Beneath all of our personal and professional aspirations—like landing that next promotion, buying a starter house, and exploring new and magical parts of the world—many of us have one goal in common: to be happy. It sounds simple, right? Except, well, it isn’t. Not even close. Unfortunately, you will experience a range of not-so-pleasant emotions throughout your life, from overwhelming sadness, to uncontainable anger, to inexplicable anxiety and depression, and more. This is normal—for the most part, anyway. Bouts of unhappiness are just a part of life, whether you like it or not. Fortunately, while you can’t necessarily control why these feelings pop up in the first place, there are coping skills you can leverage to more easily navigate these difficult times. 

What Are Coping Skills?

A simple definition of coping skills is: actions you can take to overcome or at least lessen the severity of an emotion. Coping skills don’t fix situations, per se, but they allow you to move through the most intense part of the emotion. This can help you reach a calmer state in which you can, if necessary, make more rational decisions about how to approach the situation that may be causing the negative feeling. Long story short: They help you feel better.

Examples of Coping Skills

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We all need coping skills to get through tough times.

Before diving into a list of coping skills you can try, there are two very important things to note. First of all, when it comes to coping skills, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for someone else may not work for you, and vice versa.

Secondly, there aren’t really specific coping skills for anger, anxiety coping skills, depression coping skills, grief coping skills, anger management coping skills, and so forth. Because remember: All coping skills work differently for people. One that helps you address your anxiety may be what another person uses to overcome periods of extreme anger. You are your own unique person, so you have to decide which techniques work best for you in certain situations. 

Additionally, it’s crucial to be able to discern between “good” (healthy) coping skills and “bad” (unhealthy) coping skills. Negative coping skills are those that may help you feel better in the short term but aren’t helpful in the long run—in fact, they could actually end up doing you more harm than good. 

Some examples of coping skills that are considered bad for you:

  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Binge eating
  • Procrastination
  • Picking fights with other people
  • Gambling
  • Negative self-talk
  • Smoking
  • “Retail therapy”

This doesn’t mean all of the coping skills activities on this list are always bad for you. Occasionally indulging in a couple glasses of wine or an ice cream sundae isn’t a “bad” thing, nor is spending a few hours at a casino with friends. It’s when you use these activities as a way to feel better about something negative you’re feeling—or to avoid the situation completely—that it can become quite problematic. 

So, here are some good coping skills you can add to your emotional toolbox:

1. Just Breathe

It may seem quite obvious—after all, human survival requires breathing without even thinking about it—but this is an incredibly effective coping skill. It’s not just about breathing normally, though. Rather, the focus here is deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Regaining control over your breath can soothe your nervous system and decrease your heart rate.

There are a variety of different breathing techniques you can implement. For example, certified wellness coach Kristianna George teaches one in her Skillshare class called “4-7-8.” In this exercise, you inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds. “The ultimate goal is to make sure your exhales are longer than your inhales,” George says. “This allows us to come back to a place of calm, centered peace, and relaxation.” 

2. Practice Mindfulness

Over the past several years, mindfulness has become quite the buzzword—but for good reason, as it can have several benefits, including decreasing stress and anxiety. According to Skillshare instructor Jeremy Lipkowitz, mindfulness means “paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment without judging it as good or bad…really experiencing it without judging it as something good we want more of and without judging it as something bad we want to get rid of.” 

You may be wondering, “If I feel badly in the present moment, though, why would I want to be in tune with it?” But the truth is, our current feelings are often connected to our thoughts, and many times we’re either dwelling on something that happened in the past or worrying about something that may or may not happen in the future. Or, we’re feeling an icky emotion for unknown reasons, and we just keep thinking about how down we feel. The point of mindfulness is to pull us away from that negative thought cycle and to ground us in our surroundings, from the sounds we hear, to the way something physically feels (like the hem of your shirt or the grass between your toes), to the colors you can see around you, and more.

One of the most popular ways to practice mindfulness is meditation. But if that feels too intimidating, here’s one fairly simple mindfulness exercise you can try instead. It’s all about getting in touch with your senses and immediate environment. 

  • Name five things you can see.
  • Imagine four things you can touch.
  • Name three things you can hear.
  • Think of two things you can smell.
  • Name one thing you can taste.

Want to Try Meditation?

Meditation 101: Spark Joy, Peace, and Creativity in Your Daily Life

3. Move Your Body

walking dog in the woods
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Going for a walk or a run has surprising benefits.

The benefits of exercise are pretty undeniable. Physical activity can help you release anxious energy, relieve stress, and improve your mood. Why? Well, for a couple reasons.

First, it gives you something else to focus on. Sure, you may not be able to completely remove the negative emotion just by going for a quick jog, but your brain will have to devote at least some attention to coordinating your limbs and watching out for potential obstacles. But beyond that, exercising causes your brain to release some anti-anxiety chemicals, such as serotonin and endocannabinoids.

The type of physical activity you choose doesn’t matter. It could be a run, a swim, a walk, a dance party in your living room, arm circles, a few minutes of jumping jacks here and there—whatever gets your body moving.

4. Reach Out to Someone in Your Inner Circle

While your close friends and family members can’t (and shouldn’t) act as your therapist, it’s not a bad idea to spend time with someone when you’re feeling distressed, whether it’s on the phone or in person. 

You can spend this time talking about what you’re going through, but just make sure you’re not looking for an answer from the other person—that’s not a fair burden to place on them. Also, the person you choose shouldn’t be someone who tends to make the conversation about themselves, nor should they be someone who always seems to drain your energy. Ideally, you just want someone who is a really good listener. Even just the presence of a friend—one who’s more than happy to sit in silence with you—can be helpful.

5. Change Your Scenery

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to remove yourself from the environment you’re in, even if it’s just for a couple minutes. Perhaps you need to get away from a certain person, or the amount of noise in the office is overwhelming you. Even if you can’t put your finger on any specific trigger, moving to a new location—whether it’s a conference room down the hall or taking a walk on a trail near your house—can be a nice way to process whatever you may be feeling and hit reset. 

A recent study has shown that even the smallest changes in your surroundings can improve your mood. And, if possible, immerse yourself in nature in some way, as doing this can reduce negative emotions and increase positive ones

6. Write It Out

Writing—or even drawing—your feelings is a powerful coping mechanism.

Your feelings can take up a lot of space in your mind, swirling around and creating a dark cloud of confusing and layered emotions that can be suffocating and hard to sort through. This is where the power of journaling comes in.

Whether you have a dedicated notebook, a piece of scrap paper, or a blank Google doc staring you down, just spill all of your thoughts onto the page. Don’t censor yourself, and don’t go back and edit. This is for your eyes and your eyes only. You may be surprised to find how much better getting your thoughts out in this way can make you feel. You might even realize that maybe—just maybe—things aren’t as bad as they seem. Or, this activity will help you understand the situation better and come up with a plan of action.

If free writing doesn’t come easily to you, that’s okay. One writing exercise you can try is making a list of everything you can control and another list of all the things you can’t control. It can be a helpful reminder that, many times, the situation you’re going through—or at least aspects of it—are out of your hands. Rather than trying to change it, you need to figure out how to react to it and the best next step—because both of those things are typically in your control. 

7. Get Creative

Before you read any further, know this: You don’t have to be artistic or “a creator” in order to leverage this coping mechanism. Anyone and everyone can be creative in one way or another. For instance, you could:

The point is, creativity of any skill level can not only distract you for the time being, but it can actually decrease stress, too. Plus, perhaps you end up making something really neat that you can display in your home or give away as a gift. Either way, it’s a win-win sort of thing. 

8. Turn on Some Tunes

What are the songs that make you automatically smile (and maybe even bop your head)? Music preference is a very personal thing, but the tunes that almost always bring you joy have the power to help you navigate the tougher times. Another possible bonus? It’s very hard not to dance when one of your favorite songs comes on. And dancing is moving your body, which—if you remember from just a few minutes ago—is another great coping skill, so turning on music can be a double whammy (in a good way).

However, keep in mind that while music can boost your mood, the wrong songs can have the opposite effect. If you’re using music to cope, stick with your tried and trues. 

When to Ask for Professional Help

Here’s the thing: It’s never a bad idea to seek out some sort of professional counseling. Just like exercise and healthy eating are preventive habits for your physical health, therapy can be a fantastic preventive tool for your mental health. Connecting with a professional, such as a clinical psychologist, a counseling psychologist, a psychiatrist, a licensed professional counselor, or a licensed social worker does not need to be limited to times of crisis. 

Of course, this is easier said than done, especially considering many therapists often aren’t accepting new patients and, even with insurance, sessions can be unaffordable for many. If this is the case, it’s worth researching low- or no-cost mental health resources in your community or asking your employer if they provide an employee assistance plan (EAP), as many EAPs provide employees with a certain number of counseling sessions free of charge.

Other than preventive mental health, it’s wise to seek professional help when you’re looking for someone who can help you develop and practice trauma coping skills, or when your negative emotions become so all-consuming that positive coping skills don’t really help—or you find yourself turning to some negative coping skills far too often. At the end of the day, the sooner you reach out, the better. While we hope our list of coping skills helps, we also firmly believe that there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. 

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Written by:

Abby Wolfe