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3 Mental Health Coping Skills That Everyone Needs To Know

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We hear a lot about coping skills. If you have been in therapy for any length of time, the topic has probably come up, but I found that a lot of the suggested coping skills were only temporary distractions that didn’t help me process what I was thinking or feeling. Don’t get me wrong, distractions are good in immediate situations. I use them when I have overwhelming urges to engage in self-harm or another destructive behavior. But what about things that actually help process emotions in a productive manner? Here are a few coping skills that can help more than just a distraction.

1. The river and leaf technique.

This is simple and useful for intrusive thoughts or suicidal thoughts. The concept is to wait for a thought to naturally pass. I imagine sitting at the edge of a river. I take notice of the trees around me and the river. I imagine the sound of the river as it flows forward. I imagine a leaf falling from a tree. I watch this leaf fall, hit the water and start moving downstream. I place my thought on that leaf and I watch it disappear. This activates the brain to not ruminate on a thought. It allows it to take its natural course of moving on. I sit and watch my thoughts as many times as I need to move forward. I also do this when my thoughts are racing at night and I can’t sleep. I pretend I am sitting at a relaxing river and watch my thoughts slowly move downstream. This might seem silly, but it has really helped me not ruminate on the same thought.

2. Reframing a thought.

This is built on three things: awareness, asking questions and creating an alternative view. The first is awareness. Practicing mindfulness is a crucial skill. It can be difficult, though, in this fast-paced world where we barely take time to consider the negative thoughts that pass through our minds every second, minute and hour of the day. Building awareness takes time to step back and be mindful of the thoughts passing through your mind. A good indicator of a negative thought is a physiological sensation that occurs in your body.  If your stomach is in knots, your heart rate goes up, your palms get sweaty, or a variety of other sensations, it’s time to take note of the thought.

Next is asking questions. Give yourself an interview. Ask detailed questions about a thought. When does it occur? What urges come with it? Is this thought accurate? What is the likelihood of this thought actually happening? What would my friend say about this thought? Is my concern level appropriate?

Finally, create an alternative view. The narrative we tell ourselves is important. In creating an alternative view, you are looking, for lack of a better term, on the positive side. Finding a redemptive narrative is important in looking at a situation from another point of view. Find the silver lining in the situation. Reframe the thought to a positive one.

3. Meditation.

This term can be thrown around a lot. I know when I first heard about meditation, I had so many questions. First, how do I empty my mind of thoughts? Is this even possible? The reality is that meditation is not the absence of thought. It is being mindful of them. Mindfulness is like a muscle; it takes building to become strong. Mindful meditation focuses on the breath. Personally, I am a very shallow breather and I breathe from my chest instead of my core or diaphragm. Taking time to deeply breathe helps relax my entire body. Your breath should anchor you into the present moment. In meditation, it is important to stay in the current moment. As you can imagine, this helps with anxiety and racing thoughts. Our tendency is to live in the past or the future, rarely are we present for the current moment. We can even take this into our relationships and the rest of our lives, living in the moment and experiencing all that life has for us.

Meditation is awkward at first, and it can feel unnatural. Some easy first steps are: take a seat, set a time limit, notice your breath, feel your body and all of its sensations, notice your thoughts and be kind to yourself. Meditation is about patience and practice. Be kind to yourself as you learn. One great way to start is using a guided meditation. I personally use guided meditations on YouTube a lot.

Positive coping skills are learned behavior; many of us didn’t grow up with them. I certainly know I was ill-equipped to deal with the big emotions I encountered going into my adolescence and teenage years. Thankfully we can teach ourselves techniques that help us cope with life and the negative and destructive thoughts many of us have. My hope will be you will explore these coping skills and add them to your toolbox. Cognitively reshaping how we process emotions, urges, and thoughts can truly be life-changing.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Originally published: February 15, 2021
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