This past year American Muslims have been faced with several community tragedies leaving many youth and adults alike unsure of how to cope. Murders, suicides, political unrest happen all the time around the world, but these events are even more emotionally taxing when they happen to people in our direct communities and when they occur within a short period of time. Repeated exposure to the traumatic events through social media exacerbates grief as people air out their confusion, shock and sadness with no resolution. These stories fill our newsfeeds, and hearing grim detail after grim detail may even make us feel like we are experiencing what happened ourselves.
As a psychotherapist, I see the ripple effects of these incidents in our community as people grapple with the magnitude of what transpires. I hear the fear in parents’ voices when they speak about what could happen to their children and I see the heaviness in community leaders’ eyes as they try process what has happened themselves. The topic of coping skills comes up frequently in discussions, but sometimes with confusion and misunderstandings. My goal in this brief article is to address misconceptions about what coping skills are and clarify how people can use coping skills effectively.
What are coping skills?
There are myths about what coping skills are, mainly that they are quick fixes to getting rid of sadness and that they have to be extravagant. Many people assume coping skills include going to the spa, retail therapy (which doesn’t exist by the way) or having to travel to an exotic location to get away. In reality coping skills are healthy and moderate strategies individuals use to help calm themselves down when they are overwhelmed with emotion. Coping skills are simple ways to make oneself feel better, vary from person to person and have nothing to do with spending money or being indulgent. Coping skills can be as easy and straight-forward as reading, making dua’a and exercising.
One might wonder if coping skills shouldn’t be extravagant, and sound like routine activities, then what is the point of doing anything at all? The way to differentiate routine activities from coping skill is intentionality and desired effect. Let’s take cooking for example. People mindlessly cook every day. It’s a chore that is done for no other reason than to feed oneself or one’s family. Cooking however for some people can be a coping skill. To explain this example further, let’s say a man has a really hard day at work and needs to destress. He decides he wants to cook dinner (instead of his wife who might usually do the cooking) intentionally because it’s something he enjoys. Picking out a recipe, using a completely different part of his brain than he uses at work and tapping into his creative side gives him joy. It also temporarily distances himself mentally from his stress at work so he can come back to it later with a fresh mind. In this case this man is not doing a daily routine, he is using a coping skill.
Have several coping skills
It’s important to have at least 5 coping skills so that you can try different ones depending on what you need. If you rely only on one coping skill, and it doesn’t work then you will be flustered about what to do next. Also, some coping skills may not be appropriate depending on what part of the day you feel overwhelmed. For example, journaling is a good coping skill but it might not be effective for someone who needs to destress right away at work. A hospital nurse for example, can’t stop what she is doing to journal in the middle of her day. She may want to journal in the evenings, but use deep breathing exercises throughout the day so she can keep up with her work demands.
Have different types of coping skills
It’s essential that coping skills take care of your body, mind and soul. If your coping skill only focuses on one part of yourself, you will not be taking adequate care of your other parts. For example, if your only go-to coping skill is to eat a piece of chocolate, how many pieces of chocolate will you need to eat to get the desired effect and to maintain it? If you always exercise to destress and do nothing else, then you are working out your body, but none of the emotions are being processed. In your personal toolbox of coping skills use different kinds of strategies to engage your mind, body, emotions and spirit.
Don’t forget self-care
Coping skills do not replace ongoing self-care. Self-care is taking care of your mind, body and soul on a consistent basis to help maintain wellness and stability long-term, whereas a coping skill is something you do when overwhelmed. If you don’t engage in self-care consistently you are more likely to crash when adversity hits you- even if you use your coping skills.
Hypothetically, if you are a student who ingests mostly Red Bull and Ramen, sleeps 4 hours a night and doesn’t take breaks to socialize and spend time with loved ones it will not take much of stressor (like a fight with a friend, bad grade, etc.) to send you into a tailspin. Self-care will minimize the effects of stress and make it easier to use your coping skills. In some ways humans are like cars in terms of maintenance —you must fill up your car with gas, get regular oil changes and do general upkeep, otherwise your car will not run properly or just stop working all together. If you don’t take care of your tires you may be in a lot of trouble when a snow storm hits. This applies to your mental health in that you need to consistently take care of your mind and body in order to feel your best and to minimize the effect of unexpected mishaps.
Know when you need more than coping skills
There comes a time when normal grief to a situation starts to become unmanageable and needs more attention than just using coping skills. When this happens it’s important to reach out to a mental health therapist to get a better understand of what might be going on. You will know your stress or the unexpected event is too much when
1) your emotions effect your day to day functioning negatively,
2) your difficult feelings impact your relationships, school, work or family in unhealthy ways
3) you consistently feel bad even with intervention
4) your poor mood persists for several weeks.
Concrete tips for implementing coping skills
Life is difficult and stressors will continue indefinitely. The idea behind coping skills is not that they will eliminate tough emotions, but help you deal with them better. Trying to suppress negative feelings will make you feel worse because you are denying a part of the natural human experience. Liken your emotions to the ocean— the ebb and flow is natural, and on stormy days the waves will be more tumultuous than others. This is totally normal. Your coping skills are not designed to be a dam to prevent the waves from coming in, but are more like your surf board so you can ride the waves as they come.
Coping skills when used properly are good for everyone, even young children. If you don’t know what your coping skills are sit down and reflect on what healthy things make you feel better when you are upset. Common coping skills include spending time in nature, writing out feelings, gardening, spending time with a friend, etc. There are many lists and suggestions you can find online to add to your repertoire.
Write down at least 5 coping skills on paper or in your phone so when you are upset you can readily go to them. In this same place also write down 3-5 things you can do for general self-care, so that when you are faced with stress you are better prepared. Your self-care list might include getting adequate sleep every day, taking at least one day off from work a week or spending electronic-free quality time with family.
May Allah protect our communities from calamities and help us cope in the best way when they do happen.
Najwa Awad is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW-C) that has provided mental health services to individuals and families in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area for over 10 years. She obtained a Bachelors degree in Psychology at George Mason University in 2005. In 2007 she received a Masters in Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in the clinical treatment of individuals and families. Najwa also has post graduate education in the treatment of complex psychiatric trauma and telemental health (online counseling). Her experience in the field is diverse and includes providing services at group homes, schools and in the foster care system. Most recently Najwa has been working and supervising in outpatient mental health settings providing therapy to women, children and families. Commonly treated issues include trauma, mood disorders, behavioral disorders and anxiety. In addition to giving regular mental health workshops in the community, Najwa is also Fellow at the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.