Coping Strategies for our Mental Health

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What Are Coping Skills and Strategies?

Coping strategies and skills are the responses and behaviors one adopts to deal with difficult situations. Coping strategies come in many forms.  Think of when you were last upset or angry. How did you respond to that emotion? Did you go for a walk? Listen to music? Draw, color or paint? Mediate? Go to the Gym? Those are healthy coping strategies that individuals choose to practice to move forward for their own self-care and wellness purposes. However, in life, there is always a balance of positive and negative.

Humans tend to learn coping strategies from those they come into contact with while growing up. When a person learns and develops habits of negative coping skills, stressors become catastrophes and confidence in one's ability to cope is diminished. Negative coping strategies are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, reacting to others' actions, driving fast, bullying, physical and mental abuse, cyber attacks, sexual assault and etc.

Strategies for Good Mental Health Wellness

According to Sydney Youngerman-Cole, RN, BSN, RNC and Katy E. Magee, MA, "Many mental health problems begin when physical stress or emotional stress triggers chemical changes in your brain. The goal of treatment and prevention is to reduce stress and restore normal chemical processes in your brain." Coping skills are methods a person uses to deal with stressful situations. Obtaining and maintaining good coping skills does take practice. However utilizing these skills becomes easier over time. Most importantly, good coping skills make for good mental health wellness.

Some good coping skills include:

  • Meditation and Relaxation Techniques: Practicing deep breathing techniques, the relaxation response, or progressive muscle relaxation are ways to help reduce stress and induce relaxation.
  • Time to Yourself: It is important to set aside time every day to allow yourself to relax and escape the stress of life. Give yourself a private, mini vacation from everything going on around you.
  • Physical Activity: Moving around and getting the heart rate up causes the body to release endorphins (the body's feel good hormones). Exercising provides some stress relief.
  • Reading: Escape from reality completely by reading. Reading can help you to de-stress by taking your mind off everyday life.
  • Friendship: Having friends who are willing to listen and support one through good and bad times is essential.
  • Humor: Adding humor to a stressful situation can help to lighten the mood.
  • Hobbies: Having creative outlets such as listening to music, drawing or gardening are great ways to relax and relieve everyday stress.
  • Spirituality Actively believing in a higher power or divine being can have many health benefits. In recent studies, it has been found that people who pray have better mental health than those who do not.
  • Pets: Taking care of a pet helps distract the mind from stressful thoughts. Studies Show that pets are a calming influence in people's lives.
  • Sleeping The human body needs a chance to rest and repair itself after a long and stressful day. Sleeping gives the body this chance so that it is ready to perform another day.
  • Nutrition Eating foods that are good for you not only improve your physical health, but they play a major role in your mental health. When your body gets the proper nutrients, it is better able to function in every capacity.

There are also negative coping skills which can hinder progress in dealing more positively with stress. Actions that are harmful to both mental and physical health include:

  • Drugs
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Self-mutilation
  • Ignoring or storing hurt feelings
  • Sedatives
  • Stimulants
  • Excessive working
  • Avoiding problems
  • Denial

These actions offer only temporary relief, if any, from stress. Ignoring or covering up how you feel does not solve the problem and the next time the situation arises, you will still have no way of dealing with it.

The next time you find yourself faced with a difficult or stressful circumstance, remember to practice your new coping skills. These skills lead to good mental health and happier you.

Ten Tips for Better Mental Health

  1. Build Confidence - identify your abilities and weaknesses together, accept them, build on them and do the best you can with what you have.
  2. Accept Compliments - many of us have difficulty accepting kindness from others but we all need to remember the positive in our lives when times get tough.
  3. Make Time for Family and Friends - these relationships need to be nurtured; if taken for granted they will dwindle and not be there to share life's joys and sorrows.
  4. Give and Accept Support - friends and family relationships thrive when they are "put to the test." Just as you seek help when you are having a tough time, a friend or family member might come to you in their time of need.
  5. Create a Meaningful Budget - financial problems are big causes of stress, especially in today's economy. Over-spending on our "wants" instead of our "needs" can compound money worries. Writing down where you money is going helps you keep a closer eye on your finances.
  6. Volunteer - being involved in community gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction that paid work cannot. Find a local organization where your life skills can be put to good use.
  7. Manage Stress - we all have stressors in our lives but learning how to deal with them when they threaten to overwhelm us will help to maintain our mental health.
  8. Find Strength in Numbers - sharing a problem with others who have had similar experiences may help you find a solution and will make you feel less isolated. Even talking about situation with people who have not experienced what you are going through is a good way to gain outside perspective.
  9. Identify and Deal with Moods - we all need to find safe and constructive ways to express our feelings of anger, sadness, joy and fear. Channeling your emotions creatively is a wonderful way to work off excess feelings. Writing (keeping a journal), painting, dancing, making crafts, etc. are all good ways to help deal with emotions.
  10. Learn to Be at Peace with Yourself - get to know who you are, what makes you really happy and learn to balance what you can and cannot change about yourself.

