CONSIDER THE CONTEXT
How do we learn coping strategies?
- What we have tried ourselves.
- What we have learnt from others.
If we have not had the experience in the past, we may not know how to cope with it. Additionally, if we have not had people in our lives to model healthy and appropriate coping strategies, then we may choose harmful ones, while we are trying to learn what works for us. To complicate the matter further, all of us have individualistic needs when it comes to our distress.
For example, when distressed: I may crave food, you may not. I may socialise, you may not. I might hate exercise, you may love it. I may stay at home, you may go out. I might hate sand, you may go to the beach. I might listen to music, you may prefer quiet. I might want screen time, you may avoid it. All of this may change over time, sometimes with no predictable or consistent pattern.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO LEARN?
The best time to learn our coping strategies is generally not when we need them. However, the paradox of distress is that when everything is going well, exploring how we cope is not likely to happen, due to not being relevant, therefore not compelling enough for us to give it any attention. To summarise I am going to offer you a light-hearted example of what I mean:
- Mr Morrison: ‘What helps when you are sad?’
- Student: ‘I don’t know what helps when I’m sad, but can I tell you what I was just thinking about?’
- Mr Morrison: ‘Sure, what were you thinking about?’
- Student: ‘Funny cat and dog videos on YouTube!’
Suffice to say this conversation veered a little off track, but we got there in the end. I often say that if we are distressed, we need comfort (whatever that is for you), though if we are too comfortable we need some distress (burpees?). If you are currently feeling ‘comfortable’ (hard with so much going on around us), I believe that spending time reflecting on how we cope with challenging situations and emotions, even though it may hurt, will allow us to function better in the future. If you are willing and able to do some of this difficult work, here are some things to consider:
- What do I need if I feel angry, anxious, ashamed, rejected, lonely, grieving etc.?
- If I feel down what helps to bring me up?
- If I feel escalated what helps to bring me down?
- If I’m distressed, what do I find comforting?
- If I’m distressed what are some harmful behaviours/activities that I need to be cautious of?
If I’m distressed, do I want:
- People or not?
- Quiet or noise?
- Inside or outdoors?
- Activity or stillness?
- Sleep or awake?
- Food or not?
- City or nature?
None of this is learnt over night and a lot of us have not had the experiences or guidance to know how to cope effectively. Though if we can all do some of this difficult work we will be better equipped to model and teach a range of healthy coping strategies so others can learn from us. The better we all cope with hurt, pain, suffering and distress the less damage will be done as a result.
It is important for me to say that our ability to cope with distress is, and always will be, a work in progress. I am not perfect. I hate when I project my distress onto others. Though the least we can all do is reflect and work on it to make it less likely in the future and become better people as a result.
Stephen Morrison, College Counsellor