Developing Effective Coping Skills — Key Points

By Ann Goelitz

Coping Skills

Key Points

• Coping skills are individual and vary based on personal tastes, upbringing, and cultural background.

• Coping skills tend to be automatic responses requiring little attention so that many individuals are not aware of how they cope.

• These learned behaviors are often acquired while growing up from adults unaware of what they are teaching.

• Coping can be both effective and helpful or ineffective and at times harmful.

• Harmful coping includes substance abuse, gambling, overspending, overeating, aggressive behaviors, and self-mutilation.

• These harmful behaviors are attempts to cope.

• Improving coping requires not only utilizing effective coping skills but also becoming conscious of automatic coping responses.

• Awareness makes it possible to ascertain when coping is effective.

• Even effective coping can be harmful if utilized excessively such as with compulsive exercising.

• Balance is an important aspect of coping.

• Effective coping for one person may not work for another.

• Effective coping may not work under all circumstances even for the same individual.

• Everyone needs a large arsenal of coping skills to choose from.

• If one coping skill does not work, others must continue to be tried until an effective solution is found.

Coping as Adaptation

Adaptation is the series of adjustments we make as we attempt to fit in with our surroundings. From a biological point of view this is natural selection – species are selected for survival based on their unique traits. Those who survive are able to reproduce while others die out because they cannot adjust adequately.

From a behavioral science point of view, adaptation increases our ability to live effectively despite physical, emotional, and psychological stressors that can include illness, insufficient resources, losses, interpersonal conflict, and substance abuse. Stress occurs when we feel that adapting to circumstances is either difficult or impossible. Although stress is a part of life, it is an individual experience that is based not only on circumstances but also on how we choose to react to them. Our reactions tend to be emotional, emotion can exacerbate stress, and addicts often have difficulty regulating emotion.

Despite this, we can choose how we react to stress. In my own practice, for example, I have worked with individuals with severe and long lasting chronic pain, who have had very different responses to this condition. A middle-aged man, who I will call Azi, experienced continuous pain for over 20 years. Despite this, he managed to lead a normal life and to maintain a positive attitude. He had a philosophy of acceptance. His way of adapting to his medical condition was to continue on with life despite the pain, living as he always had. He also got support from both his religion and his community of family and friends. When he came to meet with staff in the outpatient clinic he always came with an entourage from his community, demonstrating how much help he had.

On the other end of the spectrum, a teenage girl named Julia who was suffering from intense periodic pain became histrionic when it occurred, yelling in her school classroom and frightening her classmates. Her intense emotional response to pain changed her experience of it so that it was much more stressful for her as a result. She said that she yelled when the pain occurred because she was afraid and did not know what to do. She had no other way to cope. Although I heard about a large family, I do not remember ever meeting anyone and I knew her through several hospital stays.

Azi’s and Julia’s experiences of pain were very different. Both felt the stress engendered by the pain but Julia’s pain was magnified by her emotional response, causing even more stress and increasing her suffering. She also saw the pain as out of control which was why she yelled. Azi accepted the pain instead of fighting it and thus did not feel out of control. He complained less of pain as a result. Julia had no other way to cope so she complained often. This illustrates that adaptive coping can affect our perception of pain.

These individuals’ disparate reactions also demonstrate that coping, which is a step towards adaptation, is just as individual as the experience of stress. Age is one factor that influences the individual ways people cope. Azi and Julia are clearly at different stages of their lives. Azi’s life experience as an older man may have added to his ability to cope. With less time behind her to develop skills, Julia’s coping experience was more limited. Teenagers can also be emotional and impulsive, negatively impacting coping. Despite this, many young people cope well whereas some adults do not. Experience provides time to develop skills but this does not mean the skills will be effective. Consequently, coping does not necessarily improve with age. In addition, coping skills are learned. Teenagers can learn good coping just as adults can.

In order to learn effective coping and thus adapt to stress, we need to appraise our emotional responses and identify issues that need to be dealt with. The contemplative awareness or mindfulness employed in the appraisal process decreases negative emotions and their outcome. It also provides a “pause” in which we can choose our responses rather than react without thought to the consequences.

Choosing effective ways to cope such as asking for help or employing spiritual practices has been found to generate positive emotions, which contribute to adaptation when stressed. Purposefully regulating emotions promotes resiliency. This skill, which can be taught, is an important component of happiness. Smiling, for instance, produces changes in the brain reflecting pleasure even when it is done on command. This is just one example of how coping can change how we react to stress in our lives.

Coping Defined

Coping encourages adaptation. This includes adapting to circumstances and the stress they engender. Coping is essential because stress is a part of life, connected not only to crises but also to the daily conflicts, difficulties, frustrations, and disappointments regularly encountered in life. Since everyone experiences stress, everyone also needs to know how to cope in order to maintain balance and effectively adapt. Coping can include everything from basic self-care, such as eating and performing other activities of daily living, to more sophisticated methodologies, such as meditation and yoga. Here are some examples of coping mechanisms commonly used by individuals: music for relaxation, reading for distraction and a new perspective, physical exercise for positive affects of endorphins and discharge of negative emotions, talking to friends for positive connection and support, spiritual and religious activities for support, being in nature for relaxation and rejuvenation, and utilizing humor to change perspective and relax.

Coping is effective when it is conscious and based on reason. We learn how to cope as we grow up and can both enhance what we have learned and develop new ways to cope if we have an awareness and understanding of how coping works. Coping can be defined as our effort to navigate life transitions and the associated emotions. Becoming aware of how ineffective yelling is when things go wrong is the first step in changing it as a method of coping. Realizing that this is a learned response that was perhaps modeled by a parent helps us understand why it is a coping method that has been used until now. Both steps are important in the process of redirecting our adaptational efforts to coping skills that will have more positive results. This is an ongoing effort that is essential for all but even more so for those in recovery from substance abuse, who are working hard to build new lives amidst much change and transition. It is an effort that will show prodigious results, contributing to the joy of this new way of life.

Ann Goelitz, PhD, LCSW, author of From Trauma to Healing and Coping Made Easy. 646-265-5028,,