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Choosing the Right Coping Skill

Coping skills may not always be the magic solution to your problems. Sometimes your emotions ​are so intense that the most you can hope for is to delay the pain. But more often than not, coping skills don’t work because you’re simply not using the right ones!

Maybe you’ve tried some of the activities on our 99 Coping Skills list and they just aren’t working this time with this problem. Maybe nothing seems to give you the same result as some unhealthy coping mechanisms that you’ve used before (cutting, drugs, alcohol, etc.). You might be tempted to just give up on coping skills altogether—but don’t!

There is not necessarily one “right” coping strategy for any particular situation, and of course, different things will work for different people. But some coping skills are probably going to be more (or less) effective at certain times than others. The key is to figure out which coping skills to use when. If you can do this, you’re much more likely to find that coping strategies really can work when you’re having a tough time.

So, how do you decide which coping skills to choose? The best way is to ask yourself: What do I need right now? People turn to coping skills for a lot of different reasons. We’ve listed some of the most common of those reasons below. Check out this list and see what you think.

What do you need?

To release emotion – This is probably the most common reason why people turn to coping skills. There’s just so much anger or sadness or worry built up that you need to do something to let some of the steam out. The coping skills that will work best here fall into two categories: physical or non-physical. When you need a physical release, try exercising, tearing up paper, punching a pillow, or even just breathing out. When you’re looking for something less physical, try journaling, talking to a friend, or creating art or music.

To make emotions visible or concrete – Unlike a physical wound, emotional pain can be hard to see or explain, and it’s sometimes difficult to express just how badly you are feeling inside. You need to show how you are feeling in some visible or tangible way. The kinds of things that will help here are drawing/painting/scribbling (especially with colors that match your mood), writing poetry or using metaphorical language, writing words or drawing on yourself with non-toxic marker, or putting band aids on your body to symbolize the pain.

To gain control – When emotions are in a frenzy, it can often feel like life is out of control, and that’s a pretty unpleasant sensation for most people. Sometimes you can’t actually gain control over the situation, though. Sometimes you just have to wait it out. When that happens, try to do something that you do have control over or something that helps you to feel like you’re in control. Making lists, cleaning and organizing are great activities to do here. You can also do an activity that you’re good at because it will help you to feel more competent when you’re feeling pretty helpless.

To stop feeling – Sometimes feelings just become too much. All you want is a break from everything. You just want to be numbed for a while so you don’t have to feel any more. There are a couple approaches that you can take here. One option is to use soothing or relaxing activities like taking a hot shower, lighting a scented candle, taking a short nap, or focusing on deep breathing. Another option is to use distractions. Watch a movie, play a game, read a book, surf the internet, listen to music, or shoot some hoops.

To feel something – Some people get so overwhelmed with what they are struggling with that they start to feel nothing. In an attempt to protect them from the pain, the body kind of shuts down the emotional pain receptors, and everything feels a bit numb. While this might be nice initially, most people eventually want to feel something. So, use coping skills that focus on sensations here. Hold an ice cube, splash cold water on your face, lightly snap a rubber band on your wrist, tense and relax your muscles, or watch something really funny.

To punish yourself – If you are struggling with self-esteem issues, your tendency when you get upset might be to blame yourself and internalize the pain you are feeling. You might feel like you need to punish yourself in order to feel better. While it’s certainly okay to accept responsibility for mistakes and to make amends, when you are beating yourself up for something that isn’t your fault or simply because you exist, you’re not doing yourself any good. Instead of punishing yourself in this situation, try doing the opposite. Build yourself up by making a list of things that you do well or things that you like about yourself. Write a “love letter” to yourself. Treat yourself to a bubble bath, a movie or a little extra gaming time.​​

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

Maya Angelou


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