What doesn’t kill you gives you a lot of unhealthy coping mechanisms and a really dark sense of humour. When we lose someone or something we love, or a stressful event breaks apart our sense of security, we can begin to view our environment and those around us as dangerous. Even if a certain event doesn’t cause us any physical harm, being in a state of fear can still cause us to become traumatised.
Human beings have an uncanny ability to adapt to inhospitable environments, such as cities with loud traffic, polluted skies and crowded conditions. But we pay a price for that flexibility. The word ‘coping’ tends to have a positive connotation. However, depending on your skill level, your coping mechanism of choice could actually lead to your downfall. Our attempts to deal turn destructive when we overgeneralise or continue to apply coping strategies, even when they’re no longer needed. Our strategies then become even bigger problems in themselves.
Children subjected to loud noise from a nearby airport, for instance, teach themselves to, tune out sounds so they can concentrate. A study of 326 children living near busy airports found they were also screening out speech. Their lower reading scores showed they were missing out on opportunities to learn the subtleties of language. Likewise, people who live in extremely crowded conditions learn to withdraw socially in order to create internal space. This withdrawal eventually affects their personal relationships. Research has found that the more people you live with, the less social support you have.
“We hardly ever talk about trauma afterwards, because it helps to live in a world where we can pretend it never happened.”
How 'Little-You' Coped
The coping strategies we adopted during childhood are often the same ones we use in adulthood, for example, the tendency to dissociate. The problem here is, what use to work for little-you is counterproductive to the sense of self you require for the successful negotiation of adult life difficulties. Adult survivors of childhood trauma, for instance, often continue to use their childhood avoidant coping strategies. The adult survivor becomes the fighter, the accommodator, the escape artist, the victim, the denier, the over-achiever, and the ‘people-pleaser’ (van Loon & Kralik, 2005c).
Pain and Pleasure are the two emotions that guide everything we do. This means, we will do whatever it takes to stop feeling overwhelmed by threatening and dangerous feelings. We are compelled to find ways to manage our sense of helplessness, powerless and lack of control. Children tend to gravitate toward different strategies for different feelings:
Strategies used to keep from being overwhelmed by threatening feelings:
- Reducing the intensity of troubling feelings
- Avoiding or escaping the feelings
- Exchanging the overwhelming feelings for other, less threatening ones
- Discharging or releasing feelings
- Not knowing or remembering experiences that generated threatening feelings
- Dividing overwhelming feelings into manageable parts
Strategies used to manage helplessness, powerlessness and lack of control:
- Creating resistance strategies
- Reframing abuse to create an illusion of control or power (e.g. rationalising, minimising)
- Attempting to master the trauma
- Attempting to control other areas of life besides the trauma
- Seeking confirmation or evidence from others
- Rejecting power/authority [and intimacy and trust]
“I guess in the end, it doesn’t matter what we wanted.
What matters is what we chose to do with the things we had.”
The Science of Growing up
While it’s better to cope than to fall apart, people who use ‘mature’ coping mechanisms are happier, enjoy much better mental health, and hugely gratifying personal relationships. Even though your childhood coping strategies may succeed in keeping you from feeling overwhelmed, they come with a massive cost. Are the strategies you are using to manage helplessness and powerlessness actually controlling you?
Adaptive versus Maladaptive Coping
How you cope with stressful situations influences the long-term impact of those stressors. The question here is: are your strategies working for you or not really working for you? Are they problem-focused or emotion-focused? Are they approach-focused or avoidance-focused?
Problem-focused coping strategies directly address the problem. They include: seeking information about the stressor so you can grow from your experience; making a plan of action; and concentrating on the next step to manage or resolve the stressor.
Emotion-focused strategies concentrate on managing the emotional distress associated with the stressor. They include: disengagement from emotions related to the stressor; seeking emotional support; and venting emotions.
Approach strategies either focus on the stressor itself or your reaction to the stressor. For example, you might seek emotional support, plan to resolve the stressor, and seek more information about the stressor.
Avoidant strategies refers to techniques which deny, minimise, and delay dealing with stressors. Avoidance coping is focused on avoiding the stressor or your reaction to it. For example, withdrawing from others, denying the stressor exists, or disengaging from your thoughts and feelings regarding the stressor.
Approach strategies are generally regarded as more adaptive than avoidant coping strategies. Although avoidance strategies may reduce distress in the short term, they quickly turn into addictions when we continue to rely on them.
“The strength to go on must come from within, not without,
or it crushes instead of building up the heart.”
The Right Coping Strategy for You
Let’s say you experience a sense of going backwards. It is as if you have boarded a wrong train and can do nothing until it arrives at its destination. Disappointment gives way to feeling defeated. This is your trigger to employ your favourite coping mechanism. How you react to stress, will determine the best coping mechanism for you. Do you?
