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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Barrett

Coping skills ABCS (J-Q)

Updated: Feb 25

In doing my coping skill series of blog posts I realized, that a majority of you are probably looking for a coping skill list. I think lists can be helpful, but all of these skills need context. If you want more I've written other blog posts on coping skills that might be helpful, and I plan to continue after I finish these lists. I would also add that coping skills and self-care are related. Self-care is about learning to meet your needs and taking responsibility for caring for your full self, including coping with stressors. Going back to those self-care blogs is another way to learn more ways to cope.

Some of the skills might seem straightforward, but it is usually not a true lack of knowledge stopping us from using the skill. It is our resistance. Becoming mindful of your barriers can help you truly find your way toward coping with your life healthily.

J is for journaling

I know...I know....journaling?? Am I even a counselor if I leave this one out?

Sometimes people say it all the time because it's true. An easy way to process your feelings IS... journaling. There are whole courses on how to journal. I like Brené Brown's model from her book Rising Strong using the SFD or the (Sh***y/Sucky First Draft) and stream of consciousness. In stream of consciousness, you do not censor. You simply let every thought you have flow out of you onto the paper without worrying about how it looks or readability. In the SFD you allow yourself to delve deeply into the story you are telling yourself without censoring yourself. You don't make it prettier or neater emotionally by subtly changing the language to placate an imaginary observer or attempt to speak from the mature side of you. You let yourself truly all hang out.

With that remember every thought you have is NOT true. It is an indicator light and a way for you to find what you truly think. These are your rawest, pettiest, angriest thoughts. No one should read them, and you should not read someone else's journal. This exercise has to be private to work. If you are going to violate that privacy for anyone there needs to be a major safety concern - like the person you love being abused or being in imminent danger of hurting themselves or hurting someone else.

Once you have a true SFD, you can go back with a wiser eye spotting thinking errors (Aaron Beck) like black and white thinking or catastrophizing. Bring compassion, validation for the emotions, and a more discerning eye.

You can journal about your day, a specific moment, a topic like forgiveness, a negative time in your life, or something related to the future like the first day of school. You can also become even more creative with this modality creating pro/con lists, using different pen colors, or bullet journaling.

One of the reasons I included journaling in my top coping skills is that there are so many alternatives to standard pen and paper journaling.

Verbal Journaling:

If you need to process out loud to make sense of your thoughts I recommend going into your room or a car and making a voice note on your phone as you "journal" your thoughts. Depending on your memory you could also just intentionally talk out loud so you can get the thoughts out, and write down what sticks out.

Visual Journaling:

An art journal through an altered book or sketch pad can be an alternative to a typical journal. It can give you the freedom to collage specific incidents and visualize them. This could be done through a metaphor or story format.

Another satisfying visual journal that is more kinesthetic is Sandtray. This is a modality where you select specific miniature figures to place in the sand to help access how your right brain conceptualizes specific events. If you are using this modality at home to process you could use your child's sandbox, kinetic sand in a tub, or a sensory tub. If this sounds interesting you could also find a therapist that specializes in sandtray and explore it there with a facilitator.

K is for seeking out more Knowledge

One of my top self-care categories is mental self-care. Stretching and growing our brains is essential for long-term health, so even after graduating from school, it is important to prioritize continual learning.

Beyond the facet of mental self-care, when facing a major stressor you can bet that someone has faced that same struggle before. For that reason, there are probably several books that discuss that topic specifically in detail. These could be personal journeys or research-based that offer guidance on how to deal with the pain you might be in. It could be a blog, a TikTok, a podcast, a peer-reviewed article, or a book. For those who are willing, I often recommend a specific book or two to help facilitate that growth journey. The truth is by seeking this information out on your own you may be able to become an expert on the thing that matters to you. You know you the best, and you can find resources to help you through it.

L is for Listen

Lots of issues can be solved by slowing down long enough to listen. There are several types of listening and they serve different purposes. You could listen to music or listen to a podcast to lift your mood.

Listening to a spouse or partner can start to heal a romantic relationship. Listening to your child may help you start to truly understand where all the behaviors are coming from. Listening to friends, difficult feedback at jobs, and patterns in your life that seem to repeat over and over can help you identify and fix the things that are causing you the most pain.

Not everyone deserves your attention. It is important to determine who you let speak into your life, and the types of feedback you allow. Global sweeping generalizations, name-calling, and shame aren't welcome, but accepting influence from those in your inner circle using your values and your gut to help guide you can be invaluable. You can't skip this step. This is truly turning off the distractions and trying to tune in to what is really going on rather than sweeping these things under the rug or avoiding them. It takes intention to do this.

The other and arguably more important version of listening is learning to listen to yourself. Listening to your own body and honoring it by tuning into your emotions and sensations without judgment or expansion can help you come to self-awareness and understand how to de-escalate faster.

I often describe trying to turn on your alarm bells. There are lots of situations in which people learn to gaslight themselves by minimizing how a sensation makes them feel or how bad something is. This is absolutely a survival tactic and not something to be ashamed of.

In these times people take their reality and the body's natural reaction and tell themselves they must be in the wrong. People say to themselves: "The bad thing happening must actually be good or at very least not THAT bad." The difference I see in people who stay in unhealthy environments longer is how well their alarm bells work which is often related to some event or someone helping turn off those alarm bells. Just like a fire alarm, those alarm bells are there for a reason. We need them. When someone has turned theirs off they learn to ignore the early cues, so they don't notice until the walls are on fire and they are going to get hurt to get out. By learning to listen to this sensation and turn on your alarm bells it's possible to notice a red flag and get out while there is hardly any smoke.

