Carolyn Cruse, MSW, LCSW
I talk regularly with clients about strategies that they’ve developed to help themselves cope with challenging internal experiences–often associated with strong emotions or stressful situations. Throughout our lives we find, build, and add on to skills that help us move through these strong feelings and experiences. Trauma, by definition, involves having our usual means of coping overwhelmed, and it can extend us far beyond the resources that we have available to deal with our experiences. Finding new ways of coping, and/or reconnecting with and updating familiar ones, can help us to gain valuable information from our feelings without being totally overwhelmed.
The language around coping strategies can be pretty moralistic. I find that words like “bad,” “unhealthy,” and “maladaptive,” tend to keep us from seeing the full picture of our methods of coping and then learning more about what those particular behaviors are giving us. The ways that we cope can harm us in some ways, but we wouldn’t be doing them if they didn’t help us in others.
Getting curious about the coping skills we use and the reasons we opt for them can help us identify and update the ones that might be costing us more than they benefit us. To help figure out the role that a coping technique is filling, I find it helpful to think of them as generally serving three purposes:
Helping us distract ourselves Sometimes we’re not in a place, either emotionally or physically, where we feel able to process or experience a strong emotion the way we’d like. We might be flooded and overwhelmed already, or we might be parenting, taking a test, or interacting with a customer at work. We might just not have the bandwidth at the time to sit with our feelings. In situations like this, being able to distract ourselves gives us time to come back down to baseline so that we can return to that feeling in a more stable headspace later. While these techniques don’t resolve or attend directly to the emotion at hand, they’re effective at buying us some time so that we can feel more resourced if we do choose to return to that feeling. I often hear people talk a little guiltily about distracting themselves when they’re stressed or feeling an intense emotion. It has a bit of a bad reputation, but again, it serves an important purpose. I find that it starts to get in the way when it’s the only way of coping that someone is used to having. Some things that often fall into this category include watching TV, playing a video game or phone game, scrolling through social media, cleaning, substance use, focusing on work, etc.
Helping us process our feelings By “processing feelings,” I essentially mean an act of thinking about, analyzing, or contextualizing a feeling. It’s the ways in which we make connections between our current and past experiences and gather information from our emotions. Feelings always carry information and getting familiar with processing these emotional experiences can help us get new information (or remind us of old information) about ourselves, our surroundings, and our relationships. Processing also often involves looking at the thoughts and behaviors that are associated with particular feelings. There’s a tendency to conflate our thoughts with our feelings, which can make it really challenging to consider the idea of sitting with those thoughts. For example, if someone is feeling depressed or lonely, they might have the thought, “Nobody likes me.” Sitting with that thought doesn’t seem appealing, especially if it keeps seeming accurate. Separating these things out (“I’m feeling lonely and sad, and I’m thinking that nobody likes me”) might not seem like a big change, but it can help us keep perspective and explore other possible thoughts and ideas. Things that can fall in this category include talking to a friend or loved one, going to therapy, making art, journaling, talking out loud to yourself, posting on a support forum, songwriting, etc.
Helping us feel our feelings Here’s the tricky one. Finding ways to experience strong feelings without being overwhelmed, flooded, or completely shut down is not an easy thing to do. Things that fall into this category help us to soothe ourselves so that we can “sit with” these emotions in a safer and more grounded way. I also think of it as including things that help us access emotions in new ways. I’ve heard peopletalk about listening to certain songs or watching certain movies when they’re wanting more access to their sadness or grief. Letting ourselves feel our feelings helps us move through them at their own pace, rather than either suppressing them or fueling them. Again, not an easy thing to do, and certainly not something that is often done perfectly. All means of coping are resources that are more or less available to us at a given time. Some things that can help us feel our feelings include settling into a comfortable and private space, deep breathing, meditating, moving our bodies, putting on some favorite music, etc.
There can be quite a bit of overlap among these three categories, but I find that most people feel most confident in their distracting abilities and have the hardest time with feeling their feelings. I think of these categories as the legs of a stool–we can run into trouble when the stool is missing a leg or when one or two of them are much longer than the others. But each category is important and there’s no moral value attached to which area of coping a person chooses or has access to at a given time.
“Choice” is an important word here. Thinking about how we cope can cue us in to the fact that we tend to lean heavily on just one category, for example, or that we’re using techniques that hurt us or others. Thinking about and then choosing how we cope, rather than defaulting to one category, can signal safety to our bodies and can help us attend to our emotions in new ways.