Overthink the problem
Overreact about the problem
Become overly emotional about the problem
4 Appraisal-focused coping strategies for the overthinker
Let’s say you tend to overthink things. Start by challenging your own beliefs and assumptions about what is stressing you and take action to change the way you think about it. This may include something as simple as taking a break from the stressful situation and coming back to it at a later date. If this is not possible you could try distancing yourself from it. Or you could adjust your goals to make them more attainable. The mind is a wonderful tool and there are many options available for those who use it when they are stressed out. Using different language, for instance, to spin a negative into a positive is incredibly powerful.
Seek support – Talking to a professional person is one of the best ways of reducing stress. People who overthink things get bogged down in their own thoughts, so having someone there to gently steer them back onto the right path can be invaluable.
Use humour – Bringing humour into the darkest of situations allows people to put their stuff into perspective. It can prevent them from feeling too overwhelmed and doing something that might be harmful in the future.
Team sports – Being part of a team builds up your confidence and makes you think about others and other problems apart from yourself.
Meditation – This is perfect for those people whose mind tends to wander or gets filled with panicky and busy stressful thoughts. Meditation can slow the mind down and allow the person to focus on what is around them, not what might happen in the future.
4 Problem-focused coping strategies for the overreactor
People who tend to overreact when it comes to stressful situations are more likely to want to do something about them. They will be proactive and practical rather than sitting around analysing the situation. Therefore, the best coping mechanisms for these types of people involve taking action and doing things. This may include learning new skills or finding out more information.
Exercise – Anything from dancing, jogging, playing a sport, swimming, going to gym and more. Physical exercise ensures the emotional energy doesn’t get blocked. It keeps the energy in motion (e-motion). It also reduces stress and releases endorphins, our ‘happy hormones’.
Learn a new skill – Ideal for those who are stressing about not having enough information. They can find out and put this new knowledge to good use.
Pros and Cons – Weighing the pros and cons of a situation is an excellent way of putting things into perspective.
Find the right help – If you are unable to solve your situation by yourself, find someone who knows what they are doing – that’s what experts are there for!
4 Emotion-focused coping strategies for the overemoter
Recognise that you may not always be able to manage your emotional reaction, so you must find ways to reduce or moderate it. This could involve finding other ways to release your emotions such as talking to a therapist or counsellor, or by using relaxing methods.
Write in a journal – Some people find that writing down their thoughts allows them to get some form of relief as they attempt to articulate what they are experiencing.
Listen to music – Music is the fastest and most powerful way to change your vibrational state. For those who find it hard to meditate or relax, music can be the first step towards slower breathing and mindfulness.
Talk to friends – This is essential for people who have to live with a situation that is not likely to change and so they must accept it for what it is. Having a good friend that they can talk to can make all the difference.
Spiritual Practice – Finding meaning and a higher purpose can put even the worst case scenario into perspective.
Research has shown that, although emotion-focused coping mechanisms are best when it comes to dealing with a traumatic event, it’s problem-focused that achieve the best results.
“At any given moment, you have the power to say: This is not how the story is going to end.”
— Christine Mason Miller
Perception IS Reality
As it turns out, while human beings want to avoid pain and gain pleasure, they will do more for one than the other. Avoiding immediate pain is much more motivating than gaining immediate pleasure. If there is a tiger chasing you versus a suitcase full of money in front of you, which would motivate the average human to act quickly? Avoiding a certain amount of immediate pain wins over gaining immediate pleasure every time. Studies have demonstrated many times over that people will do much more to avoid short term pain than they will to gain short term pleasure.
It is the perception of pain and pleasure, not actual pain and pleasure that drives people. Since we don’t really ever know for sure what the future will hold, our brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is constantly making assumptions about the future. It is our perception of future pain and pleasure that drives our actions. Unfortunately, our perceptions are often incredibly flawed, especially when it comes to things that are a bit more complex than running away from a predator.
“Your emotions make you human. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. Don’t lock them away. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.”
Emotion Trumps Logic - Every time
How many times have you looked at some ice cream in front of you, thought on an intellectual level that you should not have the ice cream, and then gone ahead and eaten the ice cream anyway? We have all been there. Logically, you thought you shouldn’t have the ice cream but emotionally, you wanted the ice cream. What wins? Emotion.
An ounce of emotion wins over an ounce or two of logic every time. The pain or pleasure related to our emotions are hard-wired in our brains to be much stronger for survival. It’s the primitive part of our brain that tells us to act rather than think ahead to the future. This also explains the modulation of pain and pleasure by time. When something is going to happen now, it’s much more likely to trigger an emotional response in us than something due to happen decades from now.
“There comes a time in your life, when you walk away from all the drama and people who create it. You surround yourself with people who make you laugh. Forget the bad and focus on the good. Love the people who treat you right, pray for the ones who do not. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Falling down is a part of life, getting back up is living.”
