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Dealing with Stress: Ideas About Coping Skills

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC
(* Clients are never identified by their real names)

Coping skills are the ways in which we cope with stress. We all have them. The right coping skills, adaptive coping skills, can help us manage stressors in such a way as to lessen their impact. The wrong ones, maladaptive coping skills, can magnify stress to the extent that it becomes unbearable and capable of damaging our health and happiness.

Many of my Clients have maladaptive coping skills. Paul C. is one of them. Paul was an anxious child whose young parents fought often. At times, the angry couple stood face to face, dangerously close to one another, screaming and threatening one another with words and gestures; the frightened little boy often stepped between them, terrified that they would harm one another, pushing them apart with his small hands. Throughout Paul”s childhood, his parents” behaviors remained immature and unpredictable.

Paul now suffers from OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), an uncomfortable anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and repetitive, compulsive, and often ritualistic behaviors. In his case, these include constant checking and rechecking of the ordinary details of life (Did I lock the front door?), imagined and minute transgressions against Jesus Christ (i. e. having stepped on a Cross that he imagined he could distinguish in a pattern on the carpet), and compulsive religious behaviors to calm his guilt about the possibility of having committed such a sacrilege.

A psychiatrist gave Paul a medication for his symptoms, but my Client does not quite trust that it can help him. He takes the medicine, but he also drinks alcohol to excess in an effort to calm himself and lessen the symptoms of OCD. Drinking was an early, maladaptive coping skill that later put Paul at risk for addiction. It also prevents his prescribed medication from being fully effective.

Adaptive coping mechanisms for someone like Paul might be: group therapy where he could share his discomfort with other Clients diagnosed with OCD; gentle exercise like walking or Yoga to relieve his stress; controlled breathing exercises or meditation to calm obsessive thoughts; or spending time in expressive activities like artwork or learning a musical instrument.

It is important to note that adaptive coping mechanisms, used to excess, can become part of the problem. One of my Clients, a lawyer in her late twenties, admitted to me that she was running nine miles a day. When I asked her what she was running from, she burst into tears. During her therapy, it was necessary to determine the sources of her stress, which lay in early childhood experiences. We identified the triggers that can activate that stress today, and we are working to find coping mechanisms that do not become part of the problem – like running nine miles a day.

We live in an age that is, for many reasons, very stressful. All of us must find the keys to stress management for ourselves. By knowing the source(s) of our stress, by limiting exposure to it to the extent that it is possible, and by seeking healthful outlets for it, we are making ourselves, our homes, our workplaces, and our society a more peaceful place.

If you find yourself without healthful coping skills or if you think you may have picked up some maladaptive ones, please come and talk to us. Stress can be lessened. Stressors can be understood and their impact reduced. Inner peace can be achieved.

9 thoughts on “Dealing with Stress: Ideas About Coping Skills

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