The Coping Kete

Information About Coping

Coping is anything you do to get you through the moment.  Coping is how we deal with the world and it is what we do to try to survive and improve our experiences of things. Coping is usually just ‘what we do’ automatically, without thinking. Yeah, sure there is meditation and all that, but we are also coping when we tell ourselves ‘I can get through this, it might not be so bad…‘ or tell someone else we are having a bad day. Coping is a series of small acts that when combined have a powerful effect on our mental health. Coping itself may involve simple acts, but anyone who has tried will know that trying to change the way we cope is not at all as simple as it may first seem. 

Helpful vs Unhelpful Coping

Some coping strategies like self-harm and getting drunk have negative physical effects that set us up for more negative emotions and unhelpful thoughts later.  Other coping strategies have negative effects when they are used too often or inflexibly, like suppression (trying not to feel it/think it/show it) or avoidance (staying away from certain things) or withdrawal (keeping to yourself). These coping strategies are unhelpful in the long-term when they are used this way because they limit us; they stop us from learning what we can do and are capable of. They stop us from connecting with people. They stop us from learning a wide range of ways to cope. They make us closed systems. But the positive short-term pay-offs make them hard to resist during times of distress, when our fight/flight/freeze responses are in gear. 

Other coping strategies like mindful distraction, self-soothing, expression, support and engagement have positive or neutral effects on us in the long-term. These strategies help us to get through the moment and at the same time engage us with a life that allows us to flourish. Positive strategies engage our awareness and allow us to learn new and useful insights. They connect us with the people around us.  They help us to do the things we want to do. In a way, they make us open systems. An open system is much more likely to adapt and change than a closed one is.

The key to helpful coping is flexibility.  If we do anything inflexibly then chances are it will become a problem for us.  Having different tools for different moments, means we won’t need to rely on the same set of strategies over and over.  Simply knowing you’ve got the tools up your sleeve is often a big help in itself. 

We can tolerate or change our emotions using

  • Our situation
  • Our thoughts and ideas
  • Our bodies and physical responses
  • Our behaviour

We aren’t always able to change our situations, because we cannot control other people.  But when we can’t change our environment, we can change our thoughts, bodies and behavior to cope. Changing one part of the picture can change the way the whole picture feels to be in. 

There is always something that we can do. 

We often need to try a bunch of things in a row – it takes more than one strategy to get through a tough spot and things often come in waves. Luckily, there are lots of different helpful ways of coping.

Different Kinds of Coping

The Engage Model breaks coping down into four general categories: self-soothing, mindful distraction, expression and support, and engagement. Strategies often belong to more than one category.

The strategies in The Coping Kete are categorised into four broad types of positive coping:

  1. Self-Soothing
  2. Mindful Distraction
  3. Expression and Support
  4. Engagement

The flexible use of these four general kinds of coping is associated with improved mental health. No coping strategy is helpful in every situation, all the time. Each strategy in The Coping Kete will have times when they could be unhelpful or have limited use. Building a Personal Coping Kete means getting familiar with a vast range of different strategies that work for you so you have heaps of helpful tools to choose from at any given time.  

Self-Soothing

Self-soothing is comforting and being kind to yourself even when you are distressed. This is when you most need it. By engaging in self-soothing acts in response to our distress, we repair our mood for the moment and learn to value ourselves and respect our responses to things.

You can self-soothe using

  • Your thoughts (e.g., it will be okay, visualising things going well)
  • Your behaviour (e.g., having a bath; doing self-care activities)
  • Your body (e.g., breathing exercises, herbal tea, stretches, sensations)

Mindful Distraction

Mindful distraction is moving our attention away from our unhelpful thoughts/feelings and onto something neutral or pleasant. Mindful distraction helps us delay reacting until we are less distressed or able to get help. Mindfulness is the state of being fully aware of the present moment, including both our internal and external environments. It involves observing, describing and participating in the moment. We can use mindfulness to distract us from unhelpful or overwhelming thoughts or feelings. During mindful distraction, we focus our attention on the task at hand or an aspect of our environment and as our thoughts wander, we notice them and bring our minds back to the distraction task at hand.

Distract with things that trigger the opposite emotions – if you are feeling negative, do something positive. Doing positive things to distract ourselves inserts a new situation into our experience that might change the balance of our whole picture.

Practice mindful distraction using

  • Your thoughts (e.g., Observe and describe surroundings, remember something good you have done)
  • Your behaviour (e.g., gardening, housework, art, exercise, games)
  • Your body (e.g., breathing, stretching, comfort food) 

Mindful distraction is a way of coping with unhelpful thoughts and experiences, while still allowing them into our awareness.  We notice our thoughts without judgement and give ourselves something else to be aware of so we don’t get hooked into chasing the unhelpful thoughts. Over-using mindful distraction turns it into an avoidance strategy. When distress is overwhelming us, distraction helps us get some time out from the feelings to clear our heads. But we still need to deal with the thoughts and situations at some point too.

Expression and Support

Expression involves communicating our thoughts and feelings, either privately or to other people. Getting support requires to talking to other people, so these two go together in one category.

Use expression & support with:

  • Your thoughts (e.g. observing & describing to yourself, imaginary support talks)
  • Your behaviour (e.g., talking, writing, creating, asking for help)
  • Your physical responses (e.g., making eye-contact, body language, facial expressions) 

We are bound together by the struggles we share – if we never talk about or show our struggles, we never feel truly connected and accepted.  We only find out our struggles are shared, when we express them. Connection lowers our distress because it lets us know we always have back-up to help us survive.  Talking about it to someone gets us help, new ways of looking at things and comfort.  Trying to hide or not feel what we feel (suppressing it) makes us have more distressing thoughts and more intense feelings.

EngagementEngagement

Engagement is turning towards our situation and involving ourselves in it actively. Rather than ignoring it, suppressing it, avoiding it, engagement involves being aware of it and taking steps to solve problems, remove barriers, learn new skills, approach our goals and build ourselves up to cope better next time. Doing this when we are stressed or distressed, often makes us feel better in the moment. It also strengthens us for future coping. Engagement strategies are things that gets us tuned into the world.

Practice Engagement with:

  • Your thoughts (e.g., notice your thoughts, visualise achieving your goals)
  • Your behaviour (e.g., make a plan, break big problems down into smaller parts, go to therapy, join a club, invite people to things, accept invitations)
  • Your physical responses (e.g., eating nutritional food, having enough sleep)

For a printable version of this information, check out the Coping For Recovery information pack in The Community Treasure Chest