Two flies are sitting on a piece of poop.
One fly farts and the other fly yells, “Hey! I’m trying to eat here!”

How do we surmise what is a good or bad strategy?

First, let’s ask this question to see if it meets the criteria.

“Is this a strategy that could cause harm if used long term?”

If you are in a stressful situation, and you’ve allowed yourself the time to sit with and feel your feelings, then distracting yourself by reading stupid fart jokes is harmless. Your grandma might not approve but I’d go out on a limb here and say it’s good for you. If you are into fart jokes. And not everyone is.

It was a university student who listed this as his coping strategy in a workshop where we defined healthy and unhealthy coping strategies. And we all busted out laughing.

But let’s say that a glass of wine or four helps cool your anxiety. It numbs all those ugly feelings and in the moment it works. So is this a good way to cope?

Let’s again apply our filter question.

Will long-term use of that strategy help you or hurt you?

Long term, this can lead to an alcohol dependence or substance use disorder (addiction). And when you use a substance to help you resolve problems, it becomes your go-to and you cease to be able to develop new strategies.

So, no, this doesn’t meet the criteria therefore it’s a poor coping strategy. And that’s the opinion of thousands of individuals over the years who have attended my workshops. I don’t tell them the answer. I just ask questions and they categorize the behavior.

The overall goal is to create a toolbox of healthy strategies that work for you and different situations

No one strategy is the end-all, be-all.

You will need this toolbox when life hits a speed bump and gets overwhelming. And you need more than one. Because at some point, life will go upside down and you need strategies to help you manage the adverse events until it’s right side up again.

A lot of male university students say “sex” is a coping strategy. I agree but then ask, “What else?”

They look at me dumbfounded– sure that there can’t be a coping strategy other than that one. Surely that’s all a human needs.

So let’s think about that. Imagine if you have a panic attack in the middle of the frozen food section of a grocery store. Is that coping strategy useful to you then? If you answered yes then prepare to be arrested.

That’s why you need more than one so you build a toolbox full of good strategies and pull out the one that works for you in that situation.

In this situation, you’d take a pause, a foundational basic mental health strategy, and then you’d engage in deep belly breathing.

When I coached my sons through panic attacks, it was taking a deep breath in for a count of 6, and a deep breath out for a count of 8. And I’d do that for a minute or two, however long I needed to quiet the racing heart, red face, and erratic breathing. (When I have dental procedures, this is how I calm myself because I’m an anxious dental patient.)

What other coping strategies have people mentioned in my workshops?

Well, we have the usual ones you hear about–which are really good but you might need some creative ones, too. Here’s a list of the ones people have listed. I’d love to hear yours, too.

Classic Coping Strategies

  • Journaling or brain dumping (vlogging)
  • Yoga
  • Getting Plenty of sleep
  • Waking up early
  • Meditation
  • Talking to friends and family
  • Taking deep breaths
  • Spending time in nature or outside
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Turning off electronics/screens/social media
  • Spending time with pets
  • Creating art
  • Playing or writing music
  • Playing an instrument
  • Reading the bible, Koran, or other religious scripture
  • Giving yourself a pep talk

Out-of-the-Ordinary Coping Strategies

  • Bee Keeping
  • Rock Climbing
  • Reading fart jokes
  • Tibetan Singing Bowls Meditation
  • Popping bubble wrap
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Chopping vegetables
  • Hyper cleaning
  • Making candles
  • Singing your heart out to Karoeke
  • Doing random acts of kindness
  • Playing with a slinky
  • Observing fish in an aquarium
  • Playing solitaire
  • Driving with the top down in a convertible
  • Watching a fire and then watching the embers glow at the end
  • Sorting or organizing things like legos, office supplies, a closet, a shed etc.
  • Doing a Rubik’s cube
  • Self-harm safety box

Unhealthy coping strategies

(As shared by high school and university students, workplace employees and managers)

  • Self-harm (e.g., cutting or burning oneself)
  • Deflecting emotions onto family
  • Overeating/not eating enough
  • Isolating (ghosting)
  • Self Criticizing (mean voice)
  • Doing drugs, drinking too much alcohol, smoking too many cigarettes
  • Sleeping too much to avoid the day
  • Not sleeping enough
  • Spending too much time on social media or online
  • Overspending/Retail therapy
  • Gambling
  • Keeping emotions locked up (avoidance)
  • Throwing yourself into work or other activities to avoid feeling
  • Being emotionally or physically abusive

While distraction can be part of your process, it should only be part of the process after you actually feel and experience your feelings, sitting with them for a minute or two before you dive into distraction.

Those are just a few of the ideas that have come out of the virtual and in-person mental health workshops we’ve done over the years.

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