Although coping seems pretty straightforward, it can be a tricky concept. It is mostly used within a positive context. A skill, a behavior, or anything that can help someone overcome something.
Many times, during a consultation, a client will say, “I need help coping with my anxiety,” or a parent will report, “My kid just needs to learn to cope with stress.” Despite these assertions many people fail to realize that they are indeed “coping” with anxiety and stress-albeit maybe not adaptively. Drinking, drugs, isolating, avoidance, and self-harming behaviors are all forms of coping.
In fact, many of these are rather efficient at helping us cope with unpleasant psychological stimuli. For example, skipping school to avoid the unpleasant anxiety associated with reading in class is an effective way of never having to manage the unpleasant experience. Drinking alcohol or using mood altering substances are effective means of subduing an anxiety attack long enough to get through the grocery store. Now, of course, there are more adaptive ways of coping with the aforementioned problems. The kid scared to read in class could learn to breath when anxious and hold onto a stress ball, or the panic stricken adult could take a prescription drug, shop during non-busy hours, or shop online even. These coping techniques would possibly allow the person to manage getting through the distressing situation unscathed. Coping is a big part of the tools that many therapists teach clients. These tools can be extremely effective, especially when helping someone get through a time-specific crisis, conflict, or problem. For example, helping someone cope with the loss of loved one can be invaluable until the person is ready to face the world again. Teaching self-care techniques to a heartbroken adult may ease the pain of initial loneliness and heartache, and learning coping strategies while quitting smoking is essential to ones success.
These rules, however, do not necessary apply to overcoming anxiety. If one coping technique is swapped for another, even a more adaptive one (e.g., learning to breath in response to anxiety vs. laying in bed, or drinking alcohol) than an individual continues to believe that they were (are) unable to tolerate the yucky feeling associated with anxiety; and the message becomes, “Yes, you were able to make it through that panic attack or horrible experience but only because of your medication; or only because your safe person was with you; or only because of your lucky rabbit foot). Coping with anxiety implies that one must do something to tolerate the distress. In fact, this isn’t true. The best way to overcome ones anxiety is to do nothing. If you do nothing, you don’t flee, avoid, get drunk, or cut yourself and the anxiety goes away or reduces than the conversation is different. It becomes, “Wait a minute, my anxiety is gone. My anxiety is gone and I did nothing. “ While this seems rather simple so many of us choose not to wait around and see if our anxiety reduces while we do nothing. We hate it and want to go away quickly, but don’t realize that these behaviors are in fact what keep it hanging around.
Steps to do nothing: