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.

Content Warning: Discussion of Psychological Abuse, gaslighting, terms such as crazy

With November being Family Violence Prevention month, I want to talk about a form of emotional abuse that is perhaps more insidious than physical violence: gaslighting. As a specific form of emotional manipulation, gaslighting causes one to call in to question one’s own sanity. A partner purposefully (or sometimes non purposefully, through psychological defense mechanisms) attempts to exert control on the other by making them psychologically unstable.

This makes the gaslit partner have to rely on the other while they contemplate their sanity. Gaslighting makes you feel as though you are going crazy and, even deeper, like you’ve lost yourself. You begin to doubt everything that makes up who you are – your beliefs, your values, your worth, your reality. And when that happens, what are you left with? In some ways, you feel like an empty shell of your former self.

“He told me that I was the reason he was depressed and angry all of the time. He said that to me whenever I got angry about something he had done, or a poor choice he had made for the family. And it’s not like I acted bad when I was angry, I just wanted to talk it out.  It got to the point where I couldn’t let myself show my anger anymore, because somewhere along the line I started to believe that my anger was the problem, and not his behavior that led up to that. It’s actually funny to think that I believed my angry reaction was the problem, and not the fact that he stayed out all night with friends and got fired from work. But this whole thing had me going to different psychologists and counsellors for years, trying to get help for my “anger management” issue. Everything that went on in the relationship, we both started to blame on my anger. It took a long time for me to figure out that I wasn’t the problem”.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first step is to recognize that you are gaslit, and how drained you have become. This can be extremely difficult, since one of the very side effects is believing you are the source of the problem. However, some clear signs you are being gaslit in a close relationship are:

  • constantly second-guessing yourself and your choices,
  • having trouble making decisions,
  • frequently asking yourself, “Am I too sensitive?,” and
  • making excuses for a partner’s behaviors to family or friends.

The next step is to ensure your safety in whatever way you can. If you are physically safe, the next steps in this process involves discovering yourself again, filling your “empty shell” once more. Here are small ways that can begin the process of rediscovering yourself:

Write down what you value. What do you value? Family? Spirituality? Respect? Write down your top ten and rank them from most valued to least. Then, think about ways you use these values in your life with others.

Write/type a paragraph on all the roles that you have. Ask yourself “who am I to others?” Perhaps you are a parent, aunt, cousin, friend, grandfather, teacher, etc. List them.

Carve out time to reflect on your own unique qualities. What makes you stand out from the others? Is it a quirky personality? A sarcastic sense of humor? Reflect on these positive qualities

Explore your character traits. The VIA character strengths can help you figure out your top character traits. This positive psychology tool provides you with a list of your top character strengths. Read the list and reflect on the traits. Do they accurately capture you?

Write a list of your qualities, beliefs, and values that guide how you treat others. Ask yourself based on your values, roles, qualities, and character strengths, which of these guides how you treat other human beings?  Then reflect on if you are being treated in the way that is important to you.

Validate yourself. Emotions are normal human experiences. The brain creates these emotions for good reasons – we can’t control our initial emotional reaction. (We can, however, start to control the way we behave when we feel emotions intensely). It is important to remind yourself that all of your emotions are okay to feel.

Check in mindfully on a daily basis.

Take time out of your day to do a brief mindful exercise.

S – Stop

T – Take a moment and take a breath

O – Observe what is happening in each of your 5 senses. What are you seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting? Observe what is happening internally. Non-judgmentally ask yourself “What am I thinking? What am I feeling? What body sensations am I experiencing?” Just notice these things and move on.

P – Proceed

Take it from a survivor, it can take time to understand that you are not the problem. Like fuel to a flame, gaslighting can leave you feeling as though you’ve exploded into pieces of your former self. It’s time to collect those pieces and bring them back into wholeness once more.


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

Writing can take on many forms and do many things for people. It can be a fascinating or soothing hobby, a career, a passion, a job. But writing can have a more important role. Writing can be a coping strategy that can assist in stress relief, can increase feelings of positivity, can help manage anxiety, and can help to process trauma. Writing can be a form of therapy. Writing may do this in the following ways:

  1. It can help you honor yourself and your life story.

Vocalizing your story can be hard. Putting words to your pain can be excruciating. Putting your inner words and dialogue onto paper can be an effective alternative to speaking your story out loud. Moreover, it can provide emotional release and can validate your experience.

  1. It provides a way to share your story with others.

Some stories are traumatic. Some stories are hopeful. Some stories are either, or and both.  Sharing your story for others to read can provide normalization to others – that is, it can let others know that other people share similar pain. This, in turn, can provide positive benefits for the writer. Writing can provide a loud voice in order to share experiences.

