Thursday, July 26, 2012

Coping sills: How to handle life’s challenges

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
In a book by Ruth David Konigsberg, The Truth About Grief (Simon & Schuster, 2011) one of the ways Konigsberg focuses upon when it comes to successfully coping with grief, is having effective coping skills; however, the question quickly comes to mind, “What does that mean?” or “Do I have effective coping skills?” or “How can I develop the proper skills so I am prepared to face difficult (stressful, hurtful, or pressure-related) situations?” or  “How can I handle life’s challenges in the most effective way?”
The problem is that life can deliver-up a whole raft of problems at a moment’s notice — or, with no notice at all.  Think about it.  It could be a serious illness or chronic pain, death of a loved one, an abusive relationship, a serious accident, divorce, a big financial loss or bankruptcy, burnout, or a business or career failure.  It could be a child or grandchild with ADHD or autism. The possibilities are endless — and likely to be ever so personal and unrelated to anything else.
What happens in severe times of anxiety or stress is that the situations create high emotional arousal.  High emotional arousal significantly distorts thinking, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making ability.  That is precisely why having coping skills in place, already developed, and ready to be used is important.  The more habitual and automatic the better!
Emotions can overload your senses and cloud or block problem-solving skills, decision-making ability, and rational thinking.  Having effective coping skills in place can help you maintain control and prevent you from giving in to your emotions.  They keep you sane, stable, upright, and healthy.
The first and most effective coping skill is to have a variety of different tools in your toolbox.  In other words, there is no single, most-important, or most-valuable tool.  When all you have in the world is a hammer, everything in the world looks like a nail.  This is an incredibly valuable insight.  Just as there aren’t only nails with which we must contend, there aren’t only hammers we need to use.
How do you know what tools you will need?  You can begin with basic problem-solving skills. Yes, you can do some of this in the classroom, some of this by solving family and relationship problems, and some of this through reading, but finding solutions to your own personal problems is, perhaps, the way that will have the most effect.  Think through the problems you face, work out various possible scenarios, and consider alternative solutions.  Can you sit down with others and brainstorm ways to cope with situations?  (One of the values of a college education is, of course, the opportunities to socialize, share, and work together with others.)
The second important tool you will need in your toolbox, in addition to problem-solving skills, are relaxation skills.  Often, these are personal and need to be developed independently of others, however, to have a set of skills that you can use in times of stress — ready and waiting — can be powerful and effective.  Sometimes you may need quiet, relaxing activities such as listening to music, drawing, reading, or writing in a journal.  Others may need active exercises.  Also, remember that different situations may require different approaches — even for the same person.  I know, for example, I enjoy quiet, relaxing activities, but I also know there are times when I prefer being active.  For me, jogging, bicycling, mowing the lawn, or building things may serve the purpose.  Having back-up plans, too, can help.
It is important to know that extremely stressful situations can stimulate a variety of harmful activities like overeating, smoking, or drinking.  These are self-medicating remedies designed specifically to mask the pain.  Having a variety of useful, effective, and immediately available approaches to relaxation can be a constructive, worthwhile, and beneficial solution.
The second most effective coping skill, in addition to having a variety of different tools in your toolbox (problem-solving skills and relaxation activities), is to develop a healthy lifestyle.  I know, for example, the best way I have for dealing with anxiety is to exercise.  For me, getting a moderate amount of exercise on a regular basis allows me time to think, relax, plan, and — most important of all — be in good health. 
Being in good health means eating a well-balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, and getting a good night’s sleep.  Staying away from alcohol and drugs (as well as caffeinated beverages) helps because these are stimulants that will make your anxiety and stress worse.
For me, all of these items that go into being healthy help me think better, reason better, hold my emotions in check, solve problems, make proper decisions, and deal with others in a more effective manner. 
When it comes right down to it, a healthy lifestyle increases the effectiveness of my intuition — the instinctive knowledge and feelings I possess.  My quick perception of truth without conscious attention or reasoning (my intuition) works better, and it is precisely what is important and needed in times of anxiety and stress.  It becomes my best guide.
In addition to adding tools to your toolbox, and developing a healthy lifestyle, the next most-important coping skill is to have a stable support network in place.  You must have people you can rely on when you experience stress and anxiety.  It is amazing how helpful it can be to be able to talk to someone who understands your situation.  Join a support group.  There are many of them online.  It isn’t just about talking with others alone, it is also about learning about other coping techniques from those who have used them and can recommend them.
There are some additional strategies such as developing positive self-talk, like “I can do this,” or, “I am a winner,” to counter the negative self-talk that takes place in times of stress such as, “I am defeated,” “I can’t do this,” or “I am a loser.” 
Another technique is to distract yourself.  That is, turn your attention to other things such as hobbies, recreation, Internet games, or something that will take your attention off what is happening at the present time.  If you can get involved in any pleasant activities, you re-focus your attention and push it away from the problem at hand.
Answers to the questions raised in the first paragraph about developing coping skills such as, “What does that mean?” or “Do I have effective coping skills?” or “How can I develop the proper skills so I am prepared to face difficult (stressful, hurtful, or pressure-related) situations?”  “How can I handle life’s challenges in the most effective way?” should be clear now.  Much of what you can do must take place early — planning ahead.  The more skills you have in place and the more you have used before (so they are habitual or automatic), the easier it will be to handle life’s challenges.
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At the AlzheimerEurope, “Developing Coping Strategies: Taking Care of Yourself,” offers methods for dealing dementia; however, the ten ways for developing a positive attitude and nine ways for building coping strategies apply to challenging situations across the board.

At Natural Anxiety Relief, the essay, “Develop Coping Strategies Now” (October 15, 2006), by Sylvia Dickens, is a terrific essay that offers a wide variety of practical coping strategies.  It is worth a read.
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Copyright July, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.


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