you saw harm us or those around us. They also form habits that can be hard to break
The good news is that positive coping strategies form habits too! One of the most effective ways to end a negative coping habit is to replace it with a positive coping strategy. It is also important to know when to use coping strategies. In my experience many people wait until they are in a state of complete distress before they start trying to cope. While this is not wrong exactly, it is a little late in my professional opinion.
When to Use a Coping Strategy
I encourage people to think about their emotions as if they were on a scale from 0-10. Sort of like the pain scale they give you at the ER with 0 being no emotion and 10 being the most intense you have experienced. You could think of anger as an example. If you are rating your level of anger a 0 would be no current experience of anger while a 10 would be the most anger you have ever felt. I encourage people to start coping when an emotion is around a 3, definitely by the time it is at a 5.
It is easier to cope when we are lower on the scale. We can think more clearly and can better think of positive coping strategies. It also keeps other things from further aggravating and increasing a negative emotion. Once we are above a five it does not take much for the emotion to keep increasing and it becomes much more difficult to make positive coping choices. We are also more likely to react to an emotion once it is above a 5. So the goal is to never really get above a 5 on the scale and to begin using coping strategies really as soon as you recognize the emotion.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The more that you practice using coping strategies as early as the emotion is detected the sooner you will begin to detect the emotion and it will stop feeling like these super strong emotions are coming out of nowhere. You will start to notice early warning signs for strong emotions and become more in tune with yourself and your emotional climate. You can also use coping skills proactively or preventatively. That would basically be practicing good self care on a regular basis.