Hoping for Coping: What are Coping Skills?
It usually happens in the first session with a new client. At some point in exploring why they’re coming to therapy, ‘coping skills’ will come up, typically as something the client lacks, or has a desire to possess more of, or wants to effect a trade-up inÂ – “I need better coping skills.”
“Coping skills? No problem, Aisle 8, right next to the canned tomatoes…”
Coping is defined as any action we take to deal with a situation that taxes us, whether the challenge is physical, emotional, interpersonal, financial, or something else. While we all employ coping strategies, coping skills implies something more proactive and intentional.
I find it can help to further break down the discussion of coping skills into different forms of coping:
- Preventive/Anticipatory Coping. These are the actions you could take to either prevent a negative event from occurring at all (for example, leaving the cell phone at home if history has shown that calling your ex always seems like a good idea after the second cocktail), or actions you take when you foresee that a situation will be difficult (for example, taking your own dish to a barbecue if you’re concerned there won’t be anything there you’ll be comfortable eating).
- Dynamic Coping. This is the in-the-moment coping, those actions you take when you are in the midst of feeling challenged by the situation you’re in. Two of the most effective (and hardest to do) dynamic coping skills are: Â slowing down – giving your nervous system a chance to calm down and see the situation from a broader perspective – and asking for help.
- Residual Coping. This refers to how you cope after the stressor has passed.Â Are you more likely to bemoan your bad fortune and/or berate yourself for mistakes you’ve made, or can you look at setbacks as communication to be heard rather than failure to be judged – what did you learn, what can you do differently next time?
Although you can’t pick up fresh new coping skills up at the local grocers, you can start becoming more mindful of which ones you currently use to respond to stressors in your life, and see whether there are some others ways of coping that you could add into the rotation.