Coping Skill ABCs (A-I)
Updated: Aug 24, 2022
I once bought an ABC coping skill book for my daughter because I could not imagine 26 skills in one place especially sorted by letter. It is still one of my favorites and on my resources list on my website (B is for Breathe By: Dr. Melissa Munro Boyd), but I wanted to do a similar list aimed more at adults and teens while challenging myself. I also wanted to provide some explanation for each skill or expand it for how to start practicing each one. If you think of a better one for the letter leave it in the comments.
These are also my personal heavy hitters that I think everyone should know. I use these 26 in my office constantly. Most have some level of research or theory behind them. My hope is to bring you something academic in an accessible style that teaches you something.
A is for art
Art is an amazing coping skill. There are whole graduate level degrees dedicated to taking the process of making art and doing it intentionally for therapeutic value. The key to making art as a coping skill is not placing value on how the art turns out. The making is the therapeutic piece, so giving yourself permission to explore different mediums at your own pace and giving an intentional word or processing a specific emotion can be helpful in guiding this process.
Many of the creative mediums from woodworking to pottery to drawing to watercolor to scrapbooking to knitting hold great therapeutic value. Creating an art journal can be a great way to explore the kinds of mediums you like and see what it gives you. I would also include the use of music, playing an instrument, looking at art, and dance. Creating a dance to a moving song to express what is going on with you emotionally, connecting to a beautiful dance, or engaging in dance as movement as expression can provide a catharsis and help process difficult concepts like loneliness or grief.
Honorable mention for A is for authenticity. Trying to fit in is such a shame-based action that drives disconnection that tuning into who you are, developing a self, and honoring your own needs while discovering your own preferences is a shortcut to coping with life. It's easier to be yourself than pretending to be someone else even if the risk is rejection. It opens you up to real love and intimacy that can lead to thriving emotionally and finding a meaningful career path.
B is for breathing
Deep breathing is a grounding skill. There are tons of breathing exercises available. My favorite to teach is box breathing.
Breathe in counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.
Hold your breath for 4 seconds. Try to avoid inhaling or exhaling for 4 seconds.
Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.
Keep going until you feel ready to end the activity
Honorable mention for B is for setting boundaries. Resentment and a whole host of other problems arise from not being aware of the boundaries you need to set for yourself. Remember a real boundary is for you alone and is fully within your control. It is never meant to change another person's behavior or thoughts. It is about finding what you need and meeting that need. It is a response to others, but you can only care for your side of the street. For example, you can not control whether another person yells at you, but you can say that if you are yelled at you will hang up the phone, leave the room, or choose not to drive with that person. You can and should also make requests of others, and whether that person honors the request can give you clarity on the intimacy you would like in that relationship. For example, you might say, "It is really important to me to have productive conflict, so please don't yell at me when we are fighting. I feel unsafe and out of control when there is yelling. Are you willing to do that?" If the answer is no, you may need to negotiate a solution that meets both your needs or re-evaluate the closeness you have with that person.
C is for connection.
Social support is integral to any set of coping strategies. It is important to make a list of people who you could call no matter what. Not everyone deserves your vulnerability, so it's okay to be choosy. You should be able to talk about what is going on with you with someone. This could be friends, family, a counselor, or even people that are a part of a shared group. If you are lonely finding a hobby or interest you already have and then joining a group in that theme can help you begin to build a support network. Healthy relationships have mutuality which means the levels of giving are similar. They also follow the common pattern of trust, vulnerability, trust, and build in intimacy slowly over time. If the relationship begins with extreme devotion or there is no real effort on the other person's part it may not be healthy. There are seasonal exceptions to this. If someone is in a difficult season they may show up for you as their emotional capacity returns to normal. Pacing also matters as people have different social thresholds. If you notice that you can't have an open conversation about someone's actions that are bothering you that may not be a healthy connection.
This could also look like writing letters, video calls, texting, calling, or communicating on other forms of social media. You could join a support group, a counseling group, or engage in something like AA or Al-Anon and get a sponsor. You might seek out a spiritual small group or join a group based on common interests like running or tennis.
D is for Distress Tolerance
This DBT set of skills helps people survive immediate emotional crises without making them worse. Crisis work is often about stabilization, and it is powerful if you have the tools to manage your own crises. This is important because our interpretation of the events that happen to us varies. One person may truly feel in crisis over something someone else views as a setback or an inconvenience. We have different thresholds.
This is absolutely a cheat because, within DBT, distress tolerance isn't just one skill. It is an entire module. This includes a few different acronyms teaching things like progressive muscle relaxation, distraction activities to decrease the emotional charge, shifting the focus to others by contributing to a bigger cause, using pro and con lists, and radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is about accepting the reality of the situation without trying to change it. It is the "it is what it is" mindset.
There are many more skills, and though this list will review some of them DBT is a great formalized way to get many coping skills at once. Many practices offer DBT groups.
E is for exercise
Exercise and movement in general is one the easiest ways to hack your brain. For men, this is the coping skill (anecdotally) that makes the biggest and quickest difference. Intense exercise is also one of the distress tolerance skills referred to above used to combat overwhelm. Cardio is a great way to work out anger and anxiety while exercise itself over time can help manage sadness. Exercise can provide a safe emotional catharsis for emotions like anger through kickboxing or swimming which mimics the hitting movement. It can provide relief from the fight or flight piece of your brain by allowing yourself to run. From the "hot girl walk" to dancing to express emotion movement doesn't have to be miserable. It can be practical or calming.
