10 Strategies to Cope with Stress

Updated: 3 days ago


I had mostly written this blog post in February but just hadn’t had the chance to finish it up.

Then, COVID-19 happened. And wow, did the world ever need the information here.


So here it is…my 10 favourite tools for coping with stress that I use with my clients…


I’m a clinical psychologist and many of the clients that I work with in therapy have been in treatment with a different psychologist in the past. I always ask them what they found helpful about therapy in the past (and what they didn’t find helpful), so it can guide me to the best interventions for them.


Therapy is such a complex experience with all kinds of things going on at the same time. Feeling emotions. Uncovering and exploring childhood issues and experiences. Learning about patterns in thoughts, feelings and relationships. Processing trauma. Dealing with grief. Teaching strategies to cope with the stress inherent in life. Having someone to non-judgmentally listen to your life experience.


We do a lot of “stuff” in therapy, so when I ask my clients about what was most helpful for them, I really want to know!


What they often bring up has surprised me….


I expected it to be the deep inner work. Maybe the transformative trauma processing or the strategies that helped them to let go and forgive after years of bitterness and anger.

Nope…


They talk about the little tips and tricks that their previous psychologist taught them.

For example, the psychologist might have taught them a grounding technique (like the 5-4-3-2-1 technique below) and they’ve been using it for the last 10 years.


Or they’ll say something like, "They wrote down "You are worth it" and I’ve carried the paper around in my wallet ever since.”


A few times I’ve been mind-blown about the extent to which these brief strategies have helped a person.


Because clients find these types of coping strategies so beneficial, I thought I’d write a blog with some of my client’s favourites that I often teach in session.


I hope you find them helpful too!


COPING STRATEGY 1: The 25% more strategy

When to use it: 

When you find that you’re going through the motions in life and not really present.


How to use it: 

With this strategy, you want to set an intention to be 25% more focused on whatever activity you are engaging in. So if you’re talking to your friend, try to be 25% more focused on them and what they are saying. If you’re walking to your car in the parking lot, try to be 25% more aware of the crisp air, the sounds around you and the feeling of the ground beneath your feet.


This strategy is a way of cultivating mindfulness, which has been shown to be associated with higher levels of joy and reduced stress.


COPING STRATEGY 2: The 5-4-3-2-1 Technique

When to use it:  

When you’re feeling overwhelmed at the moment.


How to use it: 

This is what I call an “old-school” coping method that almost all of us psychologists use. One thing I notice is that if we use something a lot, it’s because it works!


We refer to this as a grounding strategy, which means that it’s a technique to help you to return to the present moment and cope with upsetting or overwhelming feelings.


What you do with this technique is use your senses to notice things around you- particularly those things that you might not typically be aware of.


To use this strategy, you notice…


5 things you can see. For example, you might notice the shape of the clouds in the sky or the pattern of the colours on the carpet.


4 things you can feel. For example, you might notice the feel of your shoes on your feet, the feel of the wind in your face or the feel of the chair under your body.


3 things you can hear. For example, you might notice the sound of the heat or the air conditioning in your room, the sound of wind in the trees outside or the sound of distant birds chirping.


2 things you can smell. For example, you might notice the faint scent of your coffee from the morning or the scent of shampoo in your hair.


1 thing you can taste. For example, you might taste the gum in your mouth or the juice from your lunch.


COPING STRATEGY 3: The Container Method

When to use it:

When something stressful has happened, but you can’t deal with it right now.


How to use it: 

I learned this technique during training in EMDR, a trauma treatment that I use almost every day. I use The Container Method with my clients often, as it helps to be able to postpone dealing with a stressful issue. We need to go to work, parent our children and just continue with life, even when something stressful is happening in our lives. The Container Method helps us to do this.


To use The Container Method, you want to choose any type of container you want to imagine putting your stress into. Make sure it’s able to close and open in some way. I encourage people to pick something beautiful and meaningful to them, because…why not?


Once you’ve chosen the container, imagine opening it up and putting all of the stress that is affecting you right now into it. Close it up and tell yourself that you’re just temporarily setting this stress aside until you have the opportunity to deal with it fully.


Make sure you’re not using the container to avoid your problems. You do need to open it up and deal with the issues on a regular basis so they don’t fester and grow.


Funny story…one time I used the container was when I was at work and I was just finishing up lunch. Shortly before I was going to head out to get my next client, I noticed my phone was ringing and it was my kids’ school. I answered and the person who I spoke to was calling to tell me about my son being in trouble for doing something that was quite out of character for him. It was pretty bad. The person on the phone was quite angry and almost yelling at me. I finished the conversation and was all upset. Why did he do that? Why was the person on the phone so rude about it? What should we do to discipline him? and on and on.


I had a client booked and I was already late for their appointment! I had to pull myself together and put this aside for now. I brought up my container and put it all in to be dealt with later on. It really helped me to focus and be present for my client in the session (and the next few clients too).


