Setting Up A Coping Skills Toolbox

My Journal
My Journal

Today I read a sign that said Sometimes you’re the statue, sometimes you’re the pigeon. It served as a good reminder that not everyday will be a good day.

It’s helpful that in anticipation of those not so good days that we have a set of healthy coping skills easily at our disposal, a “toolbox” if you will.

What are coping skills?

Coping skills are basically behaviors that we have developed to deal with times of distress. Some of those behaviors are positive (i.e., exercising) while others are negative (i.e., smoking). Positive coping skills allow us to deal with life stressors in a healthy way while negative coping skills generally make us feel better temporarily, and then either make us feel worse or lead to bad consequences.

People in recovery have probably heard of a coping toolbox before, it’s something that we usually have them work on in anticipation of relapses, temptations and set backs. I am not just talking about recovery from drugs or alcohol, but recovery from a mental illness, codependency or whatever it is you are trying to overcome.

Even if you aren’t in any form of recovery, having a coping skills toolbox can prove to be an invaluable asset when you have to face those not so good days.

Naturally, we all have coping skills we have developed over the years. Some we are conscious of and some we are not. Many of our coping skills are unhealthy or  ineffective. People who use substances, cut themselves, etc., are all using coping skills that are unhealthy.

The trick is to develop healthy coping skills that we are conscious of so that we can use them when we are having a bad day or feel ourselves headed in that direction. People who have a toolbox that is filled with positive coping skills are better prepared to deal with life stressors.

Because each person is different, one persons coping skills may not work for everyone, but it is useful to try different healthy coping skills to see what does work for you and to put those into your “toolbox” so that you can have a collection of visual or written cues to help you when you are having one of those days where you feel more like the statue than the pigeon.

Positive coping skills are a great way to reduce anxiety and depression and bring back a sense of balance and peace during times of distress.

It’s good to think about and start putting together your toolbox when you are having a good day, before a stressful event happens when you still have the energy and creativity. It’s like putting together a hurricane survival kit (for those of us here in Florida), you don’t wait until a hurricane is here to put together a survival kit, you do it before a storm even develops so that when the hurricane is knocking on your door, your kit is already prepared.

Here are some of the coping skills in my toolbox:

  • Journaling– I love keeping a journal as a way to express my thoughts and feelings, especially when I have a difficult time figuring them out and when I feel like I can’t talk to anyone else about them.
  • Creative writing– sometimes it’s helpful for me to put some of the distress I am going through into fictional characters or situations that may mirror mine. It helps to sometimes work them out in a fictional setting before applying them to my real world or just to vent and play things out without the real risk of harm.
  • Drawing/sketching– art therapy is a great way to release tension or explose your thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I just take a scratch sheet of paper and sketch, nothing in particular, but it helps ease my mind.
  • Exercising– I love to workout, but when I am stressed, working out becomes therapeutic. Sometimes I think it is the only way I have remained sane for so long 🙂 .
  • Meditation– sometimes I just sit steal and don’t try to think, feel or solve anything. Amazingly, sometimes just sitting still and doing nothing for five minutes resolves multiple internal conflicts I was having.
  • Mindfulness– focusing on the here and now often takes away angst I am feeling about the past and future. Just allowing myself to be here and reminding myself that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, allows me to release built up tension.
  • Distraction– sometimes I allow myself to just “change the channel”, virtually taking a mental break from whatever is bothering me. I may play a video game, read a book, call a friend, anything and often that distraction is enough to either allow those bad feelings/thoughts to pass or to put them in better prospective.

This is definitely not a definitive list, it’s just some of the tools I use in my toolbox. I know other people have included music, knitting and yoga in their toolboxes. What are you going to put in your coping skills toolbox?

On Teenage Suicide

Suicide is definitely one of those unpleasant subjects that many people would like to pretend doesn’t exist or at least can’t happen to someone they know and love.

As a matter of fact, one of the most depressing and yet helpful books I’ve ever read was entitled: Psychotherapy with Suicidal People.

On Suicide

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between 14 and 25, and about 30,000 people in the United States commit suicide each year.

Since I’ve been working in the mental health field I’ve counseled literally hundreds of people who have either attempted suicide or have thought about suicide seriously enough that they needed hospitalization to keep themselves safe from themselves.

I’ve also assisted in crisis counseling at various schools. It’s extremely depressing to walk into a huge auditorium filled with grieving students and staff after a young person has taken his or her life.

Why Do People Commit Suicide?

This is a question I get asked very often and the answer is simple, yet complex. According the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90% of people who commit suicide had a diagnosable mental illness, but there are other reasons including:

      • Psychological Disorders (i.e., depression, bi-polar disorder, agression, schizophrenia)
      • Bullying
      • Stress
      • Work
      • Money
      • Relationships

For teenagers, bullying seems to be an increasing reason to why teens commit suicide. It’s truly tragic that we live in a society that today is so connected that bullying takes on a whole new life.

Kids are now not only getting bullied at school, but in cyberspace where everyone can see, and yet no one seems to be doing anything.

On December 27th, 2011, Amanda Cummings, a 15 year old, stepped in front of a bus and killed herself after being tormented mercilessly by her bullies. A suicide note was found in her clothes.

I recently starting counseling a teenage girl who’s 20 year old brother hung himself with a dog leash last week. I didn’t know him, but from what she’s said it sounds like he may have had some struggles with depression.

He had gotten into a fight with his girlfriend and told her he was going to kill himself, something he apparently had threatened many times so she didn’t take him seriously. They found him less than an hour later hanging from a tree in the backyard.

And not too long ago here in Orlando, a man killed himself after getting in a fight with his girlfriend, telling her he was going to kill himself, and then drove the wrong way on the interstate killing himself and another motorist in a head on collision.

Other times, there may seem to be no precipitating events.

Two years ago I went to assist in suicide counseling at a high school where a popular and seemingly happy lacrosse player took his own life.

His friends and family were all blaming themselves for not knowing that he felt so sad and alone, but there weren’t many signs as far as I could tell, he seemed to be hiding his emotional pain and struggles very well.

However, in most cases there are signs to look at for.

Suicide Warning Signs Include:

      • withdrawal from friends and family members
      • trouble in romantic relationships
      • difficulty getting along with others
      • changes in the quality of schoolwork or lower grades
      • rebellious behaviors
      • unusual gift-giving or giving away personal possessions
      • appearing bored or distracted
      • writing or drawing pictures about death
      • running away from home
      • changes in eating habits
      • dramatic personality changes
      • changes in appearance (for the worse)
      • sleep disturbances
      • drug or alcohol abuse
      • talk of suicide, even in a joking way
      • having a history of previous suicide attempts

Sometimes the reasons people don’t recognize the signs of suicide is because they are in denial, especially when it comes to those close to them. When dealing with suicide, denying that someone is in need of help can cost them their life.

Suicide Prevention

If you know someone who is thinking about, talking about or you think may be at risk for suicide don’t ignore them. Often times there is a misconception that people who talk about suicide don’t end up killing themselves, but this is untrue.

Many people who end up killing themselves have mentioned suicide to someone directly or in directly, so take them seriously.

If you believe there is an immediate threat call 911, they may need emergency hospitalization. Otherwise they can seek individual and family therapy and there is always the suicide hotline (1-800-SUICIDE).