by Maya Capasso
Medically Reviewed by:
Bethany Juby, PsyD
by Maya Capasso
Medically Reviewed by:
Bethany Juby, PsyD
Applying what we learn in therapy is easier said than done. Here I share some helpful skills and when they seem to work best.
Life is full of stressful situations that can be overwhelming for anyone, especially those with mental illness. That’s why therapy often includes teaching coping skills to help us overcome suffering and feel capable of handling anything that comes up in our daily lives.
Coping skills can significantly improve our resilience, self-esteem, and ability to manage overwhelming emotions. But they come with some challenges. There are so many coping skills out there that it can be tough to know when exactly to apply a particular skill.
On top of that, I find it hard to use coping skills when I feel terrible because it feels like nothing can help me when I get to that point — even though that’s far from the truth. When I’m lying in bed sobbing uncontrollably, it’s hard to see how splashing cold water on my face could vastly improve my mood, even though I’ve learned that this can help decrease your heart rate when feeling overwhelmed.
Those challenges stopped me from effectively using coping skills for years, negatively impacting my mental health. I felt like my emotions could control me and that I couldn’t handle even the most minor setbacks. But once I started using the right coping skills at the right time, I felt more resilient, capable, and in control.
Everyone is different, so some coping skills I love may not be the right fit for you. Similarly, there are thousands of healthy coping strategies to try that aren’t discussed in this article. The skills I’ve learned come from dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), a therapeutic modality with a heavy focus on teaching skills to manage intense emotions.
The biggest challenge I used to face when it came to implementing coping skills in my daily life was that I didn’t know the right time to use a specific skill. Learning that there are different skills to use when I experience different levels of emotional intensity changed everything for me.
Some coping skills are designed to help us cope with an emotional crisis — those times when we feel like our emotions are at a 10 and have complete control over our actions. On the other hand, other coping strategies are built to help us face our problems and get through challenging life events once our emotions are slightly more regulated. Below I share skills that are appropriate for each of these situations.
When I experience big emotions, they feel dangerous and even life threatening, even though logically, I know my feelings can’t hurt me. It feels like my emotions have all the control, and I must succumb to what they want from me. But the thing is, that isn’t true. You can use many skills to help your body calm down and lower the intensity of your emotions.
DBT’s TIPP skills, an acronym for temperature, intense exercise, paced breathing, and paired muscle relaxation, are aimed at quickly changing your body chemistry and helping calm down your nervous system. I find the T of the TIPP — which refers to changing your body temperature — the most accessible and the most helpful to bring my emotions from a 10 down to a 3.
Splashing cold water on your face, taking a quick cold shower, or even placing ice packs on your body can help more than you’d imagine. One day in the partial hospitalization program I partook in from February to April of 2023, I felt extremely overwhelmed and couldn’t calm myself down. But we learned about TIPP skills that day, and the clinician handed me an ice pack. Within 5 minutes, I stopped crying and felt much more regulated.
Distraction is another beneficial coping skill to use when highly distressed. When I experience suicidal ideation, I’ve realized there’s not much I can do except wait for the feelings to pass. Using distraction as a skill helps me because I can turn my mind away from what’s distressing and instead focus on a comfort show or my favorite video games. After a while, the intense feelings pass, and I have more space to process them.
That being said, knowing the difference between distraction and avoidance is essential when using distraction as a coping skill. It can be easy to lean too heavily on distraction as a skill and instead avoid processing your emotions at all.
Distraction is temporary, while avoidance is ongoing. I use distraction to lower my emotional state and help me feel more present and capable. Once I feel ready, I’ll face my current problems and process what I’m going through. On the other hand, avoidance looks like constantly using distractions to push away feelings that you never plan on addressing.
Another valuable coping skill that helps me regulate my big scary feelings is opposite action. When you’re experiencing a strong emotion that isn’t effective in your current situation, this DBT skill advises you to do the opposite of what the emotion tells you to do. Say you feel sad and have the urge to remain in bed all day and cry. Instead, you could get up and go for a short walk outdoors. Opposite action can help bring you back to baseline.
Even after using skills like the TIPP skills, opposite action, or distraction to find calm, the problems in your life are not going to be magically solved. However, what they can do is give you the space to think logically about your struggles and implement other skills that lead to more long-term solutions. These strategies can also help you build resilience and self-esteem.
After my emotions feel more under my control, I often move into a problem-solving mode to help me feel more capable and set up a plan for approaching my situation.
This often includes making a list of potential solutions, writing out the pros and cons for each, and ultimately choosing an action that makes the most sense. This process can help you think through the situation in detail so it feels more approachable. Journaling these ideas is helpful, too, so that the problem isn’t just rattling around in your head.
But what can we do when we’re stuck in a situation we can’t change? When that’s the case, problem-solving may be less helpful, and that’s where radical acceptance comes into the picture.
Radical acceptance means accepting your circumstances. That doesn’t mean you’re OK with the situation. It just means you’re acknowledging that it’s happening and accepting that you must deal with it for now. The opposite of acceptance is denial, which can make you feel unstable and disconnected from reality.
Radical acceptance can help you move forward and find a way to feel at peace, no matter how terrible you perceive the circumstances.
I practice radical acceptance by paying attention when I feel bitter about my situation. I struggle a lot to accept the cruelty in the world we live in, like the mass shootings, racism, and transphobia that pop up in news stories across the country daily.
If I notice myself feeling like it shouldn’t be this way or like it isn’t worth living in a terrible world, I can pull out my journal and remind myself that this is the way it is, and it sucks, but I can’t change it. Then I’ll write about what I can control and what I’m grateful for.
Using coping skills can be tricky because figuring out what coping skill to use in each unique situation is complex. I like to split coping skills into two general groups: skills that help calm intense emotions and skills that help build resilience.
The skills I use are from DBT, but there are thousands of coping strategies in the world that could help you. The key is to try them out to see what works.
Medically reviewed on May 06, 2023
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About the author
Maya (she/they) is a professional freelance writer and cold pitch coach. Her writing is featured in TransLash News & Narrative, HorrorPress, the Episodes Newsletter, and more. They’re passionate about mental health advocacy and social justice. She manages the Accessible Cold Pitch blog and email newsletter to help freelancers connect with their ideal clients. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram.