Coping Strategies

What Are Coping Strategies?

Coping strategies are activities or behaviours that we consciously carry out in order to deal with stressful situations and/or difficult emotions in life.

Whether it’s going through a breakup or having a rough day at work, having healthy coping skills allows us to get through the tough times and continue moving forward.

Problem-Based vs. Emotion-Based Coping

There are two main types of coping strategies:

1. Problem-Based Coping

This strategy involves engaging in behaviours that actively change the stressful situation we are trying to overcome.

Examples
  • Creating a to-do list
  • Asking someone else for their support
  • Working on our time management
  • Establishing healthy boundaries
  • Walking away

2. Emotion-Based Coping

This strategy focuses more on taking care of our feelings when we are unable to change the circumstances of the situation.

Examples
  • Giving ourselves a pep talk
  • Going for a walk
  • Taking a bath
  • Making ourselves a cup of tea or cooking a meal we enjoy
  • Listening to some calming music
  • Journaling our feelings

Note: click here for self-care activities that you can implement into your life. 

One type of coping strategy isn’t necessarily better than the other, it is up to you to decide which strategy is likely to work best for you in response to your particular situation. In some cases, it may even be beneficial to use both. You can look at the example scenario below to see how the different strategies could be applied in a real life situation. 

Example Scenario: Your boss invites you to lead an important presentation at work in front of a large group. You agree but as the event approaches, you become increasingly anxious as you hate public speaking.

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Problem-Based Coping

You practice your presentation in front of a small group of friends and family so that you will feel better prepared to get up on stage. 

Emotion-Based Coping

You tell yourself that you can do this and practice relaxation techniques whenever you feel yourself starting to panic. 

Relaxation Techniques For Coping 

Relaxation techniques are emotion-based coping strategies that can be used to calm the mind and reduce muscle tension during moments of high stress or anxiety. Each technique allows us to take a step back from the stressful situation by clearing our mind and re-focussing our attention on the task at hand. Once complete, we can then return to the situation with a fresh perspective.

Below are some quick and easy examples for you to try. You can use these whenever and wherever you need to throughout the day. 

Box Breathing

A breathing exercise designed to help recentre the mind and improve concentration. 

5-4-3-2-1 Technique

Turn your attention away from disruptive thoughts, memories or worries.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Tensing and relaxing one group of muscles at a time.  

Mindfulness & Meditation

Practice of focussing our attention on the ‘here and now’. 

Box Breathing

Box breathing (also known as four-square breathing) is a deep breathing exercise designed to help recentre the mind and improve concentration. It is easy to learn and quick to perform.

Before starting, make sure you are sitting in a comfortable position with your back supported and your feet on the floor.

Then follow these four simple steps: 

1. Close your eyes and breathe in through your nose whilst slowly counting to four in your head (pay close attention to the feeling of the air filling your lungs as you inhale). 

2. Hold your breath inside whilst counting slowly for another four seconds (try not to clamp your nose or mouth shut but rather avoid inhaling or exhaling until the count of four). 

3. Begin to slowly exhale through your nose for another four seconds. 

4. Repeat steps 1-3 at least three times (ideally, if you have time, repeat the steps for four minutes). 

With practice, you may be able to increase your counts to five or six seconds for each step, whatever you are comfortable with. 

 

5-4-3-2-1 Technique

The 5-4-3-2-1 technique is a grounding exercise which allows you to turn your attention away from disruptive thoughts, memories or worries and refocus on the present moment. 

This technique requires you to purposefully take in details of your current surroundings using each of your senses.

This technique requires you to purposefully take in details of your current surroundings using each of your senses. 

As you make your way through each of the senses, you can either name the corresponding objects out loud or you can write them down.

    1. What are 5 things you can see? E.g. an object you haven’t noticed before, reflections of the sun or something outside. 
    2. What are 4 things you can feel? E.g. the temperature of the room, a light breeze, your clothes on your body or your chair.
    3. What are 3 things you can hear? – E.g. a distant TV, traffic, a ticking clock or someone talking outside.
    4. What are 2 things you can smell? – E.g. flowers, candles, food, air freshener or perfume.
    5. What is 1 thing you can taste? – E.g. chewing gum, your lunch or coffee.

