Pursue What Matters
Episode 172: 7 Coping Skills That Work
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
How are you doing? Are you coping effectively? Or are you doing things that are designed to undermine effective coping? So join me to learn more about seven coping skills that actually work.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:14
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, Welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast, where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So I have spent my life as a psychologist talking about coping skills. And it seems like no one is listening, listening. So no one wants to hear about coping skills. It’s really true. They don’t, everyone assumes that the key to greater happiness and wellbeing must be more complicated than simple coping skills. They’re looking for grand insights, major patterns, and you know, sometimes that happens, but that is not what’s going to make the difference. In greater well being, it’s really going to be around coping skills. So we tend to underestimate the power of coping skills, while engaging in activities that might actually be undermining effective coping, and then we wonder why we continue to feel lousy. So let’s not let this happen to you. So you know, occasionally I like to do some podcasts on coping skills, because they’re just that important, and we need a refresher.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:38
The other point that I want to start with is a very basic truth. And hopefully we all know this, life is hard. Life will always be challenging. It is the nature of the endeavor we are engaged in. But I think sometimes we fail to appreciate this truth that life is hard. We assume if life is hard, that we’re doing something wrong, that we’re a failure, that we’re not good enough, strong enough, smart enough, whatever. And I just want to kick that thought to the curb. Life is challenging, there will always be challenging, and I think when we can, right, I’m not trying to ruin your day with that thought or anything like that. But I think being very clear about that reality helps you to take coping more seriously. It helps you to be proactive, instead of assuming that like you’re Superman or Superwoman and, and that coping is for weak individuals, coping is for all of us.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:39
So you know, even though life is hard, it doesn’t have to undo you. And that’s where coping skills come in. They are designed to help strengthen you so that you can face the challenges of life, stressors will come and they will require you to rise to challenges and rising requires recovery. Right, you can’t keep pushing forever. You need to recover, reset, and coping skills are designed to help you recover from facing life’s challenges. And when done consistently. These skills help you increase resilience, which is awesome resilience means that you get better at facing challenges, you get better at coping with stress, and you have greater health and well being as a result. So it’s all about coping skills, I’m going to keep talking about coping skills, because they’re just that important. And so every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in one of three areas.
Dr. Melissa Smith 3:41
So first, leading with clarity connecting you to purpose, what are you doing, and why does it matter. Second, leading with curiosity, building self awareness, and self reflection, so you can lead yourself and others more effectively, and then leading and building a community. And so today, primarily, we’re really helping you lead with curiosity, by building in some commitment to coping skills, coping skills are designed to help us become more aware of our experience. Now, sometimes we don’t want to be aware because it’s distressful. Or, you know, we have some things that we need to work through. But we’re designed to be self aware. We’re designed to be able to respond to the cues that we’re getting from our mind and our body. And that’s important. It’s an important way that we keep ourselves healthy and strong in life. And so I want to start before we jump into the seven seven coping skills. I want to talk about the difference between true comfort and counterfeit comfort. So I came across this idea in some of the dare to lead curriculum from certified dare to lead facilitator and I think it’s a great way to think about coping is that you know, we want true comfort, right? Like we want to help ourselves, but sometimes the activities that we set out to do in order to help ourselves cope tend to give ourselves comfort, or actually counterfeit comfort. They’re not designed to actually help us cope more effectively. And so the problem is that too many of us are engaging in counterfeit comfort instead of true comfort.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:13
So let’s talk about the difference there. So true comfort, include coping behaviors that, you know, done in moderation, lead to feelings of contentment, relief, connection, and calm. The key word when it comes to true comfort is moderation, we’re going to have too much of a good thing. And that’s where we really look at counterfeit comfort. So these are behaviors or activities that represent too much of a good thing. Counterfeit comfort is often designed to numb our physical and emotional sensations. And we turn to numbing behaviors. When we feel overwhelmed, or emotionally upset, right, many of us were taught that, that emotions are a bad thing, or there’s something that you shouldn’t share and that you just need to like, shut it down. And that’s what happens with numbing behaviors when we just have too much of a good thing. So too much of alcohol or social media scrolling, or binge watching TV or too much food, right. So the thing about counterfeit comfort, it makes me sad, because we are setting out to try to help ourselves feel better. But these too much of a good thing activities, end up undermining our coping and leave us with heightened distress.
