What to Do When Coping Skills Don’t Work

June 23, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Yeraz N Markarian, PhD contributes to topics such as Psychology.

By: Katie Woehnker

While society is taking steps to “reopen”, many people are approaching this next phase with apprehension. They may still have fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus, or worries about job or financial security. Managing anxiety and stress can be difficult under ordinary circumstances, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused a surge of complicated emotions.

Yeraz Markarian, Ph.D., director of Psychology at Hackensack University Medical Center provided some insight on how to manage anxiety around COVID-19 and other stressful situations, and what to do when coping skills aren’t working.

1. Take note of what triggered your emotional response.

If you sense yourself slipping into a dark space, take note of what caused the emotional shift.

“Recognizing these changes may be simple, like noticing that you felt anxious after watching the news for a prolonged period, and at other times it may take more thought to identify what the trigger was. It’s a good habit to start recognizing your shift in emotion, and what preceded it,” Dr. Markarian says.

Our body naturally reacts to certain circumstances, with both positive and negative reactions. If you can start to identify what caused a negative reaction, you’ll be able to better identify the situation, pause and intervene more quickly to experience a better emotional response.

2. Make sure you’re practicing coping skills when calm.

“A lot of coping skills are based in science, and although they won’t always work perfectly for everyone in every situation, they do typically tend to work. Before you move on to the next level of strategies, try them again when you’re in a calmer state to see if you’re practicing the techniques correctly and as recommended,” shares Dr. Markarian.

“It’s also really important to practice strategies when you’re not distressed – it’s sort of like martial arts training. The more our body learns to implement coping skills when we’re not distressed, the more we will be able to effectively use those skills during a stressful time.”

Some strategies to protect your mind against stress include:

  • Practice deep breathing:
    • Close your mouth and breath in deeply through your nose, almost as deep as a yawn. Allow your abdominal muscles to expand. Hold the breath for a moment, then slowly breathe out of your mouth. Repeat this a few times.
  • Reduce exposure to stressful events and news, especially before bedtime.
  • Do something that relaxes you – go for a walk, write in a journal or listen to music.
  • Focus on self-care:
    • Exercise on a regular basis.
    • Get the daily recommend amount of sleep for your age, not too little or too much.
    • Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
    • Practice mindfulness.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as a way to de-stress.

3. Don’t isolate; stay connected and reach out for help.

“Talk with your loved ones, friends and even coworkers about what you’re experiencing. Connecting with others will improve their emotional well-being, as well as yours,” adds Dr. Markarian.

“And remember there’s nothing wrong with calling a mental health care provider or hotline. You don’t have to be very distressed or in a state of crisis to reach out for help. No matter what state you’re in, connecting with a licensed professional will help you work through your emotions.”

4. Acknowledge that this is a tough time.

It’s important to acknowledge the fact that we are in a time of ongoing and prolonged crisis that may wax and wane for quite some time – after that recognition will come grief and acceptance.

Acknowledge and accept the situation you are in.

Recognize that this is a pandemic, and that a lot has changed. Some changes are small and temporary, while others have been complicated and permanent and may take longer to accept. Once we accept our “new normal” we can move forward and live in it and problem-solve the details with more ease.

5. Become comfortable with not knowing.

“Not knowing what’s going to happen is really hard for us to tolerate. Because of the accessibility and tools we have, we know more about our daily lives and our future than ever before. We’ve become so accustomed to planning that it makes it challenging for us to accept not knowing what’s going to happen,” reflects Dr. Markarian.

It’s important to sit in the discomfort of not knowing and get used to the experience of “not knowing” exactly how things will pan out. Over time, sitting in that discomfort will, in fact, become easier until one day when it’s not uncomfortable at all anymore.

6. Recapture your identity pre-quarantine and try something new.

“It’s important to remember and try to recapture what your life looked like before the pandemic,” adds Dr. Markarian. “If you’re someone who loves working out, you may not be able to work out in the same way, but there are ways you can adjust to still make it a part of your life.”

Rekindle those experiences that make you feel alive – even if you can’t go to a sporting event or a concert, you can re-watch an old game or performance and reconnect with that part of your identity.

Don’t be afraid of trying something you’ve never done before like cooking, learning a new language or dancing. The internet has endless tutorials and resources to learn new skills, use this time to develop a new hobby.

“It’s about getting out of the mindset of, ‘I’m a person who lives in a pandemic’. There will be good days, and there will be bad ones, but if you remember who you are as a whole person, it will help you rediscover those old passions, and maybe even some new ones.”

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.