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Building Coping Skills One Level at a Time

Updated: Oct 23

Self-care, planned coping, and in-the-moment distress tolerance skills are all important tools for managing stress and maintaining emotional well-being. While they may seem interchangeable, each approach to managing stress has its own unique benefits and drawbacks. These skills are helpful to everyone, but especially those with trauma histories, anxiety, or neurodivergence (like ADHD), whose brains can be more sensitive to overwhelm.

Regular self-care involves taking time to engage in activities that promote relaxation, rejuvenation, and self-reflection. The goal of regular self-care is to build resilience by creating a foundation of physical and emotional wellness that can help you better manage stress when it arises. Having scheduled daily, weekly, and monthly self-care activities can make this most effective.

Daily self-care might include a gratitude journal, a lunch-break walk, or mindfully enjoying your morning coffee. Weekly self-care could be a regular yoga class, phone check-ins with your close friends, or a movie night at home. Monthly, you may plan something a bit more involved like a lunch date, a massage appointment, or weekend road trip. What you schedule will depend on what fills your cup, but putting it ON the schedule is the key- otherwise you can easily get caught saying "next week" and never getting to do the actual self-care (I have been guilty of this at times).

Planned coping, on the other hand, involves developing strategies for managing stress that can be implemented in advance of a stressful situation. This might include things like making a plan for how to handle a difficult conversation with a coworker or practicing deep breathing exercises before a big presentation. The goal of planned coping is to prepare yourself ahead of time so that you can respond to stress in a measured, intentional way.

Planned coping sometimes also involves having a handful of grounding or breathing exercises ready so that if you notice your stress level climbing, you can bring it back down before it becomes really overwhelming.

In-the-moment distress tolerance skills are techniques that can be used to manage intense emotions when they arise. The goal of in-the-moment distress tolerance is to help you manage intense emotions in a healthy way, rather than letting them spiral out of control. Even if you practice regular self-care and have planned coping skills at the ready, sometimes stress and overwhelm happen too quickly and before you know it you have gone from 0 to 100. In the heat of the moment, rationally thinking through your planned coping skills is not going to help and you need something quick and simple to reset your nervous system.

One way to do this is to use DBT "TIPP" Skills:

  1. Temperature: splash cold water on your face, drink ice water, have a cold or hot shower, step outside into the sunshine. Do something to quickly shift the temperature of your body which gets your nervous system focused on the new sensation instead of the overwhelm. (*helpful hint: cold temperatures decrease your heartrate- good for overwhelm- and warm temperatures increase your heartrate- good for sad feelings)

  2. Intense Exercsise: A quick set of squats, jogging up the stairs, or some jumping jacks for 10 minutes helps move exess energy. When stressed, the nervous system activates and if there is nowhere for the energy to go the overwhelm can feel more intense.

  3. Paced Breathing: Sometimes when overwhelmed breathing becomes fast and shallow, or overly deep. Try to even out your breathing with a breathing exercise. Something like box breathing can be helpful (breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, breathe out for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds).

  4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation: Starting at the top of your head, feel each muscle group as you tighten it and then let it go. This helps each area of your body purposely relax, and helps you mindfully check in on different areas in your body.

While each of these approaches to managing stress has its own unique benefits, they are all important tools for maintaining emotional well-being. Therapists trained in DBT, like myself, can help you develop skills for regular self-care, planned coping, and distress tolerance.

What are you best at? Self-care, planned coping, or distress tolerance?

Keep building these habits one by one! -Alana at Lunar Light

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