Dr. Melissa Smith 6:29
So we’re trying to help ourselves. But we only make it worse because these behaviors this too much of a good thing. This numbing doesn’t actually help us to work through the upset or the stress or the distressful emotions and so we have a pile up of concerns. And so right, the net result of that is that we have heightened distress, which leads us running to those numbing behaviors even more over time. So you can see it turns into a pretty vicious cycle, if you’re not careful. And so I want to share with you seven coping skills that bring true comfort, right, and remember, with true comfort, these are behaviors, activities that are done in moderation, they lead to feelings of contentment, relief, connection, and calm. And so these are seven skills that have a really strong evidence base in the research. That’s why I’m sharing these ones with you. I’m pretty sure I’ve shared these before. But they’re really important to have reminders and refreshers about these. I am a zealot about coping skills, but I forget about coping. And it’s not until like, I’m feeling pretty distressed, and I’m like, oh, yeah, I need to go to my coping skills. I’ve gotten better at just being proactive and making sure that coping skills are part of my schedule. But I think the the point is, you need to be intentional, because these won’t just happen. And it’s easy for coping skills to get pushed to the sidelines with some of the demands of life. So let’s jump in and start with our first coping skill, which is balanced movement or exercise, right. So this is physical activity, and it is what tells your brain, you have successfully survived a threat. And now your body is a safe place to live, right? Because life is challenging, there’s going to be stressors, and physical activity really helps to downshift the stress response in our body. From the Nagoski sisters, this is from the great book Burnout, which I will link to in the podcast. They said physical activity is the single most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:41
So if you think about the stress response, it is a full body response you have a huge surge of adrenaline hormones coursing through your body. And so if we’re thinking about stress, coping, and lowering that physiological response, we need a full body response. And that’s why balanced movement is the single most efficient because it harnesses the whole body. And it really helps to communicate that safety so that those stress hormones lower, so that you can move forward with with less of that stress response in place. And so the first skill is balanced movement. Now let’s head to number two, which is social connection. So we’re social animals, we are wired for connection. And it’s it’s something that we need for our health and well being so social connection, meaningful relationships is not just a bonus, it’s not just a nice thing. It is a requirement for health, happiness and well being. So I want to share a quote from the Journal of Social relationships and public health. When I came across this, it was just it really stood out to me because it’s Very significant. And that is a robust body of scientific evidence indicates that being embedded in a high quality close in high quality, close relationships, and feeling socially connected to the people in your life is associated with decreased risk for all cause mortality, as well as a range of disease morbidities. And so what does this mean? It’s pretty profound. So this means if you were to go to your medical provider for a health concern, if that medical provider is a wearer of the research, which we certainly hope they are, he or she would be just as likely to ask you about the strength of your relationships, as they would be to prescribe you a medication. So social connection is that important. And it’s not just any social connection, but these embedded in high quality, close relationships. And so a lot of those relationships happen at work, we want to make sure we’re supporting that, of course, in our families and our neighborhoods and our other communities. And so it’s it’s that important. And then now let’s head to our third coping skill, which is affection, which is also tied to social connection, but physical touch. Welcome physical touch, helps to fuel is fueled by oxytocin. So oxytocin is a stress hormone. But it is a stress hormone that helps us It heals us, it actually conveys protective benefits. So when we receive welcomed physical touch, say, a pat on the shoulder, a hug a fist bump, those things raise our oxytocin level, which convey health benefits, right. So it also helps to lower the stress response in our body. Now, if you didn’t have someone around for appropriate physical touch, you could hug yourself, you would get the same effect. And so there’s been research on that, that when even when we hug ourselves, we have an increase in the oxytocin, which helps us to cope.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:02
So affection helps us to soothe it helps us to calm down, it also validates our experiences, and it helps us to know that we are safe, it helps us to know that we are seeing. So this happened for me a while ago, I was telling a friend, you know about some difficulties that I had experienced. And she’s very wise. And she said a lot of very wise words, and it was very helpful. But when we ended that conversation, she gave me a hug. And it was so soothing. For me, it was so helpful. And as I thought about that experience was which was not too long ago, what stands out to me is the hug, right? And I know that that is affection, and action. It helps us to soothe it helps us to be seen and validated. And it’s powerful. We don’t want to underestimate the importance of that, right? There’s a reason that when kiddos get hurt, they want to go to their mom or their dad for comfort and soothing and what do we do we hug them, you know, we have them on the back, we help them to know that they’re okay. And that’s important for us to with the challenges that we’re facing. So now let’s talk about the fourth coping skill, which is laughing. So how’s that? Like we’re prescribing laughter, it is a powerful coping skill. So when we laugh together, or even reminiscing about times, you’ve laughed with others, it really increases our relationship satisfaction. So we’re not just talking about socially polite laughter, we’re talking about deep belly laughs.
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:38
So this is also from the book Burnout. And it’s quoted by Sophie Scott, who is a researcher, when we laugh, we use an ancient evolutionary system that mammals have evolved to make and maintain social bonds and regulate emotions. So think about that. When we laugh with others, whether that’s like, with a YouTube video or with a friend or family member, we strengthen social bonds, we regulate emotions, and it helps us to integrate big emotions.