Meditation / Relaxation Techniques

When our bodies are exposed to a sudden stress or threat, we respond with a characteristic "fight or flight" response. This is when epinephrine (adrenaline) and nor-epinephrine are released from the adrenal grands, resulting in an increase in blood pressure and pulse rate, faster breathing and increased blood flow to the muscles. Every time your body triggers the "fight or flight" response to situations that is not life-threatening, you are experiencing what is essentially a false alarm. Too many false alarms experienced by the body can lead to stress related disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, insomnia, sexual dysfunction and immune system disorders.

A simple meditation technique practiced for as few as 10 minutes per day can help you control stress, decrease anxiety, improve cardiovascular health, and achieve greater capacity for relaxation.

The Relaxation Response

The relaxation response was developed by Harvard physician Herbert Benson in the 1970s. The technique has gained acceptance by physicians and therapists worldwide as a valuable adjunct to therapy for symptom relief in conditions ranging from cancer to AIDS. The relaxation response is a technique designed to elicit a state of deep relaxation in which breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure and metabolism are decreased. Training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to enhanced mood, lowered blood pressure and reduction of lifestyle stress.

The two essential steps to the relaxation response are:

  • The repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer or muscular activity.
  • Passive disregard of everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind during the process, followed by a return to the repetition.

To elicit the relaxation response:

  • Choose a focus word or phrase for repetition. You can use a sound such as "om," a word such as "one" or "peace," or a word with special meaning to you.
  • Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet place free of distractions. Close your eyes and relax your muscles progressing from your feet to your calves, thighs, abdomen, shoulders, head and neck.
  • Breathe slowly and naturally and as you do say your focus word, sound, phrase or prayer silently to yourself while you exhale.
  • Intruding worries or thoughts should be dismissed to the best of your ability by focusing on the repetition.
  •  Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. It's okay to open your eyes to look at a clock while you are practicing, but do not set an alarm.
  • When you have finished, remain seated, first with your eyes closed and then with your eyes open, and gradually allow your thoughts to return to everyday reality.

The relaxation response can also be elicited through other meditative and relaxation techniques. No matter how the relaxation state is achieved, the physical and emotional consequences of stress can be reduced through regular practice.

Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is one of the easiest stress management techniques to learn, and the best thing about it is that it can be done anywhere! When we become stressed, one of our body's automatic reactions is shallow, rapid breathing which can increase our stress response. Taking deep, slow breaths is an antidote to stress and is one way we can "turn-off" our stress reaction and "turn-on" the relaxation response. Deep breathing is the foundation of many other relaxation exercises.

  • Get into a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down.
  • Put one hand on your stomach, just below your rib cage.
  • Slowly breathe in through your nose. Your stomach should feel like rising and expanding outward.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth, emptying your lungs completely and letting your stomach fall.
  • Repeat several times until you feel relaxed.
  • Practice several times a day.

Information about the relaxation response courtesy of: Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine
 

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

PMR is a technique of stress management developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the early 1920s. Jacobson argued that since muscular tension accompanies anxiety, one can reduce the negative feelings by learning how to relax and relieve the muscular tension.

PMR is based on alternately tensing and then relaxing one's muscles. A person can practice this technique by either sitting or lying down in a comfortable spot. The key to the relaxation process is taking some deep breaths and then proceeding to tense, then relax a group of muscles in a systematic order. One can start with the head and move down to the neck, shoulders, etc or can start with the feet and legs and proceed accordingly. The goal of the process is to cause deeper relaxation to the body than by simply attempting to relax.

A Simple Exercise that will Help You Relax in 10 Steps:

  1. Sit in a comfortable position, with eyes closed. Take a few deep breaths, expanding your belly as you breathe air in and contracting it as you exhale.
  2. Begin at the top of your body, and go down. Start with your head, tensing your facial muscles, squeezing your eyes shut, puckering your mouth and clenching your jaw. Hold, then release and breathe.
  3. Tense as you lift your shoulders to your ears, hold, then release and breathe.
  4. Make a fist with your right hand; tighten the muscles in your lower and upper arm, hold, and then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left hand.
  5. Concentrate on your back, squeezing shoulder blades together. Hold, then release. Breathe in and out.
  6. Suck in your stomach, hold, and then release. Breathe in and out.
  7. Clench your buttocks, hold, and then release. Breathe in and out.
  8. Tighten your right hamstring, hold then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left hamstring.
  9. Flex your right calf, hold, and then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left calf.
  10. Tighten toes on your right foot, hold, and then release. Breathe in and out. Repeat with left foot.

