The Coping Skills Lounge

Skill #1: (Therapeutically) Breathing

You can practice deep breathing by holding your hand on your belly. Every time you breathe in, try to make your belly push your hand away. When you breathe out, your hand should lower back down.

Try “square breathing” – in for 4 sec, hold for 4 sec, out for 4 sec, hold for 4 sec. (the times can be flexible – for most of us it’s more of like a rhomboid or parallelogram or something).Open your mouth wide and take a deep breath. Pretend you are blowing up a balloon very slowly. Visualize the balloon, and how it expands.

Blow all of your worries, fears, pains, and sadness into the balloon.

When it’s full, let it float away and carry your distress away with it.

Start with a new balloon, and blow up as many of them as you need to.

Skill #2: Find something positive or hopeful.

Don’t get lost in the despair. Sure, some things are really hard right now. Some things are really hard in general. It can help to remind yourself that there are still moments to be inspired and hopeful.

The other day, I saw two different vehicles stop to help someone who had broken down on the highway. I doubt they knew if she had COVID or not, and they stopped anyway. And THAT, ladies/gentleman/non-binary people, is a hopeful thing.

In some ways, this is a trauma we are all going through together. As someone who works with a lot of folks who have been through a lot of trauma, it would be easy to get lost in the feeling or belief that the world is a hopeless place. But the thing is…it isn’t. I hear a lot of heart-wrenching stories on a regular basis, but my patients remind me of at least as much that is right in the world.

I am inspired every day by all of you, and your strength, compassion, and ability to find humor in times of sorrow.

So in your more positive moments, keep a list of the things that inspire you, make you feel grateful, or give you hope. And re-read it when you are feeling negative…whether or not you feel able to believe in hope at that moment.

Skill #3: Ground Yourself.

But I’m already grounded, you say. You can’t get much more grounded than being stuck in a quarantine.

(I’m sorry – that was a terrible joke. But it’s not that type of grounding.)

There are a billion or more exercises on mindfulness and grounding. Seriously, google “meditation,” “grounding exercises,” “progressive muscle relaxation,” etc and you will be up to your survival brain in exercises.

A basic one is just noticing stuff around you. Take note of 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste.

Congratulations, you now know a grounding exercise!

Skill #4: Defusion

Defusion is a therapy technique where you notice a thought or feeling is there, but you don’t let it make you do stuff you don’t want to do.

“Oh, I notice some anxiety is here. I’m having the thought that we are all doomed.” And then, key point…you keep doing what matters to you in the moment. This is partly about distancing yourself from the thoughts and feelings.

Imagine that instead of feeling anger, you could visualize an erupting volcano across an ocean from you. This, my friends, is defusion.

Skill #5: Radical Acceptance

This skill helps us manage stuff that we really don’t like, but that we don’t have any control over. This is about focusing on what you can control, and what can help you now.

For example, I cannot control the way that masks are being manufactured in any way. I can’t go back in time and tell us all to increase production. I am not a mask-manufacturer. So once I accept that (radically) then I can focus my energy on something that might actually help me. I can use a washable cloth mask, or reuse masks. I can encourage people I know to do the same.

Part of radical acceptance is knowing that just because we have pain, doesn’t mean we have to suffer. So, how do we stop suffering? We accept what we can’t change, and we work on the things that we do have some power over.

So, sounds great…but how do you practice? By picking stuff that gives you 2/10 anxiety rather than 10/10 anxiety. Or pick something that annoys you but doesn’t feel traumatizing. Start there. You can’t play Mozart before you can read music and play scales. Similarly, you can’t radically accept Coronavirus (or anything else that is really distressing) if you have never used radical acceptance before.

There’s no use fighting the past. It’s a waste of time and energy to obsess over things I can’t control.

Skill #6: It’s okay to feel your feelings.