Dr. Melissa Smith 14:08
So one of the things that one of my sons and I love to do is we love to read the headlines on a satire, news outlet, and that’s just kind of our thing. And we sit together, we sit side by side, and we have those deep belly laughs and it’s so great. I absolutely love it. And I would say it’s a big, it’s a big contributor to maintaining social bonds, because Riley, he’s a teenager, and I’m a mom. And so sometimes we don’t always see eye to eye. But that activity, we do it maybe once a week, a couple times a week. It’s so it’s so fun. And we just we both I think look forward to it. He might not admit that but I think he does. So that is our fourth coping skill, which is laughter. And then our fifth one is right the counterbalance to laughter which is crying so Of course, you’ve got a psychologist here, I’m going to endorse crying as beneficial, because it really is. So when it comes to dealing with stress after you’ve dealt with a stressor, so after you know, you’ve faced the challenge, crying can be so helpful. It acknowledges the challenge of the situation. It says like, yeah, that was hard. That was painful. It conveys compassion and empathy for what you’ve gone through. And it communicates like physical activity, it communicates to your body that you’re safe, like, it’s okay to lower the temperature, it’s okay to lower those stress hormones.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:35
Crying in response to the stress of a situation resulted in filling in a feeling of relief, and of a weight being lifted from your shoulders. And if you think about challenging experiences in your life, can you think of examples where crying has been helpful, where it is a relief? Boy, that is so true for me. And a lot of times, it’s crying after the fact, right? Like it’s crying, at the end of the day, when I actually have a chance to kind of take a look at the situation that’s been painful. And sometimes, right, it’s hard to look at that before because it’s still vulnerable. And you still have to be, you know, performing or engaging and that sort of thing. And so it’s, it’s not untypical for me to have some tears in bed and at night, because it’s, it’s, it’s that it’s kind of that safety valve in terms of okay, yeah, that was hard. Let’s acknowledge that. And let’s try and understand it, process it. And in those times, crying absolutely acts as a, as a relief, right as a weight being lifted from our shoulder. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that the stressor is absolutely resolved. But what happens is crying helps to strengthen our ability to cope with it, because you’ve just done something to help you cope with the stress of that stressor. Right. So crying really helps us to integrate big emotions, whether that’s fear, whether that’s hurt, whether that’s feeling abandoned, and so it’s a very important coping skill. And then the next coping skill number six, includes distress tolerance skills. So this is a collection of skills, that there’s really good research support, and has been found to be very helpful for helping us move through that stress response cycle. And to lower that physiological response. So the first one I want to talk about is paced breathing, I’m pretty geeky about paced breathing these days. It really helps to it’s it’s really around polyvagal theory, which I definitely won’t get into now. But it’s very interesting. It’s pretty geeky stuff. I love it, though.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:00
But pace breathing, so this is deep diaphragmatic breathing, that is timed, can really help lower physiological arousal, it quiets the nervous system, it like others coping skills communicates to the body that it’s okay. Because if you think about a stress response, when you’re rising to a stress response, what happens, your breathing gets shallow, it gets quicker, you have more focus. But that’s not functional long term, right? It’s functional when we are facing a challenge. But the pace breathing helps us to slow down. And so some popular forms of PACE breathing include box breathing, another name for that is square breathing, or tactical breathing. And so if you just imagine a box, along each side of the box, you take four counts. So I will just take you through this. So if you wanted to practice this, you could, on the first side of the box is a four count, inhale, on the second side of the box is a four count hold. On the third side of the box is a four count, exhale. And then on the fourth side of the box is a four count hold. So that’s one that’s there’s a lot of research from Yogi’s to tactical performers like snipers, that that can be very helpful. But you can also do something simpler, right, you could just do a four to four count inhale, and a five to six count, exhale. So if you have a longer exhale, that’s going to result in more of a relaxation response. So just keeping that in mind, but even if you just did five, count, inhale, five, count, exhale, you’d be fine. Most of our watches or our phones have apps to help with this. And if you just did a few of these paced breathing sessions, like two minutes each, a few times a day. It can really help you manage anxiety and lower that stress response. So whenever I talk to people about breathing, it’s like all Most everyone rolls their eyes whether they mean to or not. But I’m telling you, the pace breathing is incredibly helpful. So another distress tolerance skill include mindfulness activities. So meditation is a really easy one. It’s not easy, but it’s a good entry point. Because there are lots of meditation apps you do 10 minutes a day. And what happens with mindfulness activities is they’re designed to help you become a curious observer to your experience. So they bring you into awareness into the present moment, which is the same thing that paced breathing does. So it brings you into the moment, but it also brings you perspective, right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 20:36