  1. Writing can let unconscious material become conscious.

Writing out a traumatic event can help process trauma with the help of a professional therapist. Often we cope with stressful or traumatic things by compartmentalizing. It is as if our brain contains different compartments in which we can put different memories and emotions in an attempt to store them away for later.  Some memories and emotions can end up in our unconscious. Writing whatever flows out of your mind, called free association, is a way to tap into what may be stored within the unconscious mind.

  1. Writing has a calming effect on the brain.

Writing, particularly by hand, stimulates the same areas of the brain that meditation does. It engages the brain’s motor areas and memory pathways, and forces the mind to slow down while the hand catches up. This has the potential to allow more space for learning and memory integration.

Moreover, writing in cursive has further benefits. Handwriting is rhythmic and provides sensory soothing to the brain, which can decrease a negative emotional experience. It integrates sensation, movement control, cognition, and causes a calming slow-down effect.

  1. Writing can inspire hope.

Writing your future story can instill hope, create soothing imagery within your mind, and produce calm. It can also help you to set goals and perhaps start to plan a way to work towards the goals.

  1. It can help heal pain from relationships.

Writing apology and forgiveness letters can help right wrongs. Further, penning undelivered letters to those who have hurt us can assist with healing the hurt without ever having to make contact with that person.

There are many ways that you can write. Here are some practical suggestions:

  • Get a notebook and start a journal.
  • Create a blog and type out your story.
  • Write letters to your future or past self.

Remember, you are the author of your life-book. Every day can be a blank page on which to record, explore, hope, uplift, remember, and design. Writing regularly can restore, rebuild, and heal.


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

Trauma is used both to describe distressing events and the human reaction that occurs afterward. It is not simply one singular horrific event in time. It is a series of outcomes that affect every part of one’s being. Reasons for trauma can be large – Holocaust, wars, Residential Schools, internment camps. Trauma can also result from “smaller” experiences – the death of a loved one, a rejection from a friend, a breakup, a car accident. How someone reacts to such events are individual – and the physical, emotional, and spiritual reactions are not usually within our control.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a collection of symptoms that one may develop after a distressing event(s). These symptoms include: re-experiencing the event, avoiding reminders of the event, negative thoughts or feelings, and hyper-arousal. PTSD is a formal diagnosis for intense emotional pain. But what is it like to really live with the effects of trauma, big or small?

“PTSD is a whole-body tragedy, an integral human event of enormous proportions with massive repercussions.”  ― Susan Pease Banitt

I have heard the following from survivors, paraphrased in my own word:. living with trauma is like not living your own life, like not being in your own body; a sense of floating; a sense of complete numbness;  a feeling as though your body is always on alert, as if it will never truly relax. The body is constantly in flight or fight mode, something that one gets very used to living with. Life becomes sped up, or slowed right down, as if walking through sludge. It becomes an existence colored by the quickness and vulnerability of life, and the reality and permanence of death, sometimes leading to the question of “what’s the point?” asked over and over again. Guilt comes easily, trust becomes impossible. One turns to drugs or alcohol to try and numb it all out, or to try to feel outside of the numbness. A life is truly changed.

But what happens when you experience these symptoms, but you are not aware of any traumatic events that have happened to you? Because trauma gets inherited in more ways than one, you may look beyond your past, and to your parent’s pasts, and even to the lives of your grandparents.

The well-known form of passing trauma on is through the way we are parented. The way we are parented as children can form the basis for what we are like as adults. If our parents experienced trauma and are living with symptoms like those listed above, it may affect one’s ability to be fully present as a parent. Moreover, if our trauma is directly from our parents, then we are likely to use the same harsh parenting style on our own children.

But here is the fascinating part. We can also pass on our trauma through our genes, not only our behaviours. Relatively new discoveries in the world of genetics have created a new field of study called Epigenetics. This is the study of the mechanisms that switch our genes on or off, or even alter genes completely without changes being made to our underlying DNA sequence. There are triggers in our environment that will determine if that pesky allergy gene we inherited from Dad will actually be expressed, or if that ability to be social and outgoing that we inherited from mom will be turned off. Backing up a generation or two, the genes that may have been altered in Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, due to their trauma, can be passed on to a developing fetus. Studies examining children of trauma survivors show that PTSD symptoms, such as nightmares, will manifest under stress, which is linked to inherited trauma through epigenetics.

A very relevant example of how we see this affect our society is in Residential School survivors. Many children today who have not been in Residential Schools, but have parents or grandparents who have attended these schools, are suffering from PTSD-like symptoms that have been inherited.

The good news is that epigenetic changes do not have to permanent. Remember, what you are exposed to in life, and how you design your children’s environment will affect if these genes are expressed or not. Moreover, trauma is overcome, through hard work, perseverance, and allowing trusted human beings to help us undo the responses that have occurred as a result of other human beings. We can heal our relational hurts relationally – in fact, there is some evidence this might be the best way. Everyday cycles can be broken, PTSD can be healed, family legacies can be changed, and genes can be switched. Compassion for this process is paramount.


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