5 Ways to Build Resilience
Resilience is, first and foremost, a psychological habit that you have control over. Choose to be a rebellious optimist. Refuse to give in to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Actively choose to focus on the solution and the opportunity, rather than the crisis. All choice is with you. This doesn’t mean you won’t feel despondent from time to time. Allow yourself to feel those emotions, process them (while coping with healthy mechanisms) and crucially release them so you can then focus on future possibilities.
Know Your Worth
Your current circumstances do not determine your worth. When you know, understand and own your value then it doesn’t matter what the outside world throws at you. You are solid from the inside so nothing will break you. Your value does not decrease based on someone else’s inability to see your worth. You are not what happens to you. You are how you respond to it. This means your attitude is your anchor in adversity. If the door doesn’t open, then it’s not your door. When you can no longer change the situation you are in, remove yourself from that situation. Know your worth and find the door that fits your key. When your self-worth goes up, your net worth goes up with it. When you learn how much you are actually worth, you’ll stop giving people discounts.
Stop Negative Self-Talk
It’s hard to be happy if there is someone inside your head who is being mean to you all the time. Turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and create a nurturing inner voice to take its place. When you make a mistake, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on instead of obsessing about it. Equally important, don’t allow anyone else to dwell on your mistakes or shortcomings or to expect something as ridiculous as perfection from you. You need to be your own cheer squad not your own worst enemy.
Start Positive Self-Talk
It is also important to praise yourself through any process, reinforcing resilience. This increases your dopamine levels, which motivates you to do more. If you’re struggling maintaining a positive mindset, you need to learn the ABC’s of rational-emotive therapy (RET)
- A = Adversity, acknowledge the challenge
- B = Belief, analyse your belief about the challenge
- C = Consequences, assess what the consequences are of the belief
- D = Determine new beliefs to replace them
- E = Energise or act on new beliefs
This is a simple formula to change your beliefs to ones that work for you.
If you think you’ll be entitled to more happiness later by forgoing all of it now, we have news for you – it doesn’t work that way. Happiness takes as much practice as unhappiness does. It’s by living that you live more, and it’s by waiting that you wait more. Every waiting day makes your life a little less. Every lonely day makes you a little smaller. Every day you put off your life is making you less capable of living it. When you simply wait for how things will turn out, fear creeps in with a bag full of “what ifs” to keep you up at night. Fear is the glue that keeps you stuck. Curiosity is the solvent that sets you free.
Instead of trying to control the outcome, simply be curious to see what will happen. Live life as if it is an epic adventure – because it is! Who is that next person you’re going to meet? What opportunity will you find in all this? What good can you do today? Curiosity reduces panic over your problems. It is one of the very best coping skills. You don’t have to solve everything today, simply take it one step at a time. Let curiosity lead you. Because once you find some wonder for life, some reverence, you will want to stay the course.
Change the Ending
Perhaps you’ve had some bad breaks, maybe even plenty more than good ones. Say you didn’t get that promotion you had been working towards for the past three years. Say that person you invested all that time and energy into cold-heartedly rejected you. Or perhaps that business venture crumbled after it wasn’t built on firm foundations. These moments do not define you. How you get up and back into the game does.
“There will be times in your life when things simply have to be replaced because they are tired, broken, worn out, harmful, outdated, or irrelevant. Take an inventory of the things that no longer serve your best and highest good so you can replace them with things which do.”
Not all coping skills are created equal. Sometimes, it’s tempting to engage in strategies that will provide quick relief but create bigger problems for you down the track. It’s important to establish healthy coping skills to reduce your emotional distress. Life is not going to get easier, YOU are going to get better. The coping strategies that work for someone else might not work as well for you. Going for a walk might help your partner calm down, but walking while you’re angry may cause you to ruminate about why you’re so mad – fuelling your angry feelings. You might decide watching a funny video for a few minutes helps you to relax. Do what works for you.
You might even find that certain coping strategies work best for specific issues or emotions. For example, engaging in a hobby may be an effective way to unwind after a long day at work. And going for a walk in nature might be the best approach when you’re feeling sad. When it comes to coping skills, there’s always room for improvement. Assess what tools and resources you have at your disposal and consider how you might continue to sharpen your skills for a brighter future.
“We may feel the world is slipping out of our hands and recognise that the core of our conceived blueprint is escaping us. Let us challenge, then, a point of resilience and get out of the weeds, clear our mind and figure out “who is who” in our lives, and gauge what is valuable in our mind.
Take the Wheel
You don’t have to stay stuck in defeat. Prolonged sadness is a rocketship to early death. Don’t wait around for circumstances to change before you start living. Our greatest wealth is knowing we are complete in ourselves. You need nothing more, lack nothing. Decide how you can live today with a sense of fun and grace, even when there are delays and frustration. When you have the right attitude, the right things line up. Doors begin to appear that you didn’t even know existed before. And if they don’t, make your own door – your own path. Lead others through it. Help uplift humanity as you move forward to greater things. In this way, you will have purpose as well as success. There is one person who can change the ending of your story. That person is you.
“To be successful, you have to be out there, you have to hit the ground running”
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