The Top 10 Coping Strategies for Stressful Emotions

As a therapist, one of the first conversations I often to have with individuals involves the question of how one copes with the intense emotions experienced in the face of difficult situations. Often, people refer to their distractions as ways of coping; however, those are different. Distractions allow us to focus our full attention on things other than our emotions, while coping strategies help us acknowledge, accept and stay within our difficult emotions. Sometimes this helps us move through an emotional experience quite quickly, while other coping strategies force us to be emotional for some time. Below, I’ve compiled a list of what seem to be the top coping strategies for teenagers and adults and why they work!

Talking: Giving words to our situation can be cathartic. Dr. Dan Siegel states that we need to “name it to tame it”, meaning, that if we are able to identify our emotions, and further, to share out loud our emotional experience, that is the first step in helping gather our emotions back into a manageable state.

Drawing and other art: Humans have a need to be creative. The process of creating art can be an experience that impacts mental health. This might be partially due to the idea that creating art stimulates many areas of the brain to create new neural connections, and research shows that this may occur in areas that ultimately lead to more emotional resilience.

Writing/Journalling: Writing has many healing benefits, so many, that I’ve written entire blog post dedicated to the positive effects of writing. Putting our story to paper can provide clarity, can allow for letting go, and can inspire hope.

Breathing: Sometimes this is one of the simplest things that we can do. Taking deep breaths into the diaphragm helps infuse the body with oxygen, which creates a calming effect on both the physical body and in the mind. This is because deep breathing helps reduce cortisol levels in our bodies.

Music: Brain studies show that when we listen to some music, the blood flow in our brain changes, particularly in the area of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These areas are important for logical reasoning, and in the case of the amygdala, our emotions. Music can directly influence the way we feel and the way we think.

Exercise: Research shows that exercise can be just as effective as antidepressants in managing symptoms of depression, like exhaustion, sadness, and low motivation. Daily exercise may work over time by increasing our levels of serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter implicated in depression.

Actively introducing positive thoughts: When our emotions are difficult, our thoughts tend to become negative. It takes practice and conscious thought to be able to actively introduce positive thoughts into our thinking. One way to do this is to name your thinking traps and find ways to respond to these thoughts.

Changing up your surroundings: Sometimes switching the environment we are in can be helpful. Often the change is subtle, like moving out of your bedroom and into another room. Sometimes the change is more drastic, like rearranging furniture in your living room.

Taking a step back, taking a break: This is especially helpful when our difficult emotions are stemming from relationships. Taking a step back from the relationship, either with physical distance or mental distance, can help us find room to problem solve.

Communicating your needs: It takes skill to be able to recognize what we need, and more hard work to communicate these needs to those in our lives. Perhaps you need an hour of me-time, maybe you want to say “no” to an upcoming social event, or maybe it is important to tell a family member you’ve been hurt by their actions. Communicating your needs assertively helps you to not only get what you need, but can help with self-esteem and feeling accomplished.

Using coping strategies when our emotions seem to be out of control can help bring them back to being regulated again. Moreover, coping strategies, when used over time, can help make changes that increase our ability to become resilient in the face of life events.  Remember, you got this.


20181009_113447Erin Newman is a therapist by day, and a writer by night. She is also a parent, student, advocate, artist, and teacher.

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