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Mental Health check-in with Shayla & Burgess

Examining effective coping skills

If we take the time to examine our coping skills and reflect on how they developed, one may find that it all began in childhood –specifically, a distressing experience from childhood. 

Harsh moments in our lives leave us with a tendency to create a habit. That habit develops into a coping tool for us to deal with distress. The habit is triggered when our internal alarm clock rings off, giving us a warning that a traumatic response is approaching. In good ole habitual fashion, it gives us permission to behave whatever way we need to in order to feel better. 

Environmental conditions that we grew up in as children foster the type of coping skills that can develop. There are many ways people choose to deal with stressors: exercise, drugs, socialize, eat, etc. In the therapeutic realm, there is no judgment. Coping skills can be both negative and positive. Despite popular belief, negative coping skills can be effective, at least in the short term. Using drugs as a means of dealing with emotional abuse, physical abuse, environmental stressors, or trauma is not unheard of. However, there comes a time when a person’s coping skills, whether positive or negative, may not be a fit for where they are currently at in life. 

Ideally, we want to think the habits that helped us cope from a very young age were a positive set of tools—helpful, therapeutic, and enhancing. We want to think that the choices we made were in our best interest at the time to make it through the pain. Coping skills essentially are the practice to help us adapt to adversities in life. The problem with some coping skills established and created in childhood are that they are not necessarily sustainable. Even coping skills with the best intentions have an expiration date.

The discrepancy between coping skills and their effectiveness unfortunately gets lost in translation in the real world. An example of this social misconception would be things we see on television. Pharmaceutical advertisements with any new antidepressant (SSRI) connect with us at the beginning of the commercial with similar symptoms: fatigue, not enjoying things like we used to, appetite out of whack, and 45 seconds later the symptoms vanished! Cured! Never to have to worry about the symptoms again. Desensitizing ourselves of this instant gratification is the veil we are hoping to unmask. 

Strong mental health requires dedicated time and consistency. Coping skills helps an individual unwind patterns of maladaptive behaviors that we have learned over many years. I repeat, optimal outcomes from appropriate coping skills come through dedication and consistency.  If you are willing to put in the work, you will reap the benefits along your personal journey. 

Trusting the process is something we all struggle with. Most complaints towards simplistic coping skills such as breathing exercises are that they simply do not work. The fact is, however, that breathing exercises are evidence-based, practical, and non-invasive. Coping skills are a gateway for change. Most effective coping skills require action. They have the power to be utilized as a tool to enhance our well-being. Struggles with adjustment, statistically, are a leading factor of emotional dysregulation, which we first experience in our childhood. 

The wonderful thing about mental health awareness is that you can choose anytime to explore and create coping skills to use as tools. Anything in life you want to get good at all comes down to consistency and how much time we put into it. 

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Shayla and Burgess Brown are a husband-and-wife writing team. Both are Licensed Mental Health Clinicians and hold bachelor's and master's degrees from Lindsey Wilson College.