So you’re not stuck in your head with the with the ruminations or the worry that you can be a curious observer to your experience, you can say, oh, like I’m pretty anxious right now. I wonder what that is about, you can bring in perspective to say, I know it feels really upsetting right now. But this is going to be okay. Right. So one of the things from mindfulness is this too shall pass. And that’s for good things and for bad things. So it feels like a big relief with what if we’re experiencing something that we would characterize as negative because it’s like, okay, this feeling won’t last forever, like, it’ll settle down. But it can also be helpful when we are experiencing what we would consider a positive experience or a joyful experience, this idea of this too, shall pass helps you to be fully present, it helps you to be grateful to be like, I don’t want to miss a moment of this. So I’m going to be aware, I’m going to get rid of distractions. And so mindfulness is really powerful for helping us to tolerate distress more effectively. And then the last skill with distress tolerance skills that I want to talk about today includes muscle relaxation. So you could do paced muscle relaxation. This works in a similar way to pace breathing on mindfulness activities, it’s really designed to calm the nervous system, and it kind of floods oxygen to your different muscle groups as you move through the paste muscle relaxation. And then that tends to have a calming effect. And so I think the best way to do muscle relaxation, at least to start out with is, you know, if you have an app, or a YouTube video that you could just follow along, I think that that’s a useful way to do it. To have some guided muscle relaxation, one of the apps that I have has muscle relaxation, as part of it has breathing, I do pay for that. But there is a free version where you can kind of try out some of these distress tolerance skills and see what you think. But there are also lots and lots of free options, online and on apps. So that is our sixth coping skill, which includes distress tolerance skills as a collection of skills. And then our seventh coping skill is creative expression. When I first saw this on the list, I was a little bit surprised. But then I was like, No, the more I thought about it, I’m like, No, that’s actually really, really good. And so from the Nagoski sisters, this is again, from the great book burnout. They say engaging in creative creative activities today leads to more energy, excitement and enthusiasm tomorrow, and who doesn’t want that? So why and how does this work? So if you think about sports, and if you think about the arts, they create a context that tolerates and even encourages big emotions. So think about going to a sporting event, right? Like you have people that in their regular lives are like totally buttoned up. But then you see them at a sporting event, and they’re yelling, and they’re screaming, and they’re wearing their team colors. Maybe they have a weird, maybe they have cheese on their head. And it’s like what is happening, have everyone lost their mind. And it’s like no, like, they’re in a context that tolerates and even encourages big emotions. It helps us to cope, it helps us to integrate life’s ups and downs.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:54
So if you think about the literary, Visual and Performing Arts, they give us the chance to celebrate and move through big emotions, which I just think is so cool, creative expression becomes a safe place to put what you may feel unprepared to deal with otherwise, so I do some fictional writing. And I can tell you that that is so true. For me, there are things that I will write in the safety of my manuscript, that I wouldn’t say out loud, it helps me to integrate them, it gives me time to really consider what I think about. So think about having a hobby or a passion away from work that engages your mind. I think about you know, I’m not much of a hobby gal, but I have like a couple of deep passions. And when I think about some of those passions, they are time where I can think about everything, or I can think about nothing like I can totally unplug or I can plug in to myself and I absolutely love that.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:56
So there you go. Those are our seven evidence based coping skills. So right, we’re talking about seven coping skills that bring true comfort. So again, number one is balanced movement to a social connection. Three is affection, four is laughing, or laughter five is crying. Six includes distress tolerance skills. Seven is creative expression. And so I hope this is helpful for you, I hope that you have a great coping skill game in place already. And if you don’t, I hope you will consider at least adding maybe like just one of these skills into your, into your days and your week, right? It could be some pace, breathing a couple of minutes a day, that would be awesome, that would be a great step. So don’t feel like you have to do all of these, because then you won’t do any of them. That’s how, that’s how change works. But consider maybe one thing that you heard that you’ll say that you’ll act on, right, so maybe it’s you know, I’m going to find an app that I could download for free and I’m going to try out some meditation. Your future self will thank you.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:08
So in the meantime, head on over to my website to check out the show notes. With all the great resources for this episode. You can do that at www.drmelissasmith.com/172-7copingskillsthatwork okay, we all want that. Right. So one more time. That’s www.drmelissasmith.com/172-7copingskillsthatwork So I’d love to connect with you on Instagram, I will have all of these coping skills provided on Instagram @dr.melissasmith I’d love to connect with you there. I’d love your feedback, your thoughts, any recommendations that you have for topics you’d like me to address on the podcast? I would love to hear from you. And if you wouldn’t take a if you wouldn’t mind taking a minute to review the podcast. It really provides valuable feedback for me, and it helps other people find the podcast so hopefully that’s a good thing. In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai