The Proven Coping Technique We’ve Never Heard of

More than nine months after the first US cities implemented shutdowns to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus, most of us are now familiar with the common recommendations for how to cope with the variety of emotions we have. You may have used breathwork to calm your anxiety, FaceTimed with loved ones to counterbalance loneliness, and created a new routine to help give you a sense of stability.

Without realizing it, you’ve been using an intervention you’ve probably never heard of. It’s called skills for psychological recovery (or psychological “first aid”), and it includes things like social support and mindfulness. The goal is to help people learn to cope with stress in the weeks or months after a traumatic event or disaster.

“The pandemic has been a lasting trauma and stressor on people. It’s still ongoing,” says Alyssa Rheingold, PhD, clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina. During this time, “we can build on the skills for psychological recovery to help people develop techniques to better manage stress, foster their own resiliency, and help with depression and trauma.”

Here’s how.

Why Use Skills for Psychological Recovery?

“When people go through hard, stressful events, most of them bounce back, even with truly awful events like sexual assault,” says Debra Kaysen, PhD, ABPP, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. “However, there is a subset of people who don’t.”

Forty percent of adults reported struggling with mental health (including anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts) or substance use in late June, according to CDC research. “This is all the more reason why, for some folks, doing things to help manage stress and anxiety may be an intervention. That way, they don’t continue to have ongoing distress,” Rheingold says.

And it’s more than simply coping with stress. Building resiliency can reduce the chances of developing a more serious mental health problem. Plus, it’ll make you better able to deal with future challenges, even those not at the level of a pandemic.

Keep in mind that developing skills for psychological recovery is not a mental health intervention. If you’re struggling and/or have a history of trauma, loss, or diagnosed anxiety, depression, PTSD, or substance abuse, it’s best to seek the help of a professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist.

That said, you don’t have to wait for things to get really bad in order to hone these skills. Learning them now can help you become more resilient so that, when stress arises, you are better prepared to handle stressors, Rheingold says. “The big waves of stress that may come our way in life may not feel so large if we are practiced and versed in self-care and resiliency strategies already,” she adds.

6 Skills for Psychological Recovery to Try

When you consider the below strategies, go with what feels right to you. Skills for psychological recovery are designed to build on each person’s individual strengths, Rheingold says. So what works for one person may not work for another. “Something has to be a congruent fit for the person you’re trying to help. It doesn’t help if you’re suggesting a coping skill that doesn’t resonate with them,” Kaysen says.

ID your reactions and triggers. What emotions and physical sensations are you experiencing that distress you? This could be worry, anger, an upset stomach, a headache, or anything else. Once you name these, identify what activities lead to these reactions. Is it watching the news, talking to a certain relative, or seeing your inbox hit more than 50 unread messages? Consider journaling for a few days to note everything.

Once you know what triggers you, then you can plan around those things. Consider limiting your news to a set amount of time daily, deep breathing before making the phone call, or taking a walk (even a loop or two around your apartment) when you see your inbox count. Making sure to work out in the morning or evening may also help. These are just examples; choose simple, easy activities that help ease your distress and plan to do those before or after the upsetting things on your schedule.

Normalize your reactions. “One of the places we get hooked is, we have these responses to hard things, and then sometimes we get really judgmental about the fact we’re having these reactions,” Kaysen says. “’Why is it that I can’t do my job as well as normal? Why can’t I parent as well?’” She encourages realizing and accepting that these responses are completely common. “Feelings like anxiety, sadness, and grief are normal responses to going through an event that is really unprecedented,” Kaysen says.

If you want to learn more about how the pandemic impacts our emotions so you can validate those feelings, check out these resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which are helpful for all ages, Rheingold suggests. However, if your reactions get to a level where they keep you from functioning, then reach out for professional support.

Shift to helpful thinking. You may have heard that thoughts influence our feelings. So learning how to change unhelpful thoughts can help decrease negative emotions.

First, write down any unhelpful thoughts you’re having. Some common ones about the pandemic are:

  • Things will never be the same again.
  • I have no control over anything.
  • I should be coping better.

Then name what emotions you’re feeling with those thoughts. Once you do that, come up with alternative—yet accurate—helpful thoughts to replace the unhelpful ones. You may want to draft a few to see which feel strongest with you. This could be:

  • Not everything will be like it was before. But some things are the same now.
  • Doing things gives me more control.
  • I can use this time to strengthen my skills / faith / values / practice.

Now, when you find yourself having any unhelpful thought, pause, identify your feelings, and come up with a helpful thought to focus on.

Plan value-based activities. This practice can help provide a sense of focus and purpose, Rheingold says. Think about what you value, what gives you a sense of meaning or purpose. You may value supporting local businesses or the social justice movement, or your physical health. Once you have your values, then plan things every week that align with your values. Buy from a local restaurant or boutique at least once a week, email or call representatives to ask that they make specific changes to combat inequality, or schedule in two weight sessions and two yoga sessions a week.

“Be more plan-ful about activities. Don’t just wait for your mood to change,” Rheingold adds. “When someone has anxiety or depression, they tend to not to do things because of their emotions. But doing things can shift those emotions” in a positive way.

Practice self-care. “When we have stressors in life, our demands build up,” Rheingold says. There are two ways to handle that: The first is to decrease the demands. But often we don’t have control over that. Luckily we can control the second: “We need to fill up our reservoir of personal resources with coping strategies and self-care,” she says.

The above skills add to your coping strategies. In terms of self-care, do all those things that help you feel at ease, whether that’s mindfulness-based practices or an online boxing class. Also have compassion for yourself, knowing that what constitutes a “good day” these days looks very different from a “good day” back in 2019.

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