By: Erin O'Brien; clinical supervisor at the Mirmont Outpatient Center in Broomall, part of Main Line Health
Most of the time, therapists—including myself—encourage our patients to stay present and remain in the moment. And, in the majority of cases, this advice is helpful: It reminds us to focus on the here and now and what is, rather than what was or could be.
But there are some events in our lives that can be so stressful that staying present feels impossible; when the stress or perceived stress of a situation becomes too much to bear. Instead of promising ourselves to remain calm and be present, we spend our days anticipating a disaster, dwelling on the negative possibilities and playing a dangerous game of ‘What if?’
I know that my patients experience this from time to time and so do I. As a chronic overthinker, I, too, have faced these overwhelming thoughts of dread for future events and have spent a lot of time worrying about how they would negatively impact me. It wasn’t until I learned the skill of coping ahead, that I felt I had any ability to manage my anxiety and tendency to dwell on what I thought would be a catastrophe.
Coping ahead is a skill found in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). It is a skill that has worked well for me because of my natural tendency to be a planner, but it has also helped me to soothe myself and be more mindful. In turn, it is a skill that I often share with my patients to help them better tolerate distress.
Practicing the coping ahead skill
The coping ahead skill has three parts to it: coping before, during, and after a stressful event. The idea of this skill is to visualize yourself coping well with something that you would normally find stressful.
For instance, imagine having an upcoming event where you’ll see family or friends. Perhaps you struggle to manage your anxiety when you are around this group because they do not respect your boundaries or perhaps, they pressure you to engage in behaviors or activities that compromise your values.
You can practice the coping skill to help by:
- Coping before the event: Plan to spend time with friends or family before the event who do respect you and make you feel valued. You might also elect to spend time taking care of yourself whether by exercising, listening to music or meditating.
- Coping during the event: Bring a stress ball or other tool with you to the event that you might use should you become anxious. Try thinking of standard responses to questions they might ask you so that you feel less caught off-guard. Also, you might determine a safe space for yourself ahead of time, whether that is excusing yourself to go to the restroom, stepping outside or collecting yourself in your car.
- Coping after the event: Have you ever left a stressful event feeling on edge and having a hard time processing? That’s probably due to the spike in adrenaline that occurs when we are under stress. You might anticipate this happening and plan accordingly. Maybe plan to return home and watch a funny movie, take a walk or cook a comfort meal.
Coping ahead has made it easier for me to manage anxiety, even in situations where the event I was anxious about did not turn out to be as challenging as I feared. It has given me a sense of mastery and made me feel more competent and capable of handling challenges in the moment. It has given me a sense of power and confidence to handle whatever life throws at me and to see myself as more skillful than I have given myself credit for. I hope that this skill does this for you as well especially in uncertain times.
I encourage you to also remember that most situations are optional. If you find that something brings you a great deal of unnecessary stress, you have the choice of whether or not to participate. It’s okay to opt out of things that can be triggering for you. But for situations that you cannot avoid—a stressful work meeting, a family gathering—coping ahead can help.