Inspirational Articles

Evolving our Coping Skills

Evolving our Coping Skills

By Kathy Ryndak and Gord Riddell

Coping skills are a complex set of internal beliefs, emotions, behaviours and communication styles that we learn from a very young age. Their purpose is to assist us in navigating and responding to our life circumstances and events. Our models are mostly our caregivers and siblings in learning these skills but certainly peers and school play a role in their development. The most common form of learning is simply through observation, then trial and error. In other words, nobody taught us how to have coping skills - we as children simply watched others in situations and then imitated them when the situation arose.

Our coping skills, however, are not static and set for life, although in some people they can be. How we react to any given situation will change as we age and develop a greater sense of self. However, there must also be a desire to change those defenses that no longer work for us. For instance, if as a child you threw the proverbial temper tantrum when things did not go your way, you will most likely be criticized and/or ostracized for throwing a tantrum as an adult. You will possibly also feel bad about yourself for the incident and most likely this tactic will not work with other adults.

Coping skills, also referred to as defenses, are not just how we react to the world and handle our interactions within it, but also assist us internally when we may be dealing with losses, such as a death, divorce or loss of health. Our defenses are deeply ingrained. As a result, we often go directly into our defenses automatically without having to make any decisions as to how we may want to respond to a given situation. Our ingrained defenses are reactive to situations and in order to change we need to be able to learn how to respond.

Our coping skills play a large role in certain behaviours such as addictions. When we are upset and/or angry we may have learned that alcohol or food can help us in dealing with our feelings. When we use them often or become out of control with food or alcohol, it is a signal that our coping skills are no longer serving us and we are using outside things to help us cope. It should be noted that food and alcohol are only two of any number of possible things we may use to get through an event, a feeling or the day.

Evolving your coping skills.

To better understand our self we must develop an awareness of how we cope with various situations. What stresses us? What makes us angry? And what makes us sad? We then need to virtually observe our self to see how we handle these situations. What skills do we have to cope with a situation? The reason this is important is that today’s society has more stressed out people than ever before. The idea that the computer age would bring an era of leisure was severely off the mark. People not only work longer hours but they have more stresses at home. Many have children of their own but also aging parents that require care. They are referred to, quite appropriately, as the “sandwich” generation – those squeezed between caring for two generations, having multiple responsibilities of their own and a career to boot.

For many people, not having an awareness of how to respond to a situation only increases their stress level as they do not have a choice in how to experience, both inside and outside of themselves, various events. They have a limited repertoire of skills to draw upon. Think of this in terms of being a carpenter with only one hammer or a cook with only one pot; you may be able to do some things but you are limited in the house you could build or the meal you could prepare. The more tools you have the more choice you have.

Increasing your skill set

When beginning to increase your skill set, start with smaller events that have an emotional element to them. Ask yourself what would be the best response for me in this situation. Since all of our coping skills are internally geared to have an automatic reaction, it takes some doing to move from being reactive to being responsive. Many of our reactions are control issues - people not doing what we want, when we want and how we want it done. For most, the primary reaction is almost always anger. Practicing new responses with these kinds of situations helps to build a base for when really big things happen in our lives. Just because people are not doing things your way does not make you right, however we probably think we are and hence the angry reaction.

It cannot be emphasized enough that in having choices as to how, or even whether, to respond to a situation will make your life so much easier and you will experience substantially less stress. For all the energy that goes into being angry and upset, it is only the person generating that energy that experiences the ill effects. The other person is quite probably at home sleeping!

As with any change, it all begins with a genuine desire to want to learn to do things differently and an openness to create new things and experiences in our life. Having a larger array of internal skills will only help to make the transitions in our life that much smoother and less stressful.