Coping Skills for Difficult Situations (Video)

by | May 5, 2020 | Behavioral Health, Uncategorized

By Molly Sherb, PhD, psychologist


View Molly’s recorded webinar with extended Q&A.


We are entering another week of home quarantine in New York City and I am hearing from many people that they are reaching their ‘breaking point’. Some people have had a hard time adjusting to their new routine and environment from the beginning, some have had to face some real hardships making it difficult to feel in control of their emotions, others who were coping fine in the first few weeks, are now feeling overly restricted. Wherever you are in the spectrum, we are all yearning for some normalcy. 

It is still too soon to know when we might start to regain some normalcy and until we are able to maintain more control of our days, having a diverse set of coping skills to implement during moments of high emotional intensity, is an excellent tool to have. When faced with a problem that cannot be solved immediately, it’s important to use coping skills as a way of increasing distress tolerance. By filling your tool kit with various coping strategies, it can help increase your ability to handle difficult situations. 

Below are four different coping strategies originally developed by psychologist Marsha Linehan, creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). DBT is a specific type of mental health treatment that works to help you regulate emotions and improve your ability to navigate challenging circumstances. Coping skills are not one size fits all. I encourage you to be patient with yourself and give each a try to see which works best for you. 


Coping Strategy #1: 54321 Exercise

The purpose of this exercise is to engage all of your senses, with the idea being, if you are able to throw your focus into your physical surroundings, it can help take you out of your head and your anxious thoughts. This is a useful exercise because it can be done anywhere, at any time.

5 – Identify 5 things you can see
Really focus on the details: the shapes, the colors, the shading, etc. of these 5 items

4 – identify 4 things you can touch
Notice the texture of the items, what do they feel like in your hands? Are they smooth? Rough? Does the texture change in some places?

3 – Identify 3 things you can hear
What do the noises sound like? What do you notice about the sounds? Are they soft sounds or loud sounds? Do they sound close by or far away?

2 – Identify 2 things you can smell
Is there a favorite fragrance that you like? Lotion? Shampoo? Soap? Room spray?

1 – Identify 1 thing you can taste
Can you chew a piece of gum or a mint and notice the cooling sensation or the sweetness of the gum? Perhaps you taste and feel the warmth of your morning coffee?


Coping Strategy #2: TIPP Skills

TIPP Skills is another type of physical exercise that can be used during moments of high emotion and stress. When we become stressed, our body has a physical reaction to that stress because it is preparing us for the ‘flight or fight’ response. Our temperature increases, we may feel we have a surge of energy, our breathing becomes shallow, and our muscles may become tense. The idea behind this coping skill is to engage our bodies in a few different ways in order to help bring ourselves back to baseline.

T – Temperature
When you are feeling stressed or anxious, splash some water on your face, and put a cool towel or an ice pack on your forehead for a minute. Cooling down your face will help to bring your overall body temperature back to baseline and slow down your body’s automatic response to stress.

I – Intense exercise
Engage your entire body in a short intense exercise to release some of the energy that builds up from strong emotion. Maybe 50 rapid jumping jacks, or running up and down your stairs, or doing 20 crunches – whichever activity you choose. By engaging in this quick vigorous exercise, it helps to break up the “stewing in your emotions” that can happen when you sit with it for too long.

P – Paced breathing
Let your breath always be the one constant anchor in your day. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds and let it out through your mouth for six seconds. You want your in-breath to be shorter than your out-breath. 

When we are panicked and anxious, we may take frequent shallow breaths in because we are trying to get as much oxygen as possible to the various areas of our body. By exhaling for a few seconds longer, we can work to calm the body down. 

P – Paired muscle relaxation
This exercise helps us to notice tension in our bodies. Start from your head and go all the way down to your toes, tightening each muscle along the way for several seconds and then releasing. For example, make two fists, squeeze your hands super tight for several seconds and then relax them and proceed in this way from top to bottom. This can help relax muscles that we may not even realize are tense in the first place.


Coping Strategy #3: Creating a Coping Kit

When we are feeling particularly stressed or anxious, it can sometimes be difficult to think. At other points in time, we may have learned ways to de-stress or cope; ways that we just aren’t able to access during moments of high emotion. 

Creating a coping kit can be a quick and easy way to self-soothe. This can be an actual kit that you make and keep at home or it can be a folder on your iPhone (or some combination of the two) – whatever works for you. Having it all in one place is easier than starting to search for all of these different things during high stress moments. Also, you want to make your coping kit during more neutral moments.

Typically a coping kit can include any of the following:

  • A few candies, gum or mints to engage your gustatory system
  • A few nice smelling items, like lotions, perfumes, room sprays, etc.
  • Pictures of happy memories (you can keep this as a file on your phone or if you have printed pictures you can put them in your box)
  • A few songs that you know make you feel happy or joyful
  • Nice text messages or emails that you have received from others that made you feel good
  • Inspirational quotes
  • Video clips of jokes from your favorite comedian that made you laugh


Coping Strategy #4: Mindful Acceptance

We spend a lot of time and energy telling ourselves not to think of something. Most of the time, that doesn’t work. If I told you not to think of a yellow ball right now you would think of a yellow ball when most likely that was not the case before I mentioned it. 

Mindful acceptance allows for all thoughts to enter the mind as a way of releasing yourself from the shackles of negative thinking. When you notice a negative thought enter your mind, mindful acceptance encourages you to welcome it in, and not give it too much life, attention, or energy. You just notice it, observe it, and allow it to be what it is, without trying to change it. Once the thought enters, envision yourself picking the thought out of your head, placing it on a leaf and watching it flow down a stream. Do that as many times as you need in order to move about your day. This approach eliminates the energy that gets used when we tell ourselves not to think about something, or the energy involved in judging ourselves for thinking about it in the first place.

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