Fill Your Toolbelt With Tried and True Coping Strategies

February 16, 2021

A fully lived life allows us to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. We cycle into and out of our happy phases just as the moon moves through phases. We build appreciation for the richest, most joyful moments by experiencing their absence, as well.

How do we cope with the darker days? Many young people have been struggling with this question as the pandemic continues. According to a NY Times article posted on 2-15-21, “In the United States, a quarter of 18-to 24-year olds said they had seriously considered suicide, one report said. In Latin America and the Caribbean, a survey conducted by UNICEF of 8,000 young people found that more than a quarter had experienced anxiety and 15 percent depression.”

I’d like to present a variety of reliable coping mechanisms that both kids and adults can rely on when things look difficult. But first, it’s important to note that we all have to learn “how to sit in the muck” with our feelings because “the only way out is through.” In other words, if you’re looking to skirt your big emotions or brush them under the rug quickly, they are only going to grow. Instead, my suggestion is to acknowledge them, give them some breathing room so that they can begin to subside.

What does this sound like or look like? Pretend you come home from work to find your 14 year old daughter in tears. Naming what you see is step one. “You look like you’re having a tough time.” Next, you can offer your teen some choices: “Do you want to tell me what’s upsetting you or would you like some time alone?” If she chooses the latter, your response can be something like this: “Okay. Take your time. I’ll be right downstairs when you’re ready to talk.”

If your daughter wants to explore her feelings with you, you might want to offer this: “Do you want me just to listen or do you want some help with what to do next?” Let her drive the bus. Refrain from telling her how you think she should proceed. You need her permission first. And if she only wants you to listen, here’s how that sounds: “Oh wow. That’s tough. I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with that.” Just validate. Don’t try to fix anything.

What about if you are looking to fill your kid’s toolbelt (or your own!) with those reliable coping skills? Let’s examine some that seem to do the trick.

1) Engage in what’s called “Both/And Thinking” instead of rigid or black/white thinking. Entertain the notion that something can be good, but also frustrating. Or decent, but doesn’t feel great. Or upsetting, but still the best choice. Or terrible, but the best way to proceed. We humans don’t usually like to utilize this style of thinking because it’s uncomfortable; we’re not good at it.

2) Strengthen your connections. We humans are here to connect. If your connections or your child’s are lacking, prioritize this task. Find interesting, inviting ways to build community. Set up a Zoom call of like-minded kids or adults. Face Time a grandparent weekly. Bake cookies for the mail delivery person and chat with that person about where they were born. Exercise your aptitude for connection.

3) Help someone. Anyone. Being a helper has all sorts of health benefits. When we feel down or hopeless because of all the difficult things we cannot control, we can control the choice to help others. This is why it feels good.

4) Find an accountability partner. Commit aloud to a trusted friend that you will work actively on one of the coping skills on this list. Establish a check-in hour and date upon which you will regularly report your progress on your goal. Ask them to be ruthless with you.

5) Identify a new self-care habit and schedule it in your calendar like a dentist appointment. Figure out which obstacles are likely to prevent you from practicing this new habit and get rid of them before they interrupt your progress.

6) Write a list of all the things you CAN control in your life. We all focus quite a bit on the things that feel outside of our control when we feel sad. Putting pen to paper to list some of the obvious items within our control can be empowering. What might this sound like? “I can choose what color mask to wear to school. I can choose where to set up my Zoom call today. I can decide what I want to bake as my after-school or after-work treat. I can choose which show I will allow myself to watch for one hour this evening.”

7) Develop a gratitude practice. A long time ago, Oprah suggested that if you are overcome with negativity, you can practice gratitude by doing this: Stop what you are doing immediately. Then list aloud five things that are good about the day. They can be as obvious and small as: “It’s not raining today.” Or “No one stole my car last night so I can still drive myself to work.”

8) Find and practice mantras that work. Google “mantras” and you will find oodles of them. Look on Instagram and Tic Toc. Locate one that resonates with you and anchors you. Write it in your phone notes. Scribble it on a Post-It note. Make it work for you in times of uncertainty. I like Glennon Doyle’s suggestion: “We can do hard things.”

9) Practice something called “externalizing” which basically means that you notice your complaint, and you quickly remind yourself that ALL OF HUMANITY has experienced this same, difficult feeling at some point. Everyone suffers, but we tell ourselves a story that we’re the only ones. This is false. When we can remind ourselves that by virtue of the fact that we are human, we will have dark days, it normalizes that suffering.

10) Write a note to your future self. Even better, take a quick video for your future self. The key is to do this project on a day when you’re feeling upbeat and positive. Say to yourself: “Hi Future Me. I know that someday in the near future you will need a reminder of why things are actually good in your life. Well, here it is…..” Then list all of the good things you love about your life.