Note: try to pay special attention to small details that your mind would usually tune out, such as distant sounds or the texture of an object that you see everyday. 

In the next tab, we have included a printable guide and a video to help you get started.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Progressive muscle relaxation is a deep relaxation technique based on the simple practice of tensing and then relaxing one group of muscles at a time.

When trying progressive muscle relaxation for the first time, it can be helpful to follow an audio recording (see ‘Audios’ tab) to help you focus on each muscle group. Alternatively, you can learn the order of the muscle groups using our PMR chart and perform the exercises. 

You can use audio instructions (see ‘Audios’ tab) or our PMR chart to perform Progressive Muscle Relaxation. If using the chart, remember that for hands, arms and legs, tense and relax one side of the body at a time. 

Before starting, make sure to lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably. 

1. Breathe in through your nose and tense the first muscle group for 5-10 seconds. 

2. Breathe out and completely relax the muscle group (it is important that you do not relax gradually but all at once). 

3. Stay completely relaxed for 10 to 20 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group (take time to notice the difference between how your muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when they are relaxed). 

4. Make your way through all of the muscle groups in order.

5. When you have finished, count backwards from 5 to bring your focus back to the present. 

There are many PMR audios available by different institutions and organisations.

Just pick one that feels right for you and give it a go.

 

Mindfulness & Meditation

Mindfulness is the practice of focussing our attention on the ‘here and now’. It is a state of observing our current thoughts and feelings without judging them. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool for identifying and managing troubling thoughts and feelings and can help us to avoid harsh self-criticism and judgement.

Meditation is one of many ways to practice mindfulness. It is a technique that allows us to take a break from our day in order to tune in with ourselves. Meditation can help us to relax, relieve stress, connect with ourselves, manage pain or discomfort and reduce negative thoughts. It is easy to learn and can take as little as 5 minutes to perform. 

For more information and exercises on mindfulness and meditation, visit the ‘Mindfulness & Meditation‘ module. 

Unhealthy Coping Strategies To Avoid

Just because a strategy helps us to deal with stressful or emotional situations, it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Unhealthy coping strategies, whilst offering a temporary solution to our problem(s), often end up creating bigger problems in the long run.

Some example of unhealthy coping strategies are:

 

Excessive Drinking/Drug Use

Excessive or inappropriate use of alcohol and/or other drugs as they offer immediate relief by suppressing overwhelming feelings. 

Overeating/Binging

Eating too much and/or too frequently to cope with unpleasant feelings. 

Sleeping Too Much

Sleeping often feels like an effective way to avoid dealing with the stressful or emotional situation. 

Overspending

Spending money as a way to soothe difficult emotions.

Withdrawing

Withdrawing from friends and becoming socially isolated to cope with uncomfortable experiences.

We are all guilty of using unhealthy coping strategies from time to time, after all we are only human. However, if you find yourself consistently and/or repeatedly engaging in these types of behaviour, it is important that you SEEK HELP FROM YOUR GP or contact one of these helplines.

Additional Resources

  • Calm – guided meditations, breathing exercises and sleep stories. 
  • Colorfy – paint mandalas, patterns, animals, florals and thematic images to relax. 
  • Shine – daily mental health check-in. 
  • Breathwork – guided musical breathwork.
  • Happify – overcome negative thoughts, stress and life’s challenges. 

  • Relaxation Techniques. Audio files of relaxation techniques that can help relieve stress and gain a sense of well-being. Available in both male and female voices.
  • Deep Breathing & Guided Relaxation. Find downloads to help with deep breathing and relaxation in order to calm your body. 
  • Relaxing The Entire Body. A simple and effective way to let go of physical, mental and emotional tension.
  • Relaxation Exercise. This video combines narration by Dr. Jason Ediger with relaxing visuals to help guide you through a breathing exercise that reduces anxiety and stress.