Meditation is a mind-body practice originating from ancient religious and spiritual traditions. The practice of meditation started thousands of years ago and first became popular in Asia with the teachings of Buddha, who practiced meditation himself. Eventually, the Buddhist form of meditation spread to the Western world, and remains popular today. In meditation, one learns to focus their attention while trying to eliminate or diffuse their stream of thoughts. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater relaxation and mental calmness. Practicing meditation can change how one reacts to emotions or thoughts.

Meditation is used as a mind-body medicine. Generally, mind-body medicine focuses on two things: the interactions between the brain, body, and behavior of the individual, and the ways that emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors affect health. Meditation is used to help reduce anxiety, pain, depression, stress, insomnia, and physical and emotional symptoms that are associated with chronic illnesses and their respective treatments. Meditation is used for overall wellness.

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Other Positive Coping Skills

Here's a list of coping skills that will help you when you are feeling strong emotions such as anger, anxiety, or depression. These activities are not likely to create more stress or problems, so these help you be more resilient and stress tolerant.

Diversions

  1. Write, draw, paint, photography
  2. Play an instrument, sing, dance, act
  3. Take a shower or a bath
  4. Garden
  5. Take a walk, or go for a drive
  6. Watch television or a movie
  7. Watch cute kitten videos on YouTube
  8. Play a game
  9. Go shopping
  10. Clean or organize your environment
  11. Read
  12. Take a break or vacation

Social/Interpersonal (with others)

  1. Talk to someone you trust
  2. Set boundaries and say "no"
  3. Write a note to someone you care about
  4. Be assertive
  5. Use humor
  6. Spend time with friends and/or family
  7. Serve someone in need
  8. Care for or play with a pet
  9. Role-play challenging situations with others
  10. Encourage others

Cognitive (Of the Mind)

  1. Make a gratitude list
  2. Brainstorm solutions
  3. Lower your expectations of the situation
  4. Keep an inspirational quote with you
  5. Be flexible
  6. Write a list of goals
  7. Take a class
  8. Act opposite of negative feelings
  9. Write a list of pros and cons for decisions
  10. Reward or pamper yourself when successful
  11. Write a list of strengths
  12. Accept a challenge with a positive attitude

Tension Releasers

  1. Exercise or play sports
  2. Catharsis (yelling in the bathroom, punching a punching bag)
  3. Cry
  4. Laugh

Physical

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Eat healthy foods
  3. Get into a good routine
  4. Eat a little chocolate
  5. Limit caffeine
  6. Deep/slow breathing

Spiritual

  1. Pray or meditate
  2. Enjoy nature
  3. Get involved in a worthy cause

Limit Setting

  1. Drop some involvement
  2. Prioritize important tasks
  3. Use assertive communication
  4. Schedule time for yourself

How Each Category of Coping Skills Helps

Diversions are those coping skills that allow you to stop thinking about the stress inducing situation. Diversions aren't meant to be the final solution, but each can be useful in the basic goal of remaining safe.

As time goes on, move away from diversions and toward those skills that will build resiliency to the challenges that continue. Diversions are only useful if one can recognize warning signs when feeling overwhelming emotions.

Social or interpersonal coping strategies involve interactions with others. Scientific studies have proven the benefits of social support to counteract the effects of stress on DNA. Social supports can be useful for recognizing warning signs and providing assistance in difficult times.

Cognitive coping skills are those that involve using the mind and thought processes to influence the way one feels and behaves. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of treatment that helps people find ways of thinking that improve their mental responses to situations.

Learning to think in more rational ways can be done by recognizing and changing irrational thoughts. Ultimately, a person can become much more stress tolerant and ultimately improve behavioral outcomes.

Tension releasing or cathartic coping strategies involve acting on strong emotions in ways that are safe for one and others. Punching a pillow could be a way to release tensions in a safe way. Be careful with cathartic responses because these tend to become habit forming and may translate to real life scenarios, so the child who practices punching a pillow may envision a person's face and end up actually punching that person's face when angry.

Physical process is directly tied to mental and emotional processes. A person's breathing rate can illicit a response from the sympathetic nervous system. Raising your voice can send signals to your brain that you are angry. In the same way, acting calmly in the face of difficulty can help send signals to your brain that everything is o.k.

Exercise is another thing that can help by producing endorphins, which are naturally occurring drugs that can create a calm or euphoric feeling.

Praying, meditating, enjoying nature, or taking up a worthy cause can affect a person on a spiritual level. Satisfying the need to feel worthwhile, connected, and at peace improve well-being at the core of a person. Spiritual well-being then exudes out of a person in attitudes and actions that are self-actualized. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, we all need to feel a sense of purpose, but not everyone reaches that level.

Limit setting is a preventative measure to protect against overwhelming stress created by doing too much of something. Limits can be set for one's self or others. An example of setting a limit with others is learning to say "no" when you know you are too busy to help someone. Setting a limit for yourself could include dropping involvement in work activities that are not a good fit for your skills and focusing on those that you are efficient doing, which may mean having to be assertive with your boss about how you can help the most.