When I got out of my sessions that afternoon, I had a message that they had accidentally called the wrong parent and my son actually hadn’t done anything wrong! Major relief! Either way, I was glad to have the container so I could go on with my day and be present with my clients.


COPING STRATEGY 4: The New Thought Strategy

When to use it: 

When you have a topic that plagues you over and over again.


How to use it: 

I often get my clients to fill out worksheets outlining situations in which they felt a bit “off” or feel like they overreacted to something. I get them to write the situation that happened and then their thoughts and feelings that they had at the time. I usually have them fill out at least one worksheet per day.


What they find is that there are one or two thoughts that come up over and over and over for each person. Instead of filling out the worksheets fully, they’ll just write some sort of shorthand for the same thought, because thoughts can be so repetitive. Common repetitive thoughts that plague people are “I’m not good enough” or “I’m overwhelmed and can’t handle this.”


In the session, we work together to come up with an alternative thought that is healthier for them. Some tips for finding the right healthy thought: make it as healthy as you can as long as you still believe it at least a little bit. If it’s too positive to the degree that you don’t believe it, it’s not helpful. Also, if you’re struggling to find a thought, try going more general instead of specific.


Some examples of healthier thoughts: “I have all the skills I need to thrive in my life” or “I’m a loving and supportive wife, mother and friend.”


Every time that old, unhealthy thought comes up, remind yourself of the new thought.


One of the best ways to change your thinking habits is to set up a reminder system on your phone for this new statement to pop up 3 times a day. By doing so, you’ll solidify the change in your thinking habits and it will be much more likely to help you longer-term.


COPING STRATEGY 5: The Let Go and Decide Method

When to use it: 

Whenever you transition to a new activity in your day.


How to use it: 

All-day long we go from activity to activity. Even if you’re having a quiet day, you go from sleep to reading to eating to reading again to the shower…and so on. On a typical day, we have hundreds of transitions to different activities.


When moving from one activity to the next, we often carry emotional stress and baggage from the previous activity. Still thinking about that email we sent and whether it was worded correctly.  Reflecting on how the meeting went. Remembering the text with your friend and what it means.


The Let Go and Decide Method involves releasing the stress from the previous activity and setting an intention for the next task. This allows you to fully move into each section of your day clear-minded and free from the stress of the last thing that you did.


To use this strategy, each time you’re transitioning to a new activity, you take 3 deep breaths and say “let go” 3 times. Breath…let go…breath…let go…breath…let go. Then you set an intention for the next activity, which might look like “I will eat my lunch without looking at social media and instead I will focus on the food.” Another intention might be “I will respond to emails in a kind and assertive manner.”


By using the Let Go and Decide Method, you’ll notice at the end of the day, you’re more energized and satisfied with how the day unfolded. And remember, how you spend each day is how you spend your life!


COPING STRATEGY 6: Box Breathing

When to use it: 

When you’re fearful or anxious and want to calm down. You can also use it daily as a long-term skill to build if you tend to get stressed or anxious.


How to use it: 

This is a simple breathing method to activate the relaxation response in your body. It helps reduce stress quickly at the moment and is really easy to use and remember.


Step 1:

Breath deeply through your diaphragm, which basically means that your stomach comes out as you breathe. You know how a baby breathes and their little bellies go up and down? Like that. Breathe up from your belly all the way into your chest. Breathe into a count of 4.


Step 2:

Hold your breath at the top of your chest to a count of 4.


Step 3:

Slowly exhale to a count of 4.


Step 4:

Hold your breath for a count of 4.


Imagining a box, the inhale is the top, the hold is the right side, the exhale is the bottom, the hold is the left side, and so on.


Do this breathing 10 times or for as long as you like. When other thoughts pop in, gently release them and redirect them to focusing on your breath. You can use the image of a box as a focal point if that is helpful for you.


If you’re having a hard time holding your breath for the 4-count, just shorten the count to 2 (making the box a rectangle).


COPING STRATEGY 7: The Movie Theatre Visualization 

When to use it:

When you want to achieve a life that is different from the one you have now (who couldn’t use this, at least in some way!?)


How to use it: 

This is a strategy that uses the power of visualization to achieve whatever it is you desire in life. It helps you to truly step into your power and begin to imagine life as you want it to be, rather than how it is right now.


This strategy is used by many of the most successful people in the world to achieve their goals. I’ve used it for years and it can be a fun and eye-opening process.


The first step: get out of your usual routine and go somewhere new. It’s best to do this one out of your house or office. Perhaps a coffee shop or if it’s nice outside, go out in nature. Get away from the internet and use old school paper and pen. (NOTE: In the time of COVID-19, this isn’t possible.)


Second step: imagine your life 3 years from now being exactly as you want it to be. You want to step away from the “how” you’re going to get there and step more into the “what” you actually want. Get creative and ask yourself, “what is really possible for me?”