The more I say “don’t think about zebras,” the more you think about zebras. It’s okay if you are sad, angry, worried, etc. You don’t have to suppress it. And if you try to suppress anything for too long, it eventually explodes its way free in a way that probably isn’t too helpful.

Allow yourself space to recognize that (blank) emotion is here, and to express it in a healthy way. This can be journaling, drawing, exercise, balling up pieces of paper and hurling them at the wall, engaging in something that gives you a distracting sensation (such as tasting a small amount of pepper or putting your finger in something very cold), yelling into a pillow or yell-jar,… I could go on but I may be losing your attention already.

If you don’t know what a yell-jar is, try using a canister (similar to a Lays Stax container, which I have no proprietary relationship with) with holes poked in the bottom. Stuff it with crumpled up paper towels, tissue paper, notebook paper, or something other than toilet paper since it is impossible to find any. Go ahead – yell! It’s not silent, but I know from personal experience you can do this in the same house with small children and not end up with everyone awake again. (You will want to put the opening over your mouth and under your nose, and if it isn’t pressed up against your skin the device won’t work. The lid is on in the picture below just to keep it from getting dusty.)

Skill #7: Give yourself some compassion.

What’s so great about self-compassion…and how is it different from self esteem?

One great thing is that you don’t have to have good self-esteem to give yourself compassion. On the flip side, you don’t have to have low self esteem in order to be really self-critical…which is less positive.

I love working on self-compassion with people because you don’t have to be anywhere along the self-esteem pathway to start practicing self-compassion. Even if you absolutely can’t stand yourself, you still can give yourself compassion. You probably do it all the time for other people, including people you don’t like.

And if you already love yourself, chances are that you are like most of us and could benefit from some self-compassion practice, too.

It doesn’t matter whether or not your self-critical thought is “true.” We know that very harsh self-criticism is not helpful. (See the flowchart above if you want, but I can pretty much guarantee that it is not helpful or at the very list its harms outweigh its benefits.) So if we accept that it is not helpful, let’s figure out how to stop saying that stuff to ourselves.
Here’s some good news: my guess is that you already know how to do this. You have probably resisted the urge to say something mean to someone else a lot of times. How did you do it then? Did it matter if your thought was true or not? No, because there were going to be some unacceptable consequences to saying it. You are capable of giving compassion to others, even when you believe in the truth of your negative thoughts about them. You don’t have to convince yourself that your negative thoughts aren’t true (yet). You just need to stop following them down rabbit holes where they can ruin your day.

So, let’s have a self-compassion moment. I am going to give myself a little compassion for the fact that this is the first time I’ve posted a new coping skill in a few weeks.

It’s been a busy and stressful time, and we are all doing the best that we can with the situations, free time, and skills that we have.

There. That wasn’t so bad. Good luck!

Skill #7.5 Self Compassion and Shame Resilience.

If you ever want more to read, Brené Brown writes some great stuff on shame resilience. She talks about shame as “pain without purpose.” In a nutshell: guilt means I recognize I made a mistake, know that I’m human, and do what I need to do in order to move forward in a more healthy way. Shame means that I see my mistake, but I use it to label myself as a horrible human being and continue to inflict mental pain on myself as some form of penance.

I have a very rambunctious four-year-old. Imagine my four-year-old running down the street in a pair of shoes that are not good for running. I’ve told her 100 times not to run in those shoes, and I’ve told her a dozen times today to be careful. She falls down, skins her knee, and starts to cry.

What can I do? I can’t “un-skin” her knee. It’s done. The only thing I can do is decide how I respond to the situation at hand. I can correct her mistake, reminding her that I love her and that I’m sorry she’s hurt. I can take care of her knee and ask her to be more careful next time.

Now, no one is a perfect parent, and I’m no exception. We do the best we can, with what we have to give. But as we’re talking about this, we’re not “in the moment,” and our rational brains are engaged. I can separate in this moment from the frustration of not being listened to, and the fear and distress over my child being hurt. Why? Because my rational brain knows better than to scream at her for not listening, ignore her tears, and belittle her for making such a foolish mistake. My rational brain knows that I can accomplish the same goal of correcting her behavior in a better way, and that shaming her causes harm without any good to offset it.

