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Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions

We all need to be armed with healthy coping skills to get through tough times. Coping skills help us tolerate, minimize, and deal with stressful situations in life.

Coping Skills

Coping skills are the methods people use to deal with stressful situations. Managing stress well can help us feel better emotionally and physically, and positively impact our ability to perform – allowing us to perform at our best. But not all coping skills are created equal. Sometimes, it’s tempting to engage in strategies that give quick relief but might create bigger problems for us down the road. It’s important to establish healthy coping skills that help us reduce emotional distress or rid ourselves of the stressful situations we face.

Examples of healthy coping skills include:

· Establishing and maintaining boundaries

· Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation/prayer, and mindfulness

· Getting regular physical exercise

· Making to-do lists and setting goals.

By understanding the main types of coping skills, we can better select strategies that are suited to different types of stress. Let’s explore coping skills that can help us manage stress and challenges.

Problem-Based vs. Emotion-Based Coping Skills

There are five main types of coping skills. They are problem-focused coping, emotion-focused coping, religious coping, meaning-making, and social support. Two of the main types of coping skills are problem-based and emotion-based coping. Understanding how they differ can help us determine which best coping strategy is best for which situation.

Problem-based coping is helpful when we need to change our situation, perhaps by removing something stressful from our lives. For example, if you are in an unhealthy relationship, your anxiety and sadness might be best resolved by ending the relationship (as opposed to soothing your emotions).

Emotion-based coping is helpful when we need to take care of our feelings when we either don’t want to change our situation or when circumstances are out of our control. For example, if you are grieving the loss of a loved one, it’d be important to take care of your feelings in a healthy way (since you can’t change the circumstance). So, Problem-based coping skills focus on changing the situation, while emotional-based coping skills are centered on changing how you feel. There isn’t always one best way to proceed. Instead, it’s up to us to decide which type of coping skill is likely to work best for you in your circumstance. The following examples are of stressful situations and how each approach could be used.

Reading Your Performance Review

You open your email to find your annual performance review. The review states that you are below average in several areas, and you’re surprised by this because you thought you were performing well. You feel anxious and frustrated.

Problem-focused coping: You go to the boss and talk about what you can do to improve your performance. You develop a clear plan that will help you do better, and you start to feel more confident about your ability to succeed.

Emotion-focused coping: You spend your lunch break reading a book to distract yourself from catastrophic predictions that you’re going to be fired. After work, you exercise and clean the house as a way to help you feel better so you can think about the situation more clearly.

Getting a Teenager to Clean

You have told your teenager he needs to clean his bedroom. But it’s been week and clothes and trash seem to be piling up. Before heading out the door in the morning, you told him he must clean his room after school "or else." You arrive home from work to find him playing videos in his messy room.

Problem-focused coping: You sit your teenager down and tell him that he’s going to be grounded until his room is clean. You take away his electronics and put him on restriction. In the meantime, you shut the door to his room, so you don’t have to look at the mess.

Emotion-focused coping: You decide to run some bathwater because a hot bath always helps you feel better. You know a bath will help you calm down, so you don’t yell at him or overreact.

Giving a Presentation

You’ve been invited to give a presentation in front of a large group. You were so flattered and surprised by the invitation that you agreed to do it. But as the event approaches, your anxiety skyrockets because you hate public speaking.

Problem-focused coping: You decide to hire a public speaking coach to help you learn how to write a good speech and how to deliver it confidently. You practice giving your speech in front of a few friends and family members so you will feel better prepared to step on stage.

Emotion-focused coping: You tell yourself that you can do this. You practice relaxation exercises whenever you start to panic. And you remind yourself that even if you’re nervous, no one else is even likely to notice.

RECAP: Problem-based coping skills focus on changing the situation, while emotional-based coping skills are centered on changing how you feel.

Knowing which approach is right for a specific situation can help you deal with stress more effectively.

Healthy Emotion-Focused Coping Skills

Whether we are feeling lonely, nervous, sad, or angry, emotion-focused coping skills can help us deal with our feelings in a healthy way. Healthy coping strategies may soothe us, temporarily distract us, or help us tolerate our distress. Sometimes it’s helpful to face our emotions head-on. For example, feeling sad after the death of a loved one can help us honor our loss.

So, while it would be important to use coping skills to help relieve some of your distress, coping strategies shouldn’t be about constantly distracting us from reality. Other times, coping skills may help us change our mood. If you’ve had a bad day at work, playing with the kids or watching a funny movie might cheer us up. Or, if we’re angry about something someone said, a healthy coping strategy might help us calm down before we say something we might regret.

Healthy ways to cope with emotions include:

Care for yourself: Put on lotion that smells good, spend time in nature, take a bath, drink tea, or take care of your body in a way that makes you feel good such as painting your nails, doing your hair, putting on a face mask.

Engage in a hobby: Do something you enjoy such as coloring, drawing, or listening to music.

Exercise: Do yoga, go for a walk, take a hike, or engage in a recreational sport.

Focus on a task: Clean the house (or a closet, drawer, or area), cook a meal, garden, or read a book.

