Week 6, Session 1: Coping mechanisms
Hello everyone! We’re so happy you’re here with us reading Week 6 of the course. Only 2 weeks left!
If this is the first session you’re reading, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!
This week is our week on coping mechanisms: the healthy ones, those that are less healthy, and how healthy mechanisms can become unhealthy. So, the goals for this session are:
- Learn about what protective factors are
- Understand coping mechanisms
- Introduction of positive coping mechanisms.
But of course, as always, we start with a grounding exercise. If you can, please join in.
**Today’s first grounding exercise will be…
**Go get yourself a drink if you can (any kind!). Hot, cold, you choose. Place it in front of you, which cup are you using today? Does it have any special meaning for you? Now concentrate on the colour of your drink. Now on the texture. Now get close and smell it. Can you feel the temperature by holding the cup? Finally, have a sip. Explore the flavour, texture, colour, temperature, smell all blending in your mouth.
Sometimes by taking a sip of water when you are feeling stressed, like before a big meeting, an exam or facing something difficult- we can help our brains understand we are not in danger and reduce the levels of anxiety in our body. It will help our brain think: if they have time to drink water, then I don´t need to awake the fight/flight response!
Fun question: If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Following last week's learning about Resilience, and techniques which can help build resilience, this session we’re going to talk about some more tools to manage your stress and stay well. Firstly, a bit of psychoeducation as a starter before we jump into learning about Coping Mechanisms.
Remember all those things from last session that we can do to enhance our resilience, such as taking care of our bodies and building connections? Well, interestingly enough, these can not only help us become more resilient, but can also act as what we call “Protective Factors”.
Protective factors are behaviours, characteristics or conditions that are associated with lower probability of a particular disorder developing, as well as reducing the severity of that disorder if it does develop. These protective factors apply to many medical conditions across both physical and mental health, and they also apply to stress and trauma. What this means is that by putting in place some techniques and wellbeing pillars, we will be creating a kind of protective fort around us to help us deal with challenging situations in the future.
Of course, the sudden nature of trauma most of the time cannot be prevented, and we cannot be protected against it. But, we can have protective factors in place to help us cope with the aftermath of it. This is also why we asked you to look back and think about what has been helpful for you when dealing with adversity in the past: sometimes we develop very natural ways of coping and we don’t even realise all the hard work we are doing to stay well. It’s also why we encouraged you to ‘remember the past’ as one of your tools for resilience last week.
Now, onto coping. Coping refers to the ability to manage demands, internal or external - these stressors that are at many times perceived as threats. In everyday life, we cope. We receive demands on a regular basis and act on them without much awareness.
As you know, we love visual imagery here at Bloom, so here’s another image. Imagine you are carrying 2 buckets. In one you have your stressors and in the other one your coping mechanisms. If both are balanced, you should be able to keep your balance. But now, think what would happen if you didn’t have enough positive coping mechanisms and your stressors bucket keeps filling up. You will probably feel like you are exhausted, like you can’t carry that stressor bucket anymore, and like you are losing your balance.
You might be able to remember times when you felt you were “not coping well” or losing your balance. You may have felt like the day was going by too quickly and you didn’t get to do what you wanted. We might fall into patterns of doing thing after thing after thing without disconnecting and putting in place any conscious efforts to keep ourselves healthy and balanced. The idea of having coping mechanisms in place is that you can include them in your everyday life and make them a part of your routine so you don’t have to only go to them when you are feeling overwhelmed. On the contrary, if they are part of your everyday life- they are handy and ready for you to make use of them.
Let’s throw some light on it by identifying some common coping mechanisms that are usually helpful. Again, we’ve divided them into things for your body, mind, and environment, just to make it a bit easier to digest. You will notice as we go through this list that many of these positive coping mechanisms are the same as the factors that improve resilience. So there will be some repetition. But this week, we are thinking in terms of these strategies in terms of their more immediate function in our lives, and what they do for us: how these mechanisms help us manage daily stressors, as opposed to their long-term utility in building up our resilience. We will build on this understanding of the function of positive coping mechanisms in order to examine how some positive coping mechanisms can become less healthy.
So, some positive coping mechanisms are:
For your body:
- Physical exercise: we all know it! Exercising reduces the level of stress hormones in the body and gives us that boost. It’s all happening without us even noticing. Even if you stand up right now and do a few jumps, or move your arms from side to side, up and down like we did with our grounding exercise- your blood starts flowing and it helps our body and mind restart and rejuvenate.
- Cooking: incredible opportunity to connect with your senses and creativity. Many people enjoy cooking because they can let things flow, they put their thoughts to rest, and they enjoy the sensory experience both of making food and eating it.
- Being outdoors: having regular contact with nature or going for some fresh air can change the way we feel about things. Schedule a regular walk if this is possible for you, or some outdoors time to allow your mind to breathe.
- Practice your breathing and grounding techniques: find the ones that work for you and practice them, as much as you can so your brain can learn them.
- Take care of your body in a way that makes you feel good: have a bath, paint your nails, do your hair, put on a face mask, etc.