We all have different sides, or parts, of ourselves. For many of us, but particularly those of us who are parents or have ever cared for a child, thinking about how we respond to our children can help us to access our healthiest, most adult selves. Your inner healthy adult is way more equipped to deal with life, and to keep you safe, than some other parts that might be hanging around. You know how we all have times when we are rational and compassionate (rather than flying off the handle), and when we make smart decisions for ourselves that are consistent with our values? Allow me to introduce you to your healthy adult self.

Sometimes people give me a funny look when I talk about the skinned-knee example from above and ask them which is the “right” response. So, why ask the question? I ask the question becausewe need to access that “most healthy, adult self” part of ourselves…the part that knows better than to shame a four-year-old for a mistake, especially when she’s already hurting…the next time we’re being self-critical.

Skill #8: Opposite Body Actions

When your fear response is active, you may notice that you hunch your shoulders, clench your hands, or grimace. The body is displaying anxiety – by helping your body to relax, it can help your mind to calm as well.

Allow your body to move in a way that expresses the opposite of what you’re feeling. For example, if you have the urge to freeze, move whatever parts of your body that you can.

Start small if you need to. If you’re not sure what to do, you can use a “power pose” (think Superman) to remind yourself that you are in control of your emotions – they don’t control you.

Skill #9: Perfect is, in fact, the Enemy of Good

Wow, it’s been awhile since I posted a new skill! I’ve actually been trying to think of some profound post to add here, and as a result I just haven’t put anything up in awhile. Which skill should I post? What should I write about it? I have a million other things to do…And I put it off.

I don’t remember the exact quote, and I am going to embrace my non-perfection by NOT looking it up at the moment. But striving for perfection really can keep us from doing things that are worthwhile. Does anybody care if I have the most genius post ever to put on this list of skills? My guess is “no.” Are all of my patients (or potential patients) judging my skills based on this very post? Maybe. (Probably not, though.) And honestly, a false image of perfection is not exactly what I’m going for here, anyway.

Perfection is, in theory, great. However, the drive for perfection can stand in the way of doing things that still matter. I played the violin and the trombone through college. I was never the “best,” but I had fun, I learned a lot, and I made some of the best friends in my life through music. Similarly, if I’d waited until I could be a “perfect” mother to have kids, I’d still be waiting. And I’d be missing out on something amazing as a result.

The “skill” part of this post is in developing a way to remind yourself that perfection shouldn’t always be the end goal. For me, I think about the “good enough mother” concept in psychology. The “good enough” caregiver doesn’t abuse or neglect their kids, but also sometimes fails them in tolerable ways. Because even with the best intentions, sometimes we don’t hear them the first time they call us, understand what they are trying to tell us right away, or have the perfect response to every tantrum or emotionally challenging experience. And that’s okay. The overall pattern, or tone of the relationship, is important, too.

Do my kids know that I love them, that I won’t hurt them on purpose, and that I will always try to be there for them when it matters? Hopefully. Do they also tell me I’m “the worst” if I ask them to do something they don’t want to do? I plead the fifth. But that’s okay. Because this world can be challenging, and frustrating. It won’t always revolve around them, and they won’t always get their way or be understood effortlessly. The coping skill here? I can remind myself that I am doing the best that I can, and that making mistakes sometimes might even help my children to grow into stronger people as adults. No matter how well I do, they are going to face some level of frustration and disappointment as adults in society, and part of my job as a parent is to help them to be ready.

So to sum up, my advice is to find yourself some kind of self-compassionate reminder about perfection. You can try this one if you’d like:

“I’m doing the best that I can. Perfection is unattainable, but each positive or meaningful step that I take MATTERS.”