Make sure you include information on (if relevant of course): love relationships; social life; parenting; family relationships; career; hobbies; health; finances; quality of life; intellectual life; travel.


Imagine it as if it’s as you want it to be and write it down. For example, “I spend time every day connecting with a friend on the phone or in person. I offer help to friends when they need it and they support me through whatever I am experiencing.”


Third step: Imagine yourself in a movie theatre. You’re alone and watching a movie of your life, exactly as you’ve written it in Step 2. Spend some time every day imagining this movie to be true.


This strategy helps you to gain clarity about what is truly important to you in your life. By visualizing this ideal outcome, you will subconsciously begin to take the steps that you need to manifest this vision into reality.


COPING STRATEGY 8: Mindful Eating

When to use it: 

When you notice that you’re mindlessly eating your snacks and meals.


How to use it:

This is another strategy based on mindfulness theory. I like this one because we all eat and most of us just don’t pay enough attention to the experience of consuming food. We eat while working, while watching TV or while playing on our phones.


Mindful eating helps you to be more “at the moment” in your day-to-day life, which is associated with increased happiness, better sleep and reduced stress. It’s also a great way to increase the amount of pleasure that you derive from eating.


***SIDENOTE***Unfortunately, our culture is far too focused on dieting and there is an exceptionally negative perspective on food and our bodies. The concept of diet culture essentially means that we have pressure to achieve an “ideal body” that is unrealistically thin for most people. A blog about diet culture will be for another day, but it’s important to recognize when we’re talking about enjoying food and eating.***


To practice mindful eating, you want to cultivate some positive rituals around your meals and snacks. Some options include setting the table, using your “good dishes” (do people still have china?) or lighting a candle.


You want to step away from all electronics, including phones, tablets, TV or any source of the internet.


Before eating, perhaps say an affirmation or a prayer if that interests you. For example, “May this food nourish my body, enhance my energy and provide me joy.”


When you begin to eat, really notice the taste, texture and scent of the food. Take your time. Move it around in your mouth. Make eating a treasured experience, rather than something rushed or dreaded.


COPING STRATEGY 9: The Weekly Planning Method 

(This one is a bit less relevant in the time of COVID-19, but a good idea for the future and you can use a modified version right now.)


When to use it: 

Every Sunday night so you can start your week with a plan in mind and fix any issues before they arise.


How to use it: 

This one is especially for those working parents out there, and even more for the ones who have kids in lots of activities. Most people have some sort of calendar system, but they aren’t necessarily making sure that the most important things are in there.


With the weekly planning session, bring up your schedule for the week and put in your self-nourishing activities first. Working out. A date night. An evening with a friend. Swimming with your kids.


Make sure all the help you need is arranged. Do you need a babysitter? Do two of your kids have activities at the same time? Do you need a ride to get your car fixed?


Now take a glance and make sure that you haven’t overcommitted this week. Is there anything that needs to be rescheduled or cancelled completely? Do so without guilt for your own mental health.


Now if you have a partner, bring them into the discussion. Make sure it’s clear who is doing what this week and have a conversation about who is cooking dinner, who is picking up the kids on what days and so on.


If you begin doing this every Sunday night, you’ll find that your week begins to flow much more smoothly. You’re taking care of yourself first and making sure all of the little issues in your weeks get ironed out. The outcome: peace of mind.


COPING TOOL 10: Clearing Tension in the Body Strategy

When to use it: 

When you notice you feel tense and/or you have a certain area in your body that consistently feels tight.


How to use it:

As mentioned above, I use EMDR treatment often, and one question I ask clients during this treatment is “where do you feel this stress in your body?”


A few patterns that I’ve noticed in the responses to this question are:


1. People often feel stress in a few areas: stomach, chest, throat, neck, head.

2. By just working on the physical tension, it can release emotional tension.


I’m going to repeat that because it’s super important. By working on physical tension, it can release emotional tension.


You don’t have to necessarily dig into all the reasons why something is problematic for you, how it developed etc. etc. Sometimes (not always of course) you can just release it through softening the response in the body.


Here’s how:


Scan your entire body and notice where you feel the tension in your body. Connect with your intuition about what colour might be soothing to that tension. Imagine light in that colour streaming into that area of your body.


Super simple, right? Now, just try to do that a few times a day, every day. I  bet you’ll notice a significant reduction in your emotional stress.


Also, be aware that there’s a great benefit to scanning your entire body for tension. Just the act of doing so makes us more aware of our emotions and more likely to reduce that tension. I notice when I do this step, I carry tension in unusual places (I often clench my toes in my shoes, for example). Self-awareness is always a good thing, so scan your body every day.


CONCLUSION:

So, everyone, that’s a list of 10 great coping strategies to use during this time of great need. I hope it’s helpful to you and your loved ones.


Please feel free to share the post and help others in your network. We are all in this together.


#depression #affirmations #CBT #psychologist #happiness #coronavirus #cognitivetherapy #mindset #anxiety #gratitude #COVID19

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