Four Types of Coping Strategies
I'm often asked by clients to clarify what is and what is not a coping strategy. While almost anything can be a coping strategy if we go by the definition that says a coping strategy is anything that helps you get through a stressful moment, there are obviously more adaptive vs. maladaptive coping strategies. In order to move away from some of the go-to maladaptive coping strategies that many people develop out of necessity and convenience, such as alcohol/substance use, overspending, or avoidance, we need to work a bit to establish more adaptive coping strategies and reduce barriers for using these in our lives.
Below are the 4 main types of adaptive coping strategies. I've included tips on how to use each in a preventative way and as a reaction to a stressful event. Both types of coping should be something you incorporate into your life, as preventative coping can help you build natural resilience in the face of stress but doesn't eliminate stress from your life, and you will need to use reactive coping strategies when that occurs.
As a preventative: To build and store capacity to ready yourself for something you know will drain you. This is what we think of when we're "charging our social batteries".
As a reaction: When you’re in distress, having comfort items readily available (stuffies, music, safe foods, stim toys) will provide a sense of familiarity and safety that will automatically help you regulate. Also, planning for a period of rest and re-charging after a draining event will help you recover more quickly and avoid burnout.
As a preventative: When your thoughts are starting to spiral, use distraction as a thought-stopping technique. Focus on anything that shifts your attention out of your own head.
As a reaction: When you’re in crisis mode or acute distress, distraction should be your go-to coping method until you regulate enough to be able to use other coping skills. However, the goal of distraction should be using it as a temporary fix. If you keep using it long-term, you’re simply avoiding your problems.
As a preventative: When do I feel good and how can I make this happen more? Bring mindful awareness to moments when you feel happy, calm, or regulated. What about your environment or activities are helping you feel this way? Bring more of that into your life.
As a reaction: What happened that made me feel bad, get overstimulated, or dysregulated? What about the environment or that situation can I avoid or change in the future? How can I accommodate my own needs?
As a preventative: Develop and practice self-compassion, connect with a sense of positive self-identity related to your disability, work on developing resilience skills and planning/preparing for bad times during the good times (I call this prepping for the hurricane).
As a reaction: Keep in mind that top-down strategies will only be accessible to you when you are well-regulated because they require your prefrontal cortex to be “online”, so these won’t be an option until you’ve used some or all of the other coping strategies. Once you’re there, reframe your thoughts away from guilt and shame, counter negative self-talk with positive self-talk (even if you don’t believe it), and focus on self-compassion and giving yourself grace. How would you talk to or take care of a friend who just went through what you did?