Your brain is pretty smart. It has evolved over millennia, with a single goal: to keep you alive. No matter how smart we think we are, our brain is essentially an instrument that shapes itself to a form that enables us to cope. So, you have coping skills, you might not recognise them, but you have them.
Let me give you an example. Robin Williams: a funny guy, a genius with humour. Yet, Robin Williams was one of the saddest men, wrecked by insecurity and permanently hounded by depression. His coping strategy was humour. It is a classic sleight-of-hand: you are about to see my sadness, here look at me fall over in a slapstick fashion, good, you are laughing. The chance of anyone ever having really seen Robin Williams, the man, are slim. He coped with comedy.
Do you know what you do when you feel stressed?
So, what is your coping strategy? Do you allow yourself to use it?
There are many kinds of coping skills, here are just a few. See if you recognise the one that your brain takes you to automatically because if you can recognise it, you can use it long before you feel “in danger.”
We do this with children and animals without much thought. You have grazed your knee, here have a pretty plaster with a picture of a Power Ranger. There is another dog, quick throw the ball for your pet. This really works to decrease the sense of danger because the brain is busy doing something else. Troubled people often succeed at work because they have trained their brain to go into drive mode to distract from the stresses and upset in the silent world.
The question is, does the distraction help or hinder your sense of wellbeing? Is your drive in proportion to your ability to cope with the amount of work it takes to distract you?
Mindfulness is not meditation, as such. It is the art of being in the present moment. This means that you are neither thinking of the past, nor ruminating on the future. You are allowing thoughts to come, and thoughts to go from your brain. You are watching them like cars passing on a road but you are not chasing the cars – this is where danger lies. People who go very quiet and introvert will naturally be using mindfulness to cope with the situation. They are allowing the situation to unfold around them, they are not diving in.
The question is: does your brain keep you watching when you should really be acting now?
Write a plan
You will know if you are a person who copes by planning because you will write lots of lists. Writing lists is a wonderful coping skill because it gives you a sense of the whole problem and it allows you to work on one item at a time. This is a practical response to an overwhelming experience.
There is a “but” though and those who write lists know what this “but” is. Do you write lists but then get upset by the list and do nothing? Does list making overtake positive action? Do you add things to the list that you have already done, so you can tick them off and feel more in control?
This is a coping strategy that most people will not have tried. It requires you to literally go against the grain of what your instincts are telling you. If your brain is saying you must drive forward and distract yourself from emotion, instead you should sit still and try to become aware of your emotions. If your instinct is screaming for a list, don’t do it. Just decide that today is about one of the things and the others will still be there in the morning. If you want to be funny, to draw a friend’s attention from your hollowness and anxiety, instead voice to your friend those things that are worrying you.
Opposite action is hard. This is asking you to dig new channels in your brain. However, think about it: by choosing a coping strategy you are taking control. There are times when you can give yourself a break and allow your brain to fall back into its preferred survival mode. We all need those moments. Yet, if we want to get on top of our stresses and in control of the emotional ups and downs, we need to choose how we are going to cope.
So, try to think like this:
- My brain is saying I must work hard so that I do not have to think about my hurt in a relationship.
- But, I am going to take a day off and sit quietly, in the moment, and see if I can live with the emotions.
- Or, my brain is telling me to drift to the edge of the room and sit and watch the social events unfold until I feel safe.
- But, I am going to ask a friend to join me in the social situation and I am going to start with them in the centre of the room.
- Or, my brain is saying I should write a really long list for work and a list for home and a list for friends.
- But, I am just going to sit and read a book and not think about anything I need to get done until I calm down.
It’s about small steps
It might be hard at first to see what coping strategy you use. But, this recognition is an important first step. The next step might be acknowledging that you need that coping strategy today and that is just fine. Then, next time, you might try to forge a new channel in your brain by taking the opposite action. You will choose a coping strategy opposite to your instincts and you know you will have taken control.
So, when trying to mould your coping strategies, as in all great endeavours, you should: breathe deep, move forward and take small steps: you got this!