Top 10 Coping Skills

What are some of the best coping skills out there? How they work depends on the individual, but it is possible to list some coping techniques that are helpful for most.

As with anything, there are assumed rules when taking about coping skills.  Some of the coping techniques listed below, may be triggers or unsafe activities for individuals. For example, if you have a tendency to self injure you probably shouldn’t attempt an activity involving scissors or other sharp objects.  If you are a compulsive exerciser then going out for run is not a good idea.  As a rule, everyone should take care not to overdo, wear appropriate gear (comfortable walking shoes, bicycle helmet), and not use this as permission to engage in compulsive or disordered behavior!

1. Deep Breathing

Often when faced with a stressful situation or feeling, our breathing changes. Sometimes we stop breathing altogether, actually holding our breathe just trying to “get through it”.   In actually this makes the stressful experience more difficult.  When you hold your breath, things can become more physically painful and additional adrenaline is released actually causing stress levels to rise.  Holding your breath actually results in you being less able to tolerate the stressful situation or feeling.

Taking slow deep breaths helps you remain in control and get through the stress more efficiently. Try deep breathing with another skill listed below and see how well you cope.  There are many different breathing techniques – and you’ll have to find the right one for you – I like to suggest that clients young and pretend they are blowing soap bubbles (if you’re inclined you can practice with real bubbles).   Tip: take a breath in through your nose, hold it for a moment, and slowly exhale slowly through your mouth.

2. Writing

Writing can be an effective means of working through stress. Writing can provide a means of expressing troubling thoughts, as well as gaining a better understanding of what is bothering you.  Since keeping stressful thoughts and feelings in often causes them to grow, it is important to give your thoughts and feelings a voice – especially when your feelings are raw. Writing your thoughts and feelings allows you express freely without worry about what others will think or how they will react.

To get the most out of this exercise, try letting the words just come – don’t focus on coherency, spelling, or neatness, instead just try vomiting the words onto the paper. Write until you feel done.

3. Physical Activity

It doesn’t have to be much, even just a brisk walk for 15 – 20 minutes can help lessen stress reactions and promote a general feeling of a well-being.  Physical activity cause endorphins to be released, which are the body’s feel-good hormones. Regular exercise can also improve your body’s ability to handle stress in general. It is important not to overdo, wear appropriate gear (comfortable walking shoes, bicycle helmet), and not use this as permission to engage in compulsive or disordered behavior!

Try walking around a new area while listening to your favorite music. It can physically take you away from the stress and perhaps give you a new perspective in the end.

4. Self-Talk

So often, if we really listen to ourselves, we are telling ourselves negative things: “she doesn’t like me”, “I’m going to screw this up”, “he’s funnier than I am”.  Before you know it, all you’re hearing are negative thoughts whispered in your own voice.  This is called negative self-talk, and it is going to have a negative impact on you in most aspects of your life.  It becomes really difficult to turn the negative tape off.

Using [b]positive self-talk[/b], you can start to hear words of encouragement and support – whispered to you in your own voice. You will be surprised at how different that feels!  Using positive self-talk consistently over a period of time also serves to rewrite the tapes.  Try this with deep breathing and see how much better you feel.

5. Art

Creative endeavors are a known means of self-expression. Some do not like writing, and sometimes words cannot seem to effectively express your feelings. Try abstraction or conceptualization through other artistic expressions instead.

Grab a piece of paper and some markers or crayons. Fill the page with color. It does not matter what it looks like. Just do what seems to come next. You can focus on the colors and shapes as they form.
Finger painting can be a transformative process allowing you to get fully involved with the expression through the art process.
Grab some magazines, scissors, and glue: make a collage.

When using artistic expression as a coping skill the key is not to focus on the end product, but the process of making the art.

6. Meditation

Meditation does not need to be a complex structured process that you learn from years of practice. You do not need to buy a book or watch a video, although  many like the structure of a defined process to follow.  Videos and audio recordings of mindfulness and other meditations are readily available online or through phone apps.

If you want to engage in a non-structured meditative process right now you can simply sit and shut your eyes. Think of a place that you love or a craft that you could make. Block out other thoughts by focusing on as many of details as can.  What does it feel like? How does it sound? Picture the details, the colors, the process. Focus all of your attention, blocking out any other thoughts. You may even fall asleep.   Try doing this while taking slow deep breaths and listening to your favorite relaxing music.

7. Puzzles

Work a puzzle. Word, number, and logic puzzles can be great ways to refocus from the stress.  By getting into a puzzle you get to exercise different parts of your brain.  There will not be any room for stressful thoughts.  Try a jigsaw puzzle, SuDoku, a crossword puzzle, or a brain teaser.  If you are unable to easily immerse yourself in the game, then you may need to try some other coping skills like breathing, positive-self talk, or meditation first.

Once the puzzle, or puzzles are done, you may have a whole new perspective. It is important that you choose a puzzle that you enjoy and [u]believe[/u] that you can complete.

8. Music

Listening to music is a powerful tool in coping. Music has the power to take the listener along any emotional path chosen.

Pick your music wisely. Choose music that allows you to “feel” in a safe way, but does not create additional distress. As a example, listening to cheery love songs is may not help you cope when you are already feeling sad and alone.  Some people have a playlist or artist that always makes them feel a certain way.  It is important to create a playlist or identify the perfect artist for a specific feeling before you need to use it to cope – the last thing you want to do when you’re feeling stressed is to make another decision!

As a final note: Sometimes your music should be in the background, sometimes it should fill the room. Know what works for you, and allow yourself to do it.

9. Friends

During times of stress, friends can be invaluable.  Talking with friends, of even just spending time together, can validate who you are and how you feel. They can provide a caring ear that is ready and willing to listen and support you.

Be aware of who your real friends are. Some people you count as a friends, may not actually be your friend in the sense of being there and wanting you to feel the best about you.  When you are around them, do you tend to feel put on the spot or defensive?  If so that may not be the best choice of person to turn to when you’re trying to cope with a difficult time.  Surround yourself with caring supportive people who are quick to jump to your defense and want to protect you from hurt – not people who put you on the spot or feel defensive.

10. Pets

Animals can be wonderful calming beings in your life. It does not matter what the animal is as long as you care about them and enjoy them.  A recent study (no surprise to pet owners) found that having a dog increases heart health and reduces stress – not to mention how much more fun walks can be!

Take your dog out for a walk.  Pet your cat and listen to the purr.  Watch your fish, see the smooth glide through the water. Even snakes and rodents can have calm soothing interaction with their owners.

If you don’t have a pet, borrow a friend’s. You can volunteer at a local shelter to spend time with the animals waiting to be adopted, which means having a pass to go and play with the cats or dogs as often as you wish.   If all else fails, go on a walk and watch the animals and maybe you’ll find a dog or two to interact with.


Therapy from PeoplePsych

If you find that you are having trouble coping with something in your life, meeting with a therapist can help.  The therapists at Chicago-based PeoplePsych will help you take the important steps to improve your coping skills. For more information about how we can effectively help you cope with life stressors, please contact PeoplePsych today at or (312) 448-7218.


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