One major reason people start and continue using substances (or engaging in other compulsive behaviors like shopping, gambling, etc.) is that they are “mood altering.” At least initially, most substances have a euphoric effect that can shift negative mood states like loneliness, sadness, anger, confusion, anxiety or boredom. Substances can also make difficult situations feel more tolerable because they take you away from the experience in some way. A natural dilemma that arises when someone changes their relationship with a substance/compulsive behavior (whether stopping completely or simply cutting back) is how to handle these difficult emotional states without the help of the substance. Enter…coping skills.
What are coping skills? To answer that question, it might be helpful to think about 3 types of skills for taking care of oneself in healthy, constructive ways: The ability/skill of being able to distract oneself, to soothe oneself, and to improve the moment/situation without the help of mood altering substances or the behavior you are trying to avoid (e.g., shopping).
One of the most basic skills involves learning to distract oneself from difficult emotions or situations. These skills help you remove yourself from a feeling or situation long enough to calm down, get “back to center” and figure out how you want to move forward or manage the situation. Notice something very important here: The goal is not to distract and then avoid the situation from that point on. The goal is to distract yourself enough to get into a mindset that allows you to address the situation directly and effectively. Here is an example: Your work colleague is really irritable and picks at you all day for things that don’t seem to be that big of a deal. You didn’t sleep well last night and are on your last nerve. You are boiling mad and contemplating sending your colleague an email defending your work and putting him in his place. Or you could just go out early to happy hour and have a drink. Reality check: The odds are high that an angry email will only result in more ongoing tension with your colleague and going for a drink may be against your goals at this time (and will likely disrupt your sleep again tonight). Some distracting coping skills could include going for a run, talking to a friend or even watching a funny video on youtube before writing that email. Anything that gives you some space to allow that built up stress and frustration to dissipate. And, it doesn’t have to be something that removes you from your environment! Something as seemingly small as counting backwards from 100 by 7’s can distract you from ruminating on a situation (which can add some serious fuel to your emotional fire!) and allow you some space to calm down.
Soothing skills are meant to help you feel good and calm you down. Just like distracting skills, these don’t make a situation “better,” they just help get you to a place where you can best handle the difficult situation or feeling. Everyone knows about these skills (who hasn’t watched a romantic comedy where the heart-broken lead eats ice cream while watching some guilty-pleasure TV show?), but they can be hard to access at times. So, instead of waiting until you need them, think through what soothes you and make sure that you have access to it when you need it. Maybe your comfort food is ice cream. It might help to know where it’s sold (bonus points if you can keep track of places that sells the single-serving cups instead of feeling like you “have” to eat a whole pint!). Baths with nice oils? Stock up your bathroom. The smell of freshly baked cookies? Buy some premade cookie dough and use just enough to bake 2. You get the cookie smell without the dozens of cookies to then eat. Calming music? Put together your perfect relaxing playlist (which doubles as a distraction skill). Taking some time to put together the materials you need to help you calm down will make it easier for you to access these strategies when you really need them.
The ability to improve the moment on the surface may sound like it will change the situation that you face. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any skills that can change a difficult situation (arguments, for example, are always distressing, and no skill can really change that). Instead, improving skills are really about making the moment feel a little better to you, so you can get through it gracefully. Everyone has heard the advice to imagine everyone in the audience in their underwear when feeling nervous about public speaking. If cultivating this image makes you chuckle a little while you sweat, you have successfully improved that anxious moment even though you still have to give your talk. Use your imagination to picture yourself on a lovely beach instead of in your crowded cubicle. Think about your end goal (a great home-cooked meal) to give meaning to the frustrating activity of getting through a crowded grocery store with cranky clerks. Finding small ways to shift your mood even a little can help in the long run.
The great thing about coping skills is that you can use them any time and can combine them (you can be both distracting and soothing yourself at the same time). They also really can’t be done “wrong” (though you will find that some don’t work as well as others, just trying them is awesome!). It’s definitely a good idea to think ahead and plan out your coping skills so that you have them accessible when you need them. You can use the form below to write out your coping skills and have them saved somewhere (like on the back of a cabinet or on your refrigerator door) for when you need them. They can really help you make those difficult behavior changes stick by helping you get through the tough times. And the best things is… as you successfully use them instead of resorting to old substance use/compulsive behavior patterns, you will likely gain confidence in your ability to cope with a wider and wider range of the difficult things life throws at you.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
― Theodore Roosevelt