- Meditate or do Yoga: a wonderful way of grounding ourselves, connecting with our bodies, with the here and now and practicing our breathing. There are trauma-sensitive types of yoga such as yin yoga.
For your mind:
- Submerge yourself into fiction: reading or watching films and TV shows can be a lovely respite from our day and stress. This is okay to do. We all need a healthy escape into stories, fiction and adventures. Try to avoid overly dramatic or violent films if you are struggling with anxiety or trauma reactions, as it’s good to give your mind a rest from too much tension.
- Music: listening or playing music can be a great source of comfort. In conjunction with physical exercise - physical movement to music in the form of dancing, drumming or any other rhythmic expression - music can be incredibly powerful for people who have suffered trauma as it requires us to stay in the present, and we focus on our movement and breathing.
- Do some art: painting, drawing and other art forms can allow us to express what we can’t verbalise. Let your creativity take over!
- Keep your sense of humour: studies have shown that sense of humour is an indicator of resilience. Try to use your sense of humour or find funny things that can give you a little boost. Keeping humour as coping mechanisms can really help in the situation of having to deal with adversity. It won’t take away the sad nature of what has happened but can provide your brain with some relief from it. Maybe get in touch with that friend that you know makes you laugh every time, or watch that show that usually gets you to at least smile.
For your environment:
- Connect with friends, family, and loved ones: make sure you don’t isolate yourself, and stay in touch with your loved ones.
This list is not exhaustive; there are many, many other coping mechanisms that can help you, these are just a few. Can you think of any that you use which are not on this list? Write them down!
Finally, we also wanted to briefly address how and when healthy coping mechanisms can become unhealthy.
Our healthy coping mechanisms can become unhealthy if we are using them consistently as a form of avoidance. So it’s important to keep an eye on them!
Let’s think about eating for a moment, as people often talk about eating too much cake or too many sweets when you ask them about a coping mechanism that could or has become unhealthy. Firstly, the good side: eating comfort food can work wonders to make us feel better and help us recuperate from highly stressful or traumatic experiences. However, if we only resort to this coping mechanism in times of difficulty, even though the coping mechanism is not unhealthy on its own, it can lead to an unhealthy use of it. We want our coping mechanisms to be as varied and colorful as the food we should have on our plate. The more you have, the more chances we have to lead a healthy life.
Another example of a healthy coping mechanism turned less healthy is over-exercising. Unlike eating, not many people would mention working out as something that can be unhealthy, so why are we mentioning it? Isn’t exercising linked to decreasing stress levels and filling our body with endorphins? In short, yes.
But if we exercise to a very great extent - such that we don’t have time in our lives to see people or do other activities that we find fulfilling, that we cannot get through a single day if we haven’t exercised to the extent or intensity we deem ‘satisfactory’ - that’s less healthy. And that’s the thing about unhealthy coping mechanisms. When you feel like you “need” an activity or thing to be able to “get through the day”, that is when it has become a dependency. If used very excessively, exercise, which is usually a way to keep ourselves healthy and fit, can lead to fatigue, muscle damage, dehydration, and large mood changes.
Similarly, swiping through social media for inspiration on makeup, fitness, or even going on holiday may be a nice time-kill, but when you obsessively go through social media, start comparing your life to others and feel anxiety looking through it - you know something is wrong. Overworking can be another common coping mechanism that can turn unhealthy if done too much. We may derive satisfaction and even purpose from our work, and that purpose is indeed one of our tools for resilience we discussed last week. But we may overwork to the extent that is not enjoyable, but also such that we feel unable to gain satisfaction from anything else in our lives except for work. We turn to work to numb ourselves from everything else in our lives, and don’t engage in any other meaningful activities. We will go a little bit more into why we use positive coping mechanisms to an unhealthy extent in the next session.
So, we can enter a cycle of dependency with our coping mechanisms if we are using them to excess. This is the cycle of how ‘want to’ becomes ‘need to’: we repeat -- we do it to excess -- we become dependent on the behaviour -- we experience a lack of enjoyment.
This lack of enjoyment is different, however, from the reluctance we may experience to engage in positive coping mechanisms when we’re going through a difficult period. For example, when we’re feeling low or depressed, we might not want to leave the house and go for a walk, or see our friends. It is very normal to feel this, and not something we should be ashamed of. However, at these times, it is important to still try to do something positive for ourselves. Maybe not every single time, but more often than not. It goes back to that hope: the belief that investing in our wellbeing and resilience, even if we don’t want to or feel like it is ‘not worth it’ in the moment, will over time be nourishing and fulfilling.
The homework for this week is… Think about your buckets: one is your coping mechanisms, one is your stressors. If you would like to, draw yourself carrying those buckets. What is in each bucket? What are your stressors, and what coping mechanisms do you have in place to deal with these?
Then, make a list of the coping mechanisms you want to try. The more the merrier, as you never know which one may come in handy in unexpected situations. Keep your plate of coping mechanisms full and colourful. Are there coping mechanisms you’d like to get more into? Try one that you have not tried before.
Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this.