Coping Strategies

Most people will agree that life is lived at a much faster pace than it was fifty, or thirty, or even twenty years ago. More people suffer self expectations of perfectionism than ever before, which is due mostly to attempting to avoid the negative results and social sanctions of making mistakes. All this activity and perfectionism just makes us even more stressed and anxious than ever before. What do we do with this stress and anxiety? We attempt to cope…by utilizing our coping mechanisms and coping strategies.

Coping strategies can be positive or negative; we all employ some of both. The challenge is to develop and utilize positive coping strategies and to learn to avoid the negative ones. My theory is that our adult, present day self is the functional, mature, worldly and experienced version of ourselves. When we are functioning well, that’s us in our current form, utilizing our positive coping mechanisms to deal with whatever is coming at us. When we function poorly, I believe it’s because we are currently mentally and/or emotionally unable to cope. This is when some younger version of ourselves comes out to cope for us (an inner child, for lack of better expression).

I will use myself for an example. Imagine that I’ve had a tough week. Everything that could possibly go wrong has done so, and with each new challenge I become less and less able to step up and deal with life like an adult. It’s tax time, and I am not a numbers person. Imagine my wonderful husband is preparing my business taxes and he has some understandable questions about a couple of my accounting choices from the past year. Not only am I stressed, but having to deal with math and figures just gets on my very thin last nerve.

Now, when I was 15 my coping styles were like many 15-year-olds. When pushed into a corner (asked about math and unable to answer) I would scream and yell. So in this present moment, feeling (inaccurately) criticized by my husband’s questions, unable to function as an adult, my 15-year-old self decides she can take care of this situation for me. So she comes out and screams and yells. Not really productive, but I imagine that many readers can relate.

So how do I avoid letting some younger version of myself cope in unproductive (and embarrassing) ways, and possibly starting a fight with my hard working husband? The truth is not overly popular, because it takes self awareness and hard work on my part, and it takes time. That said, it is quite doable and it works.

Beginning at the point when my husband asks me the first question, I can probably identify my body telling me that I’m getting stressed and/or anxious. In this moment I can choose from a couple of choices. I can ask him to schedule another time to talk about this, and take that time to prepare myself emotionally, or I can tell him “I’ll be with you in a minute,” and do some emotional groundwork. In preparation, I need to validate all of the negative thoughts and feelings that arise at the thought of having this (annual) discussion. This means to acknowledge these thoughts and feelings, utilizing mindfulness, in a nonjudgmental way—they are neither good nor bad, not right or wrong—they are simply my present thoughts and feelings, and I deserve to have them validated by “listening” to them. By telling myself to stop feeling this way, I am just pushing those feelings down and they might come out sideways later. When I am completely finished, I have exhausted the entire list of feelings and thoughts on the subject, then it’s time for some realistic yet positive self talk. This is the time when I might remind myself that I did get A’s & B’s in college math. I can tell myself that my husband will talk me through it and he will do the lion’s portion of the work…etc. This positive self talk has the function of calming my concerns, as well as setting me up for success. Everything I think, say, and do in life, sends new neurons in my brain to connections with other neurons which correspond to those thoughts, speech, and actions. So if I tell myself it will be fine, I’m making neural pathways in my brain that also “tell” me that it will be fine. Those “it will be fine” neural pathways then urge me on to act as if, and to believe it truly will be fine.

This process can be used with any situation in which we have to cope. We can do it in this more lengthy version, and we can do it in smaller, five-second versions. I suggest you do both…mix it up a bit. We don’t have to wait for things to go wrong or stress us out before we use this process, either. When we have 15 minutes of free time we can sit comfortably, close our eyes and relax, take a couple of deep, diaphragmatic breaths (to the very bottom of our belly) letting it out slowly. Then think about an area in which you would like to cope better. Go through the list of arguments…validate all the negative thoughts and feelings contrary to success, and remember to be mindful about it (nonjudgmental). Then switch over to the positive self talk. Add a component of visualizing as much of this positive self talk as possible. It will add strength to those neural pathways you’re growing and developing.

When you’re going through your busy day, as problems crop up, try just taking three minutes to take a deep breath and relax. Group all of your argumentative thoughts into one bunch and validate them non-judgmentally. Then try to imagine all the positive self talk into one “feeling,” and feel it. Soak it in and feel it for a minute or two. See if you can move more calmly into your challenge. And keep working at this throughout your life. Over time you will get better and better at the three-minute version. It’s like a flabby muscle—it gets firmer with exercise, and you will get better and better at this with practice. With a life practice of mindfulness, validating the negative followed by more realistic yet positive self talk, you will find yourself coping much better. Working on being a bit less perfectionistic won’t hurt, either.

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