Photo Credit: Loom
F is for feeling your feelings
Feeling your feelings without intellectualizing them, numbing, trying to get out of them, or expanding them can be very challenging and extremely helpful. Feelings don't go away if you bottle them up, or push them down. It's powerful to acknowledge what is coming up for you and process it with self-compassion because we can move through that feeling. That all starts with accepting you feel how you do. All feelings are valid. We feel what we feel even if it is "wrong" to feel that way. That doesn't make them facts or true or even a larger indicator that the most intense thing you feel is how you must truly feel when you are calm.
One of the reasons I recommend mindfulness is ultimately it provides a transferable skill set for feeling your feelings.
First, observe your feeling. Give it a name. If this is hard you may need to work on feeling identification. It's okay to look at a chart like the one above. Start with the big categories like sad or mad or afraid, but then try to give it more color. Then allow the feeling to exist without rationalization or judgment. Notice how it feels in your body and any sensations that arise. Give it compassion. Acknowledge that it is there and that it can take the time it needs. There is no rush. Try to empathize. Watch it rise and fall. There is no need to find a solution for it. Only sit with it and attempt to breathe through the feeling. Bring your attention back to the feeling if your brain attempts to create a story for why it's okay for you to feel that way or escape the feeling. It's normal for your brain to wander.
G is for grounding exercises
Grounding is about bringing yourself back to the present moment. This is especially useful during intrusive thoughts, feeling unreal or that everything else isn’t real, grief, a thought spiral, a trigger, a rumination cycle, dissociation, or the beginning of panic. It’s finding the rope and following it all the way back to yourself. It’s like reeling yourself back in.
The easiest way to ground is by using the senses. This can even include temperature and internal sensation. Almost everything in my office is designed to ground. I have different textures, materials, and weights across the office for touch. I have smells through aromatherapy with essential oils and tastes through chocolates, coffee, mints, and tea. I have sound machines playing white noise and art of varying heights on the walls. We can also ground through our hobbies like playing music, gardening, baking, or cooking. Even routines like drinking hot coffee out of a heavy mug engage the senses through temperature, touch through the weight of the mug, and taste of the coffee.
My favorite grounding technique is: 5,4,3,2,1, but this one may not work for you. Many people use grounding involving counting, temperature, or focus on a specific sense. 5,4,3,2,1 is a good start because it uses all of them. If you find a sense works more for you, you could even add to 5,4,3,2,1
Name 5 things you can see
Name 4 things you can feel (physically - touch)
Name 3 things you can hear
Name 2 things you can smell
Name 1 thing you can taste
Tips: When you are doing this activity the lack of sensing something counts and so do internal sensations. You may smell nothing. That is the smell. You may taste what is currently in your mouth. Also, this activity is about focusing on that sense, so you want to pick something you did not notice until this moment. When I model this in my office I often name things like a box being crooked or a mug hanging weird because I didn't notice before I tuned in.
If you like the sense of sight then I would encourage you to try this activity. Pick any color or any shade of color, and go on a color hunt where you attempt to find every item that color in every space you are in or by taking a walk and actively trying to find that color. This can be over minutes, hours, or days depending on what you need.
Count the ridges
Some people like counting to ground. The idea with this is to lose track of the counting. Some people count floor tiles, ceiling tiles, divots, or the points on specific patterns. You can skip count by 2s, or 6s. You can start at a very high number and count backward.
This specific activity is about selecting a coin like a quarter and counting the ridges on the side of the quarter until you feel calm.
Honorable mention is G is for gratitude. I use grounding techniques so often in my practice and believe in them so heavily that I could not make a list without including them, but a short second is adding a gratitude practice into your life. Depression, for example, is often driven by negative predictions and a strong focus on the negative aspects of life applied directly to the self, so a practice of purposefully acknowledging the good can help slowly shift to a more contented place. Expressing gratitude can make us feel more connected and help with ruminations and lower stress. It can help you truly savor everyday moments. Gratitude isn't really about manners. It is a state of mind. Adding a gratitude practice might be thinking of three things you are grateful for as you brush your teeth in the morning, writing a thank you note or text to someone every week expressing gratitude, taking a mental picture of a moment you are content in, keeping a gratitude tree or jar, or keeping a gratitude journal where you acknowledge and write about one thing every few days that you are truly grateful for in this particular week. You could do this as a family at mealtime by telling each other about the best and worst moments in your day.
H is for humor
Have you ever heard laughter is the best medicine? At some level that can be true. Sometimes using humor can help us find the silly, absurd, ridiculous, or relatable in our own painful stories and fears without denying their existence or minimizing the true darkness. Resisting the millennial urge to make a Harry Potter reference. IYKYK.This is extremely valuable. Acknowledging something is truly negative without totally caving to the negativity is tricky. Using humor can make you feel less alone, cope with uncertainty, and help you receive empathy by someone agreeing, "me too" or "been there." It can cut uncomfortable tension and make big issues more approachable.
Of course, we can end up at humor as a defense mechanism, laughing at other people's expense, or using it as a way to avoid how we feel. At the same time, a real barrier to facing emotions is how hard they can be. Laughing through it can help modulate the feeling and keep us in it while allowing us to come up for air and problem solve. It is a valid strategy for managing stressful and depressing situations without going full nihilist.
I is for ice
Ice is one of my favorite quick and easy tricks for helping regulate people. This brings people back to the present moment extremely quickly while tricking the brain. While focusing on the cold temperature can distract the brain from other uncomfortable sensations like the beginning of a panic attack. In a similar way, we can use ice as an opposite sensation. When people are embarrassed or panicked they often feel hot. Cooling down quickly can help the brain re-regulate the body.
I often recommend holding an ice cube or placing an ice pack on your neck and chest.