I often hear a lot buzz around particular activities like physical exercise, meditation, and positive thinking, as "good," "appropriate," or even “gold-standard” coping strategies. Although these tools can be really effective methods for lots of people, these might not be appealing, realistic, or effective for everyone. And they might not work to find relief all the time, in every situation. People are unique, and so are our needs for effective coping tools.
Imagine sitting down at a fancy restaurant, scanning the menu and finding nothing that looks appealing. While everyone else seems to be loving every item, you struggle to find anything that even remotely tantalizes your taste buds and satisfies your cravings. What would you do? I remember one evening, feeling privileged to visit a highly rated and acclaimed restaurant in Edmonton, Alberta. There was a lot of hype in the community about its opening and I was excited to check it out and indulge in a few appetizers. But, when I looked over the menu, not a single thing looked yummy to me. My stomach tightened up as if to say "nope, not happening," I felt hot and uncomfortable, almost embarrassed that I just couldn't get into it---I wanted to like something, especially since everyone else around me seemed to be loving every item. I felt really disappointed---and hungry. I couldn’t bring myself to order any food at all. Instead, I finished my drink, and later went for cheap and greasy fast-food take out: a familiar and comfortable, though less “healthy,” hyped, or buzz-worthy personal favourite to satisfy my taste and hunger. When I think about coping strategies, I think about situations like this. Even though there might be a lot of buzz around some specific types of coping techniques, highly rated and highly acclaimed, they’re just not appetizing for everyone. Often, not a single *one* meal item---or coping tool---is satisfying every time.
There is no one universal “best menu” of food or coping tools. Taste is personal, subjective, and contextual. And so are our internal worlds. What satisfies me, might not satisfy you, and vice versa. And that's okay. So, I often talk to folks about developing a custom-tailored "menu" of coping strategies that at some point or another might be appealing to you, for all your different moods, states, contexts, and cravings, regardless of how those particular strategies might be rated or judged by others. Rather than struggling to get into what you “should” do to cope with difficult experiences, I think it makes a lot more sense to discover authentically a list of options that are actually appealing to YOU, based on your particular needs, likes, wants, tastes, and resources. If the options on your "a la carte" coping menu are filled with all your idiosyncratic faves, I bet that you'll be more likely to turn to them for relief when times get tough! And that's what we're looking for in "good" coping strategies, anyway, right?
Letting Go of "Shoulds"
Looking to generic sources for what’s popular right now in terms of coping strategies, might not always hit the spot for you. Getting caught in the trap of thinking that there are certain behaviours or activities that “should” work to cope with difficult experiences, can trigger loops of internal self-criticism and even make matters worse, if or when these activities fail to provide truly satisfying relief. The idea that only a select few coping tools are considered "healthy,"---highly touted as the "best" ways of coping, super helpful for “everyone else,”---can pretty easily trigger or contribute to some pretty difficult thoughts and feelings. For example, an internal critical loop of thoughts like, “Why doesn’t this work for me?,” “What’s wrong with me?” "Am I just broken inside?" might start creeping up. Here me out. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s perfectly normal and okay that what might work for others might not work for you, maybe just not right now, and maybe not ever. That's okay. For some, going for a long run helps them to feel grounded and refreshed. For others, running might be somewhat effective sometimes, and totally ineffective at other times. For others still, running is a chore that feels painful, impossible, or miserable. If you resonate with the latter groups, perhaps receiving the message, over and over, about how beneficial running (or physical exercise in general) is for coping and mental health, might trigger or feed into an internal self-critical internal loop. Rather than satisfaction and relief, some "recommended" tools might contribute to further stress, internally beating down on yourself for not being disciplined enough, normal enough, fit enough, healthy enough, strong enough, etc, etc. It’s easy to feel broken, or not enough when you’re given a set menu, or list of "shoulds", that doesn’t really satisfy or effectively remedy your particular feelings and personal, subjective context.