Practice mindfulness: List the things you feel grateful for, meditate, picture your "happy place," or look at pictures to remind you of the people, places, and things that bring joy.

Use relaxation strategies: Play with a pet, practice breathing exercises, squeeze a stress ball, use a relaxation app, enjoy some aromatherapy, try progressive muscle relaxation, or write in a journal.

Healthy Problem-Focused Coping Skills

There are many ways we may decide to tackle a problem head-on and eliminate the source of our stress. In some cases, that may mean changing our behavior or creating a plan that helps us know what action we’re going to take. In other situations, problem-focused coping may involve more drastic measures, like changing jobs or ending a relationship.

Here are some examples of positive problem-focused coping skills:

1. Ask for support from a friend or a professional.

2. Create a to-do list.

3. Engage in problem-solving.

4. Establish healthy boundaries.

5. Walk away and leave a situation that is causing you stress.

6. Work on managing your time better.

RECAP: Whether emotion-focused or problem-focused, healthy coping skills should help calm stress without avoiding the issue. The right coping skill often depends on the situation and your specific needs at the moment.

Unhealthy Coping Skills to Avoid

Just because a strategy helps us endure emotional pain, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Some coping skills could create bigger problems in your life.

Here are some examples of unhealthy coping skills:

Drinking alcohol or using drugs: Substances may temporarily numb your pain, but they won’t resolve your issues. Substances are likely to introduce new problems into your life. Alcohol, for example, is a depressant that can make you feel worse. Using substances to cope also puts you at risk for developing a substance use disorder and it may create health, legal, financial problems, and social problems.

Overeating: Food is a common coping strategy. But, trying to "stuff your feelings" with food can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and health issues. Sometimes people go to the other extreme and restrict their eating (because it makes them feel more in control) and clearly, that can be just as unhealthy.

Sleeping too much: Whether you take a nap when you’re stressed out or you sleep late to avoid facing the day, sleeping offers a temporary escape from your problems. However, when you wake up, the problem will still be there.

Venting to others: Talking about your problems so that you can gain support, develop a solution, or see a problem in a different way can be healthy. But studies show repeatedly venting to people about how bad your situation is or how terrible you feel is more likely to keep you stuck in a place of pain.

Overspending: While many people say they enjoy retail therapy as a way to feel better, shopping can become unhealthy. Owning too many possessions can add stress to your life. Also, spending more than you can afford will only backfire in the end and cause more stress.

Avoiding: Even “healthy” coping strategies can become unhealthy if you’re using them to avoid the problem. For example, if you are stressed about your financial situation, you might be tempted to spend time with friends or watch TV because that’s less anxiety-provoking than creating a budget. But if you never resolve your financial issues, your coping strategies are only masking the problem.

RECAP: Unhealthy coping techniques—such as drinking or avoiding the problem—may offer some temporary relief, but they tend to make things worse in the long run. These unhealthy tactics can also lead to other problems that create more stress and make coping more difficult.

Proactive Coping Skills

Coping skills are usually discussed as a reactive strategy: When we feel bad, we do something to cope. But research shows that proactive coping strategies can effectively manage the future obstacles we are likely to face. For example, if we have worked hard to lose weight, proactive coping strategies could help us maintain the weight after our weight loss program has ended. We may plan for circumstances that might derail us—like the holiday season or dinner invitations from friends—to help us cope. We also might plan for how we will cope with emotions that previously caused us to snack, like boredom or loneliness.

Proactive coping can also help people deal with unexpected life changes, such as a major change in health. A 2014 study found that people who engaged with proactive coping were better able to deal with the changes they encountered after having a stroke. Another study found that people who engaged in proactive coping were better equipped to manage their type 2 diabetes. Participants who planned ahead and set realistic goals enjoyed better psychological well-being. So, if you are facing a stressful life event or you’ve undergone a major change, try planning ahead. Consider the skills you can use to cope with the challenges you’re likely to face. When you have a toolbox ready to go, you’ll know what to do. And that could help you to feel better equipped to face the challenges ahead.

RECAP: Proactive coping has been found to be an effective way to help people deal with both predictable changes like a decline in income during retirement, as well as unpredictable life changes such as the onset of a chronic health condition.

Find What Works for You

The coping strategies that work for someone else might not work for you. Going for a walk might help your partner calm down but you may find walking irritating when you’re angry because it causes you to think more about why you’re mad—and it fuels your angry feelings. So, you might decide watching a funny video for a few minutes helps you relax. You might find that certain coping strategies work best for specific issues or emotions. For example, engaging in a hobby may be an effective way to unwind after a long day at work. But, going for a walk in nature might be the best approach when you’re feeling sad. When it comes to coping skills, there’s always room for improvement. So, assess what other tools and resources you can use and consider how you might continue to sharpen your skills in the future.

RECAP: It's important to develop your own toolkit of coping skills that you’ll find useful. You may need to experiment with a variety of coping strategies to help you discover which ones work best for you.

A Final Word

Healthy coping skills can help protect us from distress and help us face problems before they become more serious.


By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief | Updated on September 06, 2022 | Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS

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