Build coping skills to withstand life's challenges

Your coping skills are your ability to handle life's challenges in the most effective ways, maximizing your chances of success or survival, and minimizing the damages and other negative consequences.

There is a virtually unlimited spectrum of difficult, or even potentially devastating, situations that life could hit you with, sooner or later. It may be a serious illness or chronic pain, an abusive relationship, divorce, big financial loss, burnout, business or career failure, a child with ADHD or autism, and so on. It could be a one time blow, like a loss of loved one, or it could be something that stays a big challenge for many years, even for life, without giving you much of break.

Will you be lost and destroyed under stress or will you have strong enough coping skills to stay in control and do the best that can be done? Will you have the resiliency to come out stronger than you ever were?

While some of the coping skills and strategies (or rather tactics) are specific to the type of challenges you are facing, the most important of those skills are fairly universal. Your ability to cope well and stay in control depends most on your strengths in the following two areas:

  • your actions,
  • your emotions.
Fortunately, there are certain skills and coping strategies you can build or improve that could make you much stronger in each of those areas.

Your actions

Nearly in every challenging situation there is a number of specific actions you could do to reach a successful resolution or to ease the pain and minimize damages. Your effectiveness in that will mainly be determined by your thinking skills and abilities. For example, if there is no reasonable alternative in sight then you need to unlock your creativity to think laterally and brainstorm some options. If there are too many options and difficult trade-offs then you need your judgment and your decision making skills to select the best course of action. Finally, you most likely have only limited time and resources to realize that course. Hence you depend on good planning and time management skills to develop and execute a good plan.

Maybe you were content with your level of such thinking and coping skills in quiet times. But now there is a complication. When faced with outstanding challenges you are often in situations of high emotional arousal, under stress. And, as you may have already realized, high emotional arousal can significantly distort our thinking, and very often not to our advantage. How do you deal with that?

A good line of defense is to learn and use more systematic thinking strategies. Think on paper, as much as possible. Learn to think on paper ("paper" could be a text file on your computer). Instead of agonizing or letting your mind race, take a deep breath and jot down your main thoughts. Brainstorm on paper. Follow a sequence of systematic decision making steps, on paper. Go as far as you can with that (even if your switch to pure intuition in the end). The more you practice that, the more robust and uncluttered your thinking will be.

Finally, for situations when you need to make quick decisions on the fly, your intuition is probably your best guide, if you learn to tell apart its voice from the noises of the stressful moments (You can strengthen this ability in the course of working on your emotional intelligence skills).

Your emotions

Understanding how to adequately handle your emotions, your emotional intelligence, is an absolutely critical aspect of coping skills.

Emotions are essentially messages from your inner brain to your consciousness. Those messages use a different language than your thoughts, the language of physical sensations in your body. That language is more powerful, direct, and efficient than thoughts in communicating certain types of information that are critical for your survival.

Your emotions can carry valuable clues for finding solutions and navigating through the most difficult problems you may face, if you learn to read them properly. However, like any concentrated power, emotions can turn highly destructive if mishandled.

There are two main ways how your emotions can work as destructive power against you.

First, they can cloud or totally block your thinking, decision making, and creative abilities. Those abilities that you may need most to resolve the threatening situation. They can paralyze your actions. Instead of being keenly aware of your emotions of the moment and accepting them as nothing more as messengers you could fall into the trap of letting them overwhelm you and take full control of your thoughts and actions.

The second destructive force, which is a longer-term effect, comes from emotions that were left unresolved, from the past. Those emotions pile up with time, like unhandled mail, somewhere in the background, underneath your mind. They become toxic waste that keeps draining your energy, narrows your thinking, makes you apathic or drives you to self-destruction. That emotional baggage can hold you back in life and take a heavy toll on your health.

Some of those feelings are resentment abount losing something, about great inconveniencies or hardships of the moment, or about things going strongly against the way we wanted them to go. For those types of feelings, forgiveness, acceptance, gratitude may be your best friends in retaining your piece of mind, in gaining wisdom and strength instead of accumulating toxic baggage. Yet, there is also an opposite source of those feelings: your conscience. That voice may be easier to miss in the rush of events, but it is the most reliable navigator in preventing a crisis from ruining your inner well-being in the long term (even though at times at the expense of material things, physical convenience, or short-term emotional effort).

Neurosis — a spiritual disease

If you ever were trying to find a way to heal yourself from a deeper and persistent emotional or health crisis or depression, outside of situation where there is a clear medical resolution, you may eventually realise that most of the options you find (yoga, some types of alternative medicine, meditation, psychotherapy, various ways of reprogramming your mind and thinking, certain ways to address or release your emotions, etc) have a spiritual component in them, even if presented (or applied) as purely physical, secular, scientific-looking, or pragmatic (just try and see for yourself that it works). This is not surprising as the problem you are trying to solve is hard to separate from the spiritual component in its root. Yet, by focusing on immediate practical benefits of one such practice or another you may overlook the secondary consequences of what you subconsciously buy into in the process, and that what feels as freedom and ease is only as much freedom as in a free fall (only while you keep falling). Here is an account of a true story of fakir's "miracle" that illustrates such differences in an example of their clash.

Time management skills and techniques main page
Time management lessons with an in-depth discussion of the important time management skills, techniques, and activities.

Decision making skills and techniques guide
Good decision making skills is an essential element of coping skills. Information on decision making skills and techniques with links to related decision making articles and resources.

Personal time management and goal setting guide main page
Practical information and advice on various personal time management and goal setting topics.

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