Letting Go of Stigma
If my only options for food that evening were from that one menu at that popular restaurant, I would’ve spent the night hungry, frustrated, and unsatisfied. Luckily, I knew I was not limited to the one imposed menu, and was able to go and find something that actually worked for me, so that I could end my night feeling fulfilled and satisfied in terms of my particular hunger. Even though my choice of greasy fast food, is not deemed the traditionally “healthy” choice for a balanced diet, the familiar smells, tastes, and feel of my high-fat, high-sugar, high-calorie fave was just what I needed to feel okay in that moment. Others, unfamiliar with my internal world, might not understand my choice or preference that evening, and I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to. Unless they’re someone particularly familiar with my internal world and what was happening for me in that moment, they wouldn’t have much insight into understanding what I would find especially comforting. My point is that there is value in knowing what works for you---what you in particular, actually like---and giving yourself permission to access that as needed, without judgment. Whether to satisfy hunger, or to cope with difficult situations, thoughts, sensations, or emotions, we need to be able to turn to a customized menu filled with options that are actually appealing and satisfying, for the particular hunger (feeling, internal situation, context) that we’re working with. There are lots of coping tools that aren’t praised in mainstream society as “good coping tools.” Though that doesn’t change the fact that those coping tools might work for you. Regardless of how your particular coping techniques of choice might be perceived by others, if they feel like a "yes" in your gut, in your body, in your intuition, in your whole being, and truly offer you some relief, peace, ease, vibrancy, support, validation, or connection, then that just might be the "right" or "best" choice for you in that moment. Depriving yourself of accessing those tools because of social pressures about certain coping strategies judged as better or worse than others, can get in the way of satisfying your needs, and coping effectively. Rather, empowering yourself to access what you know you need in certain moments, regardless of external stigma, can make a world of difference.
Creating a Customized Coping Menu
When you’re really honest with yourself, you might find that many of the coping strategies that you actually find relief in turning to, might not always seem in line with common recommendations like exercising, meditating, or focusing on positive self-talk. When you're thinking about types of coping strategies that you would like to include in your own custom-tailored coping menu, consider all you different moods, and states, that you tend to go to when things get overwhelming, stressful or challenging, and begin to imagine what kind of relief you might really need in those times. For example, if you feel overwhelmed with anger, maybe you find relief most effectively by allowing yourself to express that anger authentically: blowing off steam through hitting a punching bag, or drawing out a detailed image of the feeling of chaos, without judgment or restraint. If anxiety is what tends to overwhelm you most, maybe allowing yourself to cuddle up and hide from the world, tending softly to a feeling of wanting to hide might provide a sense of calm. Below are 5 categories of common coping strategies that although effective and helpful for many, are often left out of socially praised discourse on the topic. This list is in no way exhaustive, though hopefully might give you some ideas for what you need to see on your coping menu, so that when times get tough, you can turn to this resource and pick and choose personalized "a la carte" menu options easily and effectively, that you know will likely hit the spot.
1. Find Creature Comforts for Your Most Vulnerable Parts
We live in a society that generally pushes progress and productivity. While “moving on” as quickly as possible might be good for certain business models, it doesn’t always translate well into maintaining mental health. Sometimes our most vulnerable parts inside want us to slow down and really listen to what our inner figures really want or need in the moment. For example, you might at times notice a persistent feeling nagging you to take the evening off from your usual tasks, and burrow into a comfy pillow-fort, for a cocoon-like snooze, surrounded by all your favorite things. Rather than brushing this voice aside as “unproductive nonsense,” see what happens when you give yourself explicit permission to do it! Treating persistent thoughts or feelings as though they’re coming from a precious, though hurting, little one needing comfort and tender loving embrace, might feel funny at first, but it can also feel oh so nurturing. Giving your inner parts care, comfort, and space to be just as they are, can be hugely “productive,” though in a very different way. Your inner little one might later thank you for it!
