When uncomfortable or overwhelming emotions come up, you might be tempted to go to harmful or self-destructing lengths to make yourself feel better or avoid your feelings. However, it’s important that you learn healthy coping skills for those uncomfortable emotions.
I’ve previously written a guide on how to healthily deal with emotions. This post is kind of a spin-off of that one. So if you’d like to learn more about how to deal with your emotions, I recommend checking out that post first.
When you’ve been through trauma or abuse, especially as a child, you likely never learned any healthy coping skills. You might use unhealthy coping skills because they gave you instant relief or it’s something you learned from your parents.
Things happen that can cause us to become overwhelmed with emotions whether we like it or not. During those emotional moments, it’s important to have coping skills that can soothe us.
Unhealthy coping skills may provide instant relief. But they’re only temporary and are usually more harmful than helpful. Therefore, you need to learn healthy coping skills so that more issues don’t occur.
This post will cover what healthy coping is, why it’s important, how not to cope, and examples of healthy coping skills you can start adding to your life.
Please realize that not all healthy coping skills help everyone the same way. Everyone is different, so it’s up to you to find the ones that work for you and your situation.
What is Healthy Coping?
Coping is defined as conscious or unconscious strategies used to reduce unpleasant emotions. It can be described as the actions we take to deal with stress, problems, or uncomfortable emotions.
Coping can be healthy or unhealthy.
Healthy coping is to effectively and appropriately deal with uncomfortable emotions or situations. While it might require a bit more self-control, awareness, and practice to utilize, it contributes to long-lasting benefits.
On the other hand, unhealthy coping tends to provide instant gratification or relief. Therefore, it may be more of an automatic response when dealing with something difficult. However, it usually has long-term negative consequences.
It’s important to know the difference and be more aware of whether you’re healthily or unhealthily coping when it comes to difficult emotions or situations. Then, try your best to replace your unhealthy coping with healthy coping.
Why is Healthy Coping Important?
As you heal from childhood abuse, you will likely go through many different kinds of emotions. So it’s important to find a healthy way to deal with those emotions. Learning healthy coping skills is also a huge part of the healing process.
Healthy coping skills teach us how to properly deal with our uncomfortable emotions and difficult situations. It helps us become more resilient, allowing us to be able to adapt and move forward regardless of the circumstances.
When you’ve been through trauma, it’s like you’re stuck in time. If you don’t begin healing, you’ll continue replaying and reenacting your childhood circumstances in your present life. However, using healthy coping skills can help you move forward and begin healing.
What is Unhealthy Coping?: How Not to Cope
So healthy coping skills are helpful for your healing journey and your mental well-being. Meanwhile, unhealthy coping skills might not just keep you from moving forward, it can also cause you to move backward.
It’s important to realize that healthy coping is not numbing feelings.
When you feel uncomfortable emotions, you may be tempted to get rid of them using the quickest and easiest method. However, realize that they are often just temporary comfort. It may numb your feelings for the time being, but does it resolve your problems?
Unhealthy coping methods only delay the healing process while introducing you to more problems. It may be tempting to make the pain go away as soon as possible. But try to think about the consequences.
Unhealthy Coping Skills to Avoid
Before I get into the list of healthy coping skills, here’s a list of unhealthy ones so you’d know to avoid them.
- Drinking alcohol
- Using drugs
- Overeating or restricting eating
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Aggression or violence toward others
- Destruction of property
- Blaming others for your problems
- Refusing help from others
- Mean or hostile joking
- Isolation or social withdrawal
- Speeding or reckless driving
- Other risky or harmful behaviors
- Using “healthy” coping to avoid reality
Turning to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or any other unhealthy coping mechanism only temporarily numbs your feelings. It can also delay your healing and cause long-term issues. It can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and increased stress as well as relationship, financial, and health problems.
So whenever you’re feeling emotional – pause – and try to cope using a healthy method. It might seem much more difficult. But with practice, it will become a habit.
It’s important to remember that even healthy coping skills can become unhealthy if they’re constantly used to avoid a situation or problem. This is known as avoidance coping.
Avoidance coping is when a person changes their behavior to avoid thinking about, feeling, or doing difficult things. Basically, it’s when you use whatever methods you can to try to avoid facing reality. It keeps you from facing your stressors head-on.
Unfortunately, avoidance is an easy coping mechanism to slip into. We all have moments where we did whatever we could to avoid dealing with something. However, it creates additional stress and anxiety along with other common psychological problems.
So when utilizing any “healthy” coping skills, try to determine if you’re avoiding your feelings or the situation.
A good rule of thumb to refrain from avoidance coping is to always remember to give yourself time and space to process your feelings and situation. As long as you remember to give yourself emotional attention later, it’s okay to temporarily distract yourself to calm down first.
30 Healthy Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions
Different people require different coping skills. A way that works for someone else might not work for you and vice versa. Different coping skills might also be appropriate for different types of emotions and situations.
It’s important to figure out how you best cope. And you should figure that out before you’re in an emotional situation so that you’re prepared for