As you consider making a behavioral change (whether that change is reducing or stopping substance use…changing general lifestyle habits to more healthy habits), you will likely encounter something very difficult: fear of the future! What if you don’t like the changes you are trying to make? What if you can’t change? These fears are understandable and can present a potential barrier to change. How do you keep moving forward when these fears and worries feel like they are an anchor weighing you down?
Coping skills are certain actions you can take to help reduce your anxiety/distress at any given moment. They can help you…“lift the anchor.” One important piece of information about skills is that they are not meant to make the anxiety go away. They are meant to reduce it down to a level at which you can actually function well and keep moving forward. A level where you can work toward making a behavioral change and tolerate the discomfort of the anxiety that comes along with it.
Think about an anxiety provoking situation, like having to call someone to make plans that support your goals (i.e., calling to ask if they will go to an event with you and not drink or calling to cancel plans with heavy drinking friends because you feel it will put you at risk). Your anxiety, on a scale from 1 – 10 was at a 2 before you put your hand on the phone. When you start to dail the phone it quickly jumps up to an 8! That’s a pretty normal response, and one that might make you more likely to want to run away from making that call! It’s important at that point however to use a coping skill, which helps to bring your anxiety down to a 4. While a 4 isn’t a 0, it’s not 8, and that reduction alone might help you complete that phone call and to keep working towards your goals.
When to Use Skills
The goal is to use skills all the time, so much so that they are woven throughout your day and your life. More specifically, however, if is helpful to use coping skills leading up to anxiety provoking events (if that’s possible), during moments when anxiety is increased (i.e., the event itself), and afterwards so that you don’t “fall apart” after using so much energy to get through a tough time.
Understanding when and how to use coping skills is part of the change process. Almost more important, is understanding that no matter how many coping skills you use, the goal of using them should not necessarily be to make your feelings go away (because that probably won’t work!). Instead, the goal of using coping skills is to help you make your feelings manageable enough that you can continue to work towards your goals.