Typically people's alarm bells are deep in their gut below your belly button. My ethics professor in graduate school called it our "ethical ferret." This described a physical sense of discomfort. Often our body can know something is off before our brain does.

M is for Meditate

Is this a counselor parody? Do you know how many genuinely wonderful therapists I know who say to meditate, but don't do it themselves? It's one of those skills that seems intimidating and out there. Often people have this idea that they can be bad at it, which is at least partially the point.

Ok, but what is meditation??? According to Google: Meditation is a practice in which an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – to train attention and awareness. Beyond that, there are different types of meditation. You can practice spiritual meditation, mindfulness meditation, movement meditation, mantra meditation, transcendental meditation, sleep stories, progressive relaxation, body scan, breath awareness, guided imagery, loving-kindness meditation, safe place, and visualization meditation.

Luckily there are plenty of accessible ways to meditate. As far as apps, I like Insight Timer (free), Calm App (mostly paid), and Headspace (mostly paid). I also like: Live Awake by Sarah Blondin which is a free podcast of self-compassion meditations. YouTube is a great place to find free guided imagery, and one of my go-to meditations is Daniel Siegel's Wheel of Awareness which is available on his website for free or on YouTube or his website. This one has research behind it.

N is for Nature

One of my tried and true coping skills is finding a way to get into nature. It is the most continuously emotionally regulating skill and is on my heavy hitter list for ongoing brain level dysregulation and high cortisol like in grief or trauma. Regulation does not mean having fun or even happiness. It is taking your brain from chronic fight, flight, fawn, or freeze to a state of internal stability or calm that re-engages your frontal lobe. Sometimes a catharsis might have to occur to get into the frontal lobe like crying on a hiking trail.

Getting into nature could be going to a lake, getting an Air BnB outside the city and sitting on the porch, visiting a state park, driving to lookout points, horseback riding, birdwatching, going camping, hunting, golf, fishing, rock climbing, surfing, gardening, bouldering, boating, leaf peeping, skiing, kayaking, or hiking. If you are neurodivergent and notice a dopamine dip this could be your long-term solution for introducing healthy amounts of dopamine to re-regulate your brain. For this type, I recommend prioritizing getting into nature at least once a quarter.

When our brains are stuck in our fight, flight, freeze response this is typically accompanied by adrenaline and cortisol being released in our body to help avoid the incoming threat. Our brain narrows the focus to the threat, so one way to combat that is purposely widening our physical view by looking at a sunrise, sunset, ocean, lake, or the stars. This can remind our brain we are physically safe. Birds chirping provides a similar sensation. Try listening for them the next time you are out.

O is for Observation

Self-awareness is key to self-growth. To be honest I almost always start here in counseling. If we don't recognize a pattern we can't address it. Often when we are stuck I recommend becoming an observer of the situation, of your feelings, of your moods, your cognitive distortions, your family, or your relationship.

Taking time to observe and collect data allows you to think about the issue rather than react. Write some notes down. Remember the goal is not to impact the situation but to observe the interaction neutrally. Try to capture what a video camera might record. If you are observing your thoughts notice how you talk to yourself. What kinds of things do you say when you are mad or stressed or when you have a bad day?

Honorable mention: O is for Organize or clean up

When you are feeling anxious a great way to drop that anxiety is to control something within your control like the physical environment.

People are impacted negatively by visual clutter, so a quick way to reduce decision fatigue and reduce anxiety is to get rid of stuff or to clean what you already have. We can make this compulsive if it becomes so rigid that you HAVE to do it a certain way. However, this can be an effective coping skill when life is chaotic. This can also apply to your clothes, a capsule wardrobe, or organizing other pieces of your life like your schedule. Remember you only need coping skills when you need to cope with something, so if you buy a planner and then eventually drop the practice that is okay.

P is for Practicing something new

Self-care has to evolve with the seasons of your life, and what has always worked for you may one day not meet the particular need at the moment. You may have spent your whole life creating peace in your routines and suddenly find that need met, at least momentarily. Instead, you may need skills to add more excitement or combat sadness in your life rather than just peace. Your skills may also be overwhelmed by a particular life event like losing a parent, adding a child to your family, a new stressful job, or a global pandemic.

In these situations, we need to be able to practice something new with the knowledge that we can not be good at the new skill overnight. This also helps challenge the perfectionism armor that only allows us to pick up new skills that we already have some talent in.

Picking up a new skill like baking, drawing, gardening, dancing, painting, a language, or an instrument can help us pick up new thought skills along with keeping our brains growing. These might sound like "If I keep going, one day I will be good at this even if my improvement is slow," "This doesn't have to (look/taste/sound) right today because I am learning." It gives us the opportunity in a safe environment to fail, improve self-talk, add self-care or new hobbies to our lives, invite different connections, and strengthen our resilience.

Honorable mention: P is for Pets

We gain so much emotional support from building a relationship with an animal that it seems important to add this one in. Pets are a great way to add love, connection, and empathy to your life.

Q is for Quiet

I have never believed in quiet as an emotionally regulating coping skill more than when I became a parent. Infants are LOUD. I probably could have used this one in college too.

Being able to get away from overstimulating environments like a fight with a partner for short periods can mean the difference between melting down and getting in your amygdala or being the kind of person that you want to be within that discussion.

If you notice you are overstimulated try going to your car or another room to collect your thoughts in silence for a few minutes.

Quiet could be the reset you need before heading to a hectic work environment or family life. It can also help you center yourself before thinking about values or beginning spiritual or self-growth work.

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