2. Give Yourself Permission to Deliberately Distract
Sometimes our thoughts or feelings simply feel too big, too much, too intense, too scary, too unbearable. It’s important to recognize where you’re at, and move at a pace that feels safe and right for you. Sometimes a distraction from the source of stress, or the emotions, sensations, or thoughts related to the overwhelm, might be just what you need. If what you're feeling feels unbearable, maybe you'll find relief in feeling something else. Invite yourself to get curious---what kind of distraction do you feel like? Some might like exercise, playing a game, scanning social media, binge watching reruns, cooking, snacking, cleaning, organizing, consensual sex, masturbating, or non-sexual touch, hanging out with a friend, adventuring, working on a project, or learning something new. Take the opportunity to consciously and intentionally get to know yourself. Rather than focusing on the source of discomfort or stress, focus on what feels good, what elicits even a tiny bit of pleasure. Let your body lead here and show you what feels good, soothing, fun, or in some way pleasurable. Be honest, and let yourself accept what you're discovering about what feels pleasurable, enjoyable, or right for you in the moment, without judgement. There is no need to defend or justify why you feel drawn to a particular type of distraction---the important part here is that the distraction of choice brings some sense of relief, aliveness, peace, or enjoyment. In this section of your menu, it might be helpful to come up with a few potential options of what feels like a realistic and appealing distraction, that can help you to effectively distract from experiences you might want some distance from.
3. Accept Moments of Blissful Nothingness
Ever find yourself totally zoning out, letting the world around you just fade away, or being completely “unproductive”? Mind-numbing, vegging out, or doing literally nothing, is not typically a recommendation you might hear from a therapist, and you might even feel “bad,” or “guilty” when you notice yourself checking out in the face of piling stress or emotional overwhelm. Though that reprieve of quiet dissociation might be just what you need in the moment to help calm your system down, take the pressure off of "doing," feel a little more safe and secure, and simply take break from it all. Consciously and intentionally allowing yourself to take some time to check-out and let yourself drift, can be a healthy and compassionate way to allow yourself to recharge, settle down, and enjoy sweet nothingness. Aside from the relief and calm that this practice might provide, this can be a way of trust building with your unconscious system. Just like sleep allows your body to heal by redirecting all of that energy and resource that's used in wakefulness to places in the body that need it most, all without you being consciously involved, by getting out the way and untangling yourself from thoughts and feelings, more energy can be freed up and used by unconscious processes working in the background while you drift. You might find that doing nothing comes easily to you, or you might find it really difficult to "turn off" your mind or the sense of pressure to do something. Experiment with letting your body take the lead: what does your body need to help return to a sense of peace, stillness, or quiet? Maybe, sensory deprivation, like lying in a dark, silent room helps you to disconnect. Or perhaps, sensory stimulation, like feeling the soft coat of your pet's fur, or a plushy blanket, listening to soothing sounds or watching the dancing colours of a sunset, helps you to let all the internal noise fade away. Maybe embodied movement, like checking in with how it feels to move your body in subtle ways helps to turn off internal busy-ness, and sink deeper into a sense of quiet, pleasant nothingness. If you find doing nothing difficult, consider setting an alarm to create some structure or boundaries for your zone-out sesh, so that you can really let yourself go while trusting your alarm to ring you back to reality after a consciously unconscious space-out.
4. Receive Gifts from Spiritual Practices and Altered States of Consciousness
This category taps deeply into our collective roots: altered states of consciousness have been part of our collective healing practices since time immemorial. It’s only recently that in our mainstream society, we’ve culturally strayed away from using trance, ceremony, ritual, and other consciousness altering strategies for healing purposes. There is a lot of stigma around the idea of spirituality, and equally so around altering states of consciousness for healing and coping purposes, despite eons of recorded human practice and mountains of legitimate research and literature supporting its validity and efficacy. Moving beyond these topics as concepts, toward experiencing what spiritual connection feels like, or opening up to experiencing the insights revealed through altered states, can be incredibly liberating, awe-inspiring, grounding, and illuminating. There is more to you than you might realize, and this is true for all of us. Regardless of your background, beliefs, or upbringing, every human has the capacity to connect to this sense of wholeness, generativity, and connectivity that we call spirituality. Connecting with the core of your being, and allowing elements of self that are often overlooked or veiled from awareness to be revealed, can be greatly transformative. And if struggling to cope underscores any one particular need, it's the need for some kind of change or transformation to occur. I’ll talk about this important yet controversial topic more in upcoming blog posts (stay tuned!), though if psychedelics, ecstatic dance, chanting, singing, drumming, storytelling, exploring teachings of ancient folklore, mediumship, communing and connecting with nature, connecting with your ancestors and traditional practices, breathwork or meditation journeys sound appealing to you as a coping tool, add them to the menu! There are lots of resources, communities and supports available to help you safely navigate these coping tools if they are not yet part of your regular practice.
5. Allow Your Authentic Expression to Flow
We are so often told how we “should” live, act, and present ourselves. It can be easy to get so caught up in trying to maintain or live up to some ideal image of "perfection," or imposed caricature of “normalcy” that you might end up inadvertently stifling your own energy, burying elements of your unique authentic and whole self, or stuffing your thoughts and feelings down until they eventually burst out on their own, wreaking havoc and chaos. Sometimes, putting on a mask feels like a necessary survival mechanism in an unsafe, or challenging world or situation. Finding a way that works for you to be able to express your internal thoughts and feelings authentically---just as they are without any judgement or censorship---can be a real game changer in terms of gaining awareness and increasing your sense of autonomy, relief, harmony, and balance, within yourself. Establishing a practice and safe way of expressing often buried or hidden elements of your internal world can provide a sense of feeling seen, heard, valued, and validated in your relationship with yourself, which can increase your sense of connection and vibrancy over all. With curiosity for what arises within you, find a practice (or a few practices) that appeals to you as a safe way to facilitate your own self exploration and authentic expression. Whatever practice resonates with you, let your inner world guide and inform your expressions. Maybe devote a journal, or sketchpad, to your inner world, where your inner figures, themes, or experiences, can express without restraint. Maybe another medium, like photography, poetry, dance, makeup, drag, songwriting, music, yoga, or some other form of creative expression is more your style: whatever the medium or modality, experiment with intentionally letting your inner world take charge of your expression. You might find that regularly allowing your inner world the freedom to express authentically, just as it arises, might free up a lot of energy inside, reveal powerful insights, and discharge some of the edge, weight, or intensity of your experiences.
What's On Your Menu?
Having a literal menu of personalized coping tools to choose from can be really helpful, especially for the really challenging times. When you try out a menu item, be intentional: explore why you’re selecting it, be open to allowing your body and inner world to help guide and inform your decision, and set boundaries and seek support if you need to. Review your menu once in a while to see if it still works for you, or if you’d like to make additions or changes. What you like to see on your menu today, might be different from what you would have chosen 5 years ago and might look different from what you’d like 5 years from now. Whatever you choose to put on your unique and custom tailored menu, remember that you’re not alone! Stay connected with others who share your “tastes” in coping tools, build trust in your own discernment of what’s right for you, and find support from trusted, knowledgeable folks to help you practice your coping tools safely and effectively. If you have any questions or concerns, you can also get in touch with me, and I’ll do my best to offer whatever support I can!
I'm Silvia Eleftheriou, MEd., a Registered Psychologist in Alberta and an applicant in BC providing counselling and assessment services in Duncan, and online therapy across BC and Alberta. I'm also a Registered Yoga Teacher, Master Reiki practitioner, EMDR therapist, and all around psychology and consciousness enthusiast. Basically, I'm a human, in ever-evolving conscious relationship with the archetypal energy of the wounded healer. I'm passionate about sharing healing insights that I come across in this complex journey of life and pursuit of healing and wholeness.
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This blog is a place for us to explore tools, practices and insights relevant to the realm of mental health.
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