Everyone can benefit from using coping strategies for times when our thoughts and / or body sensations are sounding the alarms of stress, anxiety or depression. I am gifting to you my secret stash of top coping skills frequently used in therapy sessions with patients. If you are new to these skills, some of the strategies may not resonate with you and that is normal. A few years ago, I was running a family therapy session and a 13- year-old son was laughing at the idea of his mother engaging in mindfulness by tasting and eating a raison. He thought, “How can tasting a raison really help someone feel better.” The idea was absurd to the young man. And, you know what? He was right! If we are not open to new ideas with a willingness to try them consistently as an experiment, then they are just absurd ideas. Once we try the skills and experience them for ourselves over several trials, we will better understand how the skill might benefit us. Mindfulness is a particular skill that I personally have had a high success rate of turning cynics into believers after they used the skills on a regular basis.
Recommended Practice: I recommend practicing the skills while seeing a skilled therapist to help you process your experience. Emotions may increase as we create more awareness of our bodies, feelings and present moment. By doing so, we are operating with less avoidance and therefore we may need extra support.
Practice each skill 1x/day over the course of a week. You may choose to try all of the skills throughout each day, or focus on one or two skills each week until you are able to try them all. Each skill also has a particular purpose and therefore you may have more interest in trying the skills that are the best match for your needs. As you practice each skill create a log of what your feelings are before and after completing the exercise. Some patients find it useful to use a scale such as 0-10 to rate the level of a symptom before and after completing an exercise.
Deep Breathing for calming stress and anxiety (4 minutes): Deep breathing helps regulate the amygdala in the brain, which is the area of the brain where anxiety/emotions are regulated. By breathing deeply for several minutes we are able to calm the amygdala and therefore reduce our physical reactions of stress, anxiety and panic. Deep breathing can help us focus on one thing, our breath which can help reduce ruminating on stressful things in our lives.
How to do it: Breath in (inhale) for 4 seconds; hold for 4 seconds; breath out (exhale) for 8 seconds. When breathing in, push abdomen out to breath deep from diaphragm. If you find it difficult to maintain the breath pattern, take two regular breaths between deep breaths and then continue with the deep breathing. Complete breath work for a minimum of 4 minutes. Note how you felt before and after completing the deep breathing exercise.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation Meditation (5-10 minutes): Search YouTube for “progressive muscle relaxation, 5 minutes” to find a meditation that guides you through progressive muscle relaxation for the period of time that works for you. Guided progressive muscle relaxations may range from a few minutes to 30 minutes or more. Find a mediation with a narrator and background sounds that work for you. The meditations typically have two different styles:
- Style 1: The narrator will guide the listener to tense their muscles then release in order to notice the contrast (start with your toes then move up your legs, thighs, stomach, back, arms, neck, face and head). Tensing each part and relaxing fully as you go.
- Style 2: No tensing. The narrator will direct the listener to relax each muscle group starting with your feet moving up to the listener’s head.
Leaf-Stream Meditation (5-10 minutes): Search for “leaf-stream Meditation” on YouTube. The leaf-stream mediation teaches the listener to experience thoughts as interesting events, rather than something to react to emotionally. The purpose of the exercise is to increase acceptance of thoughts rather than reacting to thoughts. The narrator guides the listener to visualize leaves floating on a stream. The listener is instructed to place their thoughts on a leaf and to let them float naturally without controlling the thoughts or reacting to the thoughts. The exercise is also a great tool to use as a way to pay attention to the thoughts that are harder to observe. Pay special attention to the thoughts that distract you from the mediation. The distracting thoughts are the thoughts that create additional thoughts and judgments. Once we notice we are no longer just observing thoughts, the listener is encouraged to gently bring their awareness back to the leaves and the stream.
Note: If you have difficulty imagining a stream and leaves, I recommend using a variation of the exercise. Instead of the leaves and stream, try imagining a clear bubble in space instead as there will be less detail to try to imagine. The rest of the exercise is similar, by letting the bubbles float around and away in space, as the leaves on the stream float around and downstream.
5-4-3-2-1 Mindfulness (5-10 minutes): The purpose of 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness is for the participant to pay attention to each of their five senses, one at a time. By giving attention to our senses, we practice having complete awareness of the present moment. Paying attention to the present moments may help reduce anxiety, reduce rumination of thoughts and help you feel grounded.
- Pay attention to 5 things visually: Visual cues may be accessories on a person; Items in a yard; items in a room; items in a car; textures and patterns of a plant or tree or an animal. If I am in a room I like to look at what I haven’t noticed before. We are looking at the fine details such as the pattern of the carpet, location of door stops, location of outlets, patterns of ceiling tiles, and sometimes even something as a big as a bookshelf goes unnoticed if we are not being mindful.
- Pay attention to 4 things you feel: You can pay attention to the feeling of your clothing, shoes, jewelry, accessories, temperature of the air on your skin, textures, padding of carpet or hardness of floor, softness of grass, plushness or firmness of seat, couch or bed.
- Listen for 3 sounds you can hear
What sounds do you hear when you sit still and listen deeply for 1-2 minutes? Extra credit if you can challenge yourself to hear more than 3 sounds!
- Identify 2 things you can smell
Describe the smells to yourself. If you do not smell much at all, you can use essential oils, perfume, deodorant, candles, food items or anything else that might provide you with nice smells. Pay attention to all sensations you get from the smells including any emotions. Play around with descriptions of smells. Use nouns or verbs to describe the smell. If you were to market the smell, how would you advertise it in one line?
- Identify 1 thing you can taste
What is the texture like? What is the taste like? What part ofyour tongue can sense the flavors? What are the sensations of chewing the item? Does your mouth water? What is the texture of the food items if it is something you swallow? Did the taste or sensation change from start to finish? Did the taste or flavor become stronger or weaker over the duration of the exercise? What is the after taste like?
Exercise (10- 30 minutes): Exercise can serve many purposes in helping us cope during difficult situation. Exercise can serve as a distraction. Exercise helps us to practice deep breathing and increase our intake of oxygen. Exercise can also produce endorphins, which are hormones that help us feel better. However, not all exercise is equal as a coping strategy. Some exercise or sports may increase our stress if there is intense competition. I recommend choosing exercise that can lead to relaxation, calmness and a sense of achievement post-workout. Examples of calming exercises may include aerobic exercises like running, biking, swimming or elliptical machines. Yoga is another great option to increase the heart rate, and yoga forces us to pay attention to our body position and our breath, bringing us into a state of mindfulness. For people who have not been active, you can simply go for 30-minute walk outside, working to increase your heart rate. To make things even more enjoyable you might be able to find a regular group to workout with such as a walking club or a running club. Please seek approval from your primary care physician or any other medical professional you work with prior to starting a new exercise routine. For further reading on the benefits of exercise for mental health please visit click here for a blog on additional benefits of exercise
Shifting our intention to using coping skills in a conscious manner can be empowering for our overall health. As stated in the article above I recommend practicing the skills with a therapist if you are experiencing high levels of stress, depression, anxiety, grief or other interpersonal conflict or emotional difficulties.
We would love to hear from you – what are your go to coping skills? Did you try any of the skills listed above? What were your results? If you would like to learn additional coping skills or would like to create a more customized plan to suite your individual needs, please reach out to a PrairieCare location near you.
Jason Griswold, LICSW is an outpatient therapist for PrairieCare in Woodbury, MN. Please visit the Woodbury page for information about scheduling an appointment with Jason: https://www.prairie-care.com/locations/woodbury/