What is Coping?


By Melinda Johnson, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

We often hear the word “coping” in conversation, but what does it really mean? People often think coping skills are learned in therapy, but we all cope from day to day- some of us are just better than others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Coping is defined as the thoughts and behaviors mobilized to manage internal and external stressful situations.”

Coping looks different for everyone. Here are a few of my preferred ways of coping with stressful situations in a healthy way. 

  1. Reframing and challenging negative thoughts. Reframing is looking at negative thoughts or situations from a more positive perspective. It’s important to remember that our initial reaction isn’t always the most accurate and that thoughts aren’t facts. For example, maybe you have a big presentation at work approaching or your student has a big test. Instead of saying, “I’m such a nervous wreck, I can’t possibly do this,” try “I’m really nervous right now, but I’m going to be brave and look at what I need to prepare to feel ready.”
  1. Go outside. Studies have shown that being outside has significantly improved both physical and mental health. This doesn’t have to be a strenuous hike through the woods. It can be sitting on your porch for ten minutes, taking a small walk around the block, going to the park to enjoy the swings, digging in the garden, or even taking a few minutes to do some birdwatching. 
  1. Breathing exercises. Breathing is something we often don’t pay attention to because our brain does this automatically. Focusing on your breathing is effective because it helps decrease the flight-or-fight response that your body triggers when it notices increased stress or danger.
  1. Try writing or journaling. Writing can help get out thoughts that otherwise feel jumbled or disorganized. I often hear “I don’t know how to start.” There’s no best formula, but journaling prompts are relatively easy to find online. Writing has also been shown to help express feelings that we otherwise have difficulty articulating. 
  1. Listen to music. Have a favorite band or song? Music easily affects our emotions and is a good way to regulate how you’re feeling. 

Don’t feel connected to any of these? That’s okay. It doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can build into your day to day to help manage emotions more effectively. Maybe you can draw or paint, read a book, go for a run, lift weights, have a conversation with a friend, put together a puzzle, or snuggle with your pet.

We want to learn how to deal with emotions rather than be scared or ignore them. As adults, it’s important to learn how to manage emotions so our children know it’s okay to experience them and find effective ways to manage them too.