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?

My Day Working At A Women’s Residential (Addictions) Facility: Observations And Thoughts

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Yesterday I was blessed to be able to go and work with a group of women in a women’s residential facility. All of these women varied in age from barely twenty to the elderly, yet they all battle some form of substance abuse.

None of them looked like “typical addicts” and they were all extraordinary women.

Many of them were mothers or wives and of course daughters who had lost nearly everything due to their alcohol, cocaine, crack-cocaine, prescription pills, meth or heroin addiction.

One older lady had battled addiction for most of her life and at one point became homeless before finally making up her mind to try to get sober and clean. She has seven months sobriety.

Another woman who looked like she couldn’t have been a day over twenty, but had a five year old child, had been clean for four years before an old dealer of hers found her on Facebook and seduced her into using again.

And another older female had been pretty much a functioning alcoholic for the past five years and then one night out of the blue had an alcohol related gran mal seizure that landed her in the hospital for five days and she was court-ordered to rehab from there.

A lot of the women had tragic stories, including a very young girl who I don’t think was even twenty and was in rehab for the first time after being court ordered into treatment.

She was adopted, her birth mother was a drug addicted, her birth father was in prison and when her adopted father died two years ago she started using any drug she could get her hands on to numb the pain she felt.

Working with these women yesterday in group and individual settings I took a lot away from not only what it meant to become and remain substance free, but also what it meant to accomplish any major goal.

Having a good support system of course is important.

The women who had a supportive family, a supportive group of people such as Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, supportive healthy friendships, supportive professionals or a supportive sponsor all seemed to be doing better than those who did not.

Having a belief in and a relationship with a Higher Power also seemed to help.

Not that there weren’t many women there who weren’t religious, but it was obvious that those who had some type of relationship with God, the universe, or whatever, seemed to be doing better in recovery compared to does who didn’t.

Also, those who were honest with themselves and in touch with reality seemed to be doing better than those who seemed to be a bit oblivious to reality.

The one thing that bothered me most about a lot of the women in the facility were that a lot of them were lying to themselves as we all do from time to time, especially when trying to stop a bad habit.

Many of the women still had “addict behaviors” not only in the fact that they were lying to themselves, but they were also lying and being sneaky to others.

For instance, this was a smoke-free facility where these women are prohibited from smoking, yet a number of the women sneak out and smoke.

That may seem relatively harmless in comparison to their bigger addictions, but that type of sneaky, dishonest behavior sets the stage for future relapse.

Relapse is not something that usually just happens, but develops overtime in the way a person thinks, feels, and acts.

A sober, clean person may start feeling agitated, lying, sneaking off to do things they know they shouldn’t, etc., days, weeks or months before actually relapsing.

They start lying to themselves, saying things like, “I can just have one drink” or “I can just take one hit and walk away, I know how to control it now”.

Before you know it, they are back in the thick of their addiction, driving under the influence to get more alcohol or selling whatever they can get their hands on to get more drugs.

Most of these women displayed some of those signs of a future relapse, from sneaking off to smoke, to being angry and irritable, to the woman who had the seizure asking me:

“How much do you think I’ll have to drink for that to happen to me again, because it scared the hell out of me. I don’t want to drink any more, but I just want to know if I have one drink, or two drinks, how many would it take before that happened again?”

Although she’s telling me she doesn’t want to drink again, she is lying to herself. It is obvious that in her conscious or unconscious mind, she is trying to figure out if she can get away with drinking “just a little”, but she is an alcoholic, and knows that there is no drinking “just a little” for her.

The women sneaking off to smoke, will be the same women sneaking off to drink or get high once they are out of rehab. That is “addict behavior” at it’s best.

Just like in trying to quite anything from smoking to losing weight, people generally relapse and it takes a few tries before they get it right. Relapse at some point is usually expected which is why there is often a focus on relapse prevention.

One of the biggest things to know about relapse is that if you mess up, if you have a drink, or a hit, or a donut, it doesn’t mean you just give up and give in. You can still back away at that point and start over before the addiction truly regains a hold of you.

All the women in this facility are at different points in their recovery and no doubt, for many of them, this will not be their last time in treatment, but hopefully one day they will get it right.