Coping. The ability to cope with the stress, demands, and discomfort of life. Building “coping skills” is a key feature of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Individuals often seek therapy because they are experiencing distress and discomfort. The focus of therapy, however, is not fix the situations causing the discomfort. Rather, therapy strengthens the individual’s ability to navigate situations while managing the discomfort.
I have worked with people who have been insistent on making the source of their discomfort go away. What they don’t understand is that, by trying to get rid of this pain, they actually are strengthening it. Why? Because each time they check to see if that niggling irritation is still there, they are paying attention to it and giving it space in their thoughts.
Here’s an exercise to help explain how this works: Imagine a penguin. This is your distress. Now, no matter what, do NOT think about that penguin. Get that penguin out of your mind. Were you able to do it? Did you stop thinking about that penguin? GAH! That penguin is back! Stop thinking about that penguin. Don’t think about it wearing a top hat. Forget about the silly tap dance it’s doing. Put that penguin out of your thoughts. You CANNOT pay attention to that penguin!
How did it go? Was your mind blank? Or did you wind up with a parade of penguins tap-dancing through your mind? The more you try to stop or control thoughts, the more prominent they become in your mind.
Instead, if you recognize that the uncomfortable thoughts are going to be present, you can choose to focus on how to support yourself for the duration of the discomfort. Allow those penguins to tap-dance themselves out and eventually they will work their way out of your thoughts on their own.
This is where coping statements come into play. What exactly is a coping statement? Let’s delve into this.
Often, people describe coping statements as things they say to themselves to help lessen the discomfort. However, this is a misconception. By lessening the discomfort with this statement, you actually are giving yourself reassurance. When you reassure yourself, you’re giving the source of the discomfort validation and recognition. This can serve to reinforce the uncomfortable thoughts and inadvertently to strengthen them. There is no crystal ball to promise that you are going to be all right. When you tell yourself this, the negative statements have an immediate rebuttal – “Oh yeah? But what if you’re not?”
Instead of lessening the discomfort of the situation, coping statements are intended to focus on your ability to manage the discomfort. “Coaching statements” may be a more accurate term. A coach doesn’t tell the team “Everything will be all right” but instead encourages them with “Use your skills!”
How can you coach yourself to manage the discomfort and to navigate your way through the distress? When generating coping statements, the focus is to be positive and to affirm yourself as a person. Keep the focus in the present moment because that is where the discomfort is happening.
“Just because I’m feeling bad doesn’t mean there’s something bad going on.” A favorite of mine! A reminder that emotional experiences aren’t always connected to the situation.
“I may have my anxiety but I am not my anxiety.” You are not defined by your experience. There is more to you as a person.
“I’ll do the best I can.” It doesn’t have to be a perfect effort, but a good enough effort.
“Whatever happens, happens.” Consider a c’est la vie approach to your life!
“What can I do about it right now?” Discomfort can be anticipating what could happen or ruminating about what has happened. Focus on the present and be in the moment.
“Discomfort is a cloud in the sky and will float on by.” Like weather, emotional states are constantly changing – the clouds and rain won’t last forever.
“I’m stronger than I think.”
“I am a capable person.”
“I am enough.” Yes, yes you are.
There is no one way to navigate a distressing experience. Coping strategies aren’t “one size fits all” after all. Test drive the different statements and customize them to suit you. You are in the process of retraining your brain and this won’t happen overnight. Positive coaching and coping statements help make this happen. With ongoing practice, those penguins’ tap-dancing will get more quiet and less frequent until they’ve shuffle-stepped their way out of your mind.