The Truth About Coping Skills
"My coping skills aren't working. I still feel awful!" I have heard this over and over again when talking to others about using coping skills instead of behaviors. The feeling that coping skills are not working, when they actually are, is not uncommon. Why would someone feel this way? Because the truth is that coping skills don't always make you feel better.
Healthy coping skills are often taught and practiced when we are trying to avoid using maladaptive coping skills. Maladaptive coping techniques provide relief from uncomfortable emotions, but they don't address the root problem and can become an issue themselves. An eating disorder, drinking, drugs, and gambling are a few examples of maladaptive coping techniques that create their own life interfering problems. While these behaviors often provide quick relief from emotions that feel overwhelming, as soon as the behavior's effects wear off, the emotions rise back to the surface, creating a vicious and unhealthy cycle.
Once we begin to address the underlying issues that created these behaviors, we must start to replace the unhealthy coping skills with healthy ones. It is during this transition when we are facing all the issues we worked so hard to avoid, that we can be left feeling like the new skills just don't work. We feel raw, full of anxiety, and as if our emotions are going to overwhelm us.
The fact that healthy coping skills don't always make us feel better was a hard pill to swallow when I reached this stage of recovery. I felt as though a terrible trick had been played on me. You want me to stop using the behaviors that work and replace them with others that don't? Nice Try! Here is what I did not understand, while I might not feel better emotionally if I made it through the moment without using a harmful behavior, the coping skill worked.
We can become so used to being numbed by the unhealthy behaviors that we want the new skills to provide the same kind of relief. By avoiding negative or scary emotions, we fail to fully process situations, and that can leave us stuck emotionally creating triggers that we also try to avoid. The longer we numb from those feeling, the more overwhelming they can seem, and the more convinced we become that we aren't capable of dealing with them. They become the proverbial monster in the closet from which we are always hiding.
What healthy coping skills do is allow us to process even the most difficult emotions. They can teach us that intense emotions do pass, and we can survive through those moments. Sadness, anger, and fear may persist while we work through the issues, but the intensity of those emotions will ebb and flow. Each time we make through the periods that feel as though they will engulf us behavior free, the more empowered we become, and over time the more willing we become to face the most painful issues in our lives. That willingness and ability to deal with the darkest issues without falling back on old behaviors is what can lead us to true and lasting recovery.