Beneath all of our personal and professional aspirations—like landing that next promotion, buying a starter house, and exploring new and magical parts of the world—many of us have one goal in common: to be happy. It sounds simple, right? Except, well, it isn’t. Not even close. Unfortunately, you will experience a range of not-so-pleasant emotions throughout your life, from overwhelming sadness to uncontainable anger, and more. This is normal—for the most part, anyway. Bouts of unhappiness are just a part of life, whether you like it or not. Fortunately, while you can’t necessarily control why these feelings pop up in the first place, there are coping skills you can leverage to more easily navigate these difficult times.
What Are Coping Skills?
A simple definition of coping skills is actions you can take to overcome or at least lessen the severity of an emotion. Coping skills don’t fix situations, per se, but they allow you to move through the most intense part of the emotion. This can help you reach a calmer state in which you can, if necessary, make more rational decisions about how to approach the situation that may be causing the negative feeling. Long story short: They help you feel better.
Examples of Coping Skills
First of all, when it comes to coping skills, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for someone else may not work for you, and vice versa. Secondly, there aren’t really specific coping skills for anger, anxiety coping skills, depression coping skills, grief coping skills, anger management coping skills, and so forth. Because remember: All coping skills work differently for people. One that helps you address your anxiety may be what another person uses to overcome periods of extreme anger. You are your own unique person, so you have to decide which techniques work best for you in certain situations.
Additionally, it’s crucial to be able to discern between “good” (healthy) coping skills and “bad” (unhealthy) coping skills. Negative coping skills are those that may help you feel better in the short term but aren’t helpful in the long run—in fact, they could actually end up doing you more harm than good. Some examples of coping skills that are considered bad for you:
- Binge eating
- Picking fights with other people
- Negative self-talk
- “Retail therapy”
This doesn’t mean all of the coping skills activities on this list are always bad for you. Occasionally indulging in a couple glasses of wine or an ice cream sundae isn’t a “bad” thing, nor is spending a few hours at a casino with friends. It’s when you use these activities as a way to feel better about something negative you’re feeling—or to avoid the situation completely—that it can become quite problematic.
Here are some good coping skills you can add to your emotional toolbox:
1. Just Breathe
It may seem quite obvious—after all, human survival requires breathing without even thinking about it—but this is an incredibly effective coping skill. It’s not just about breathing normally, though. Rather, the focus here is deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Regaining control over your breath can soothe your nervous system and decrease your heart rate.
2. Practice Mindfulness
You may be wondering, “If I feel badly in the present moment, though, why would I want to be in tune with it?” But the truth is, our current feelings are often connected to our thoughts, and many times we’re either dwelling on something that happened in the past or worrying about something that may or may not happen in the future. Or, we’re feeling an icky emotion for unknown reasons, and we just keep thinking about how down we feel. The point of mindfulness is to pull us away from that negative thought cycle and to ground us in our surroundings, from the sounds we hear to the way something physically feels (like the hem of your shirt or the grass between your toes), to the colors you can see around you, and more.
Here’s one fairly simple mindfulness exercise you can try instead. It’s all about getting in touch with your senses and immediate environment.
- Name five things you can see.
- Imagine four things you can touch.
- Name three things you can hear.
- Think of two things you can smell.
- Name one thing you can taste.
3. Move Your Body
The benefits of exercise are pretty undeniable. Physical activity can help you release anxious energy, relieve stress, and improve your mood. Why? Well, for a couple reasons. First, it gives you something else to focus on. Sure, you may not be able to completely remove the negative emotion just by going for a quick jog, but your brain will have to devote at least some attention to coordinating your limbs and watching out for potential obstacles. But beyond that, exercising causes your brain to release some anti-anxiety chemicals, such as serotonin and endocannabinoid.
The type of physical activity you choose doesn’t matter. It could be a run, a swim, a walk, a dance party in your living room, arm circles, a few minutes of jumping jacks here and there—whatever gets your body moving.
4. Change Your Scenery
Sometimes the best thing you can do is to remove yourself from the environment you’re in, even if it’s just for a couple minutes. Perhaps you need to get away from a certain person, or the amount of noise in the office is overwhelming you. Even if you can’t put your finger on any specific trigger, moving to a new location—whether it’s a conference room down the hall or taking a walk on a trail near your house—can be a nice way to process whatever you may be feeling and hit reset.
5. Get Creative
Before you read any further, know this: You don’t have to be artistic or “a creator” in order to leverage this coping mechanism. Anyone and everyone can be creative in one way or another. For instance, you could:
- Learn spray paint art
- Knit a fleece blanket
- Take photos of plants
- Start an art journal
- … and a whole lot more!
The point is, that creativity of any skill level can not only distract you for the time being, but it can actually decrease stress, too. Plus, perhaps you end up making something really neat that you can display in your home or give away as a gift. Either way, it’s a win-win sort of thing.
6. Turn on Some Tunes
What are the songs that make you automatically smile (and maybe even bop your head)? Music preference is a very personal thing, but the tunes that almost always bring you joy have the power to help you navigate the tougher times. Another possible bonus? It’s very hard not to dance when one of your favorite songs comes on.
It’s especially important to evaluate your overall lifestyle when encountering significant stress. Engage in stress-reducing activities to help your overall approach to cope with stressors.