If you’ve ever been to therapy, you may know the term “toolbox” quite well. No, it’s not a literal toolbox. What I’m talking about is a toolbox in your mind of all the coping skills collected throughout therapy and/or life in general. The key to having a successful toolbox is to have healthy coping strategies that work for YOU. What may work for someone else may not work for you. It’s important to find coping strategies that fit your needs. The cool thing about mental health toolboxes is that they can always be adjusted–whether that be added to or replacing a tool that no longer works for you.
There are different types of “tools” that work for different issues and emotions. For example, engaging in a hobby (for me, knitting) is an effective way to wind down after a long day at work. However, going for a walk and getting fresh air is the best approach when I’m upset or angry. It’s important to take “inventory” of what tools you already have. For example, look at your habits and see what self care you already do and what you may need to improve on.
Sleep: How are you sleeping? When you ask yourself this question, think about the quality of sleep and not just the number of hours you’re getting. More sleep doesn’t always mean better sleep. Did you have trouble falling asleep last night? Did you struggle to stay asleep? Was your mind racing? When you woke up this morning, did you feel rested? Did you struggle to get out of bed? Are you sticking to a regular sleep schedule and avoiding screens and late-night snacking before bed?
Hydration: What does your water intake look like? Your body needs water to function and it WILL tell you when you are not getting enough. If you’re dehydrated, you might feel dizzy or lightheaded, have a headache, feel very thirsty, or even feel tired (add water intake to your sleep checklist!).
Food intake: Think about your relationship with food and eating. Are you having regular meals throughout the day? Do you find yourself snacking constantly? Are you finding yourself overeating at certain times of the day or grabbing snacks at a certain time each day? Are you using food as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or boredom? Lacking nutrients or not eating enough can negatively impact your mental health and lead to poor concentration, lack of focus, lower mood, and more.
Physical Activity: Are you moving your body enough? Exercising regularly? Taking standing breaks if you have a desk job? How do you feel when you’re moving your body? Are you winded after a short walk or taking the stairs? Even a 30-minute daily walk conveys major benefits for both physical and mental health—and you could use that time to do the rest of your self-care check-in if you’d like. Now, if you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, talk with your doctor and/or therapist/dietitian before engaging in exercise.
Stress Management: Your check-in doesn’t have to be purely physical. Too often, we choose to live with the stress in our lives, persevere, and carry on without really analyzing it. You might notice patterns or spot certain behaviors—such as overeating or binge drinking—in the aftermath of stressful situations that may contribute to further stress or be detrimental to your health in other areas. Once again, look at how connected your mind and body are.
With the simple act of checking in with yourself, you’ve participated in active self-care without having to carve an hour or more out of your day! While reflective, these actions are actually a form of preventative care because checking in even when you don’t need to is one of the best ways to prepare for those times when you do need to pull something out of your mental health toolkit.
Emotion-based coping is helpful when you need to take care of your feelings when you either don’t want to change your situation or when circumstances are out of your control. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it’d be important to take care of your feelings in a healthy way (since you can’t change the circumstance). When you have uncomfortable emotions, it is hard to check in with yourself. It is hard to sit with those emotions. Here are some helpful tips for emotion-focused coping skills:
- Take a bath
- Give yourself a pep talk
- Tell yourself affirmations
- Care for yourself: put on lotion, spend time in nature, take care of your body in a way that makes you feel good.
- Engage in a hobby
- Focus on a task: clean the house, cook a meal, read a book
- Practice relaxation strategies: play with a pet, practice breathing exercises, squeeze a stress ball, write in a journal
Problem-based coping is helpful when you need to change your situation, perhaps by removing a stressful thing from your life. For example, if you’re in an unhealthy relationship, your anxiety and sadness might be best resolved by ending the relationship (as opposed to soothing your emotions). Here are some helpful tips for problem-focused coping skills:
- Work on managing time
- Ask for support
- Establish healthy boundaries
- Create a to do list
- Engage in problem solving
- Walk away and leave a situation that is causing you stress
Unhealthy coping skills to avoid:
- Drinking alcohol or using drugs
- Substances may temporarily numb your pain, but they won’t resolve your issues. Substances are likely to introduce new problems into your life. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant that can make you feel worse. Using substances to cope also puts you at risk for developing a substance use disorder and it may create health, legal, financial problems, and social problems.
- Overeating and/or restricting food
- Food is a common coping strategy. But, trying to “stuff your feelings” with food can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and health issues. Sometimes people go to the other extreme and restrict their eating (because it makes them feel more in control) and clearly, that can be just as unhealthy.
- Sleeping too much
- Whether you take a nap when you’re stressed out or you sleep late to avoid facing the day, sleeping offers a temporary escape from your problems. However, when you wake up, the problem will still be there.
- Venting to others
- Talking about your problems so that you can gain support, develop a solution, or see a problem in a different way can be healthy. But studies show repeatedly venting to people about how bad your situation is or how terrible you feel is more likely to keep you stuck in a place of pain.
- While many people say they enjoy retail therapy as a way to feel better, shopping can become unhealthy. Owning too many possessions can add stress to your life. Also, spending more than you can afford will only backfire in the end and cause more stress.
- Even “healthy” coping strategies can become unhealthy if you’re using them to avoid the problem. For example, if you are stressed about your financial situation, you might be tempted to spend time with friends or watch TV because that’s less anxiety-provoking than creating a budget. But if you never resolve your financial issues, your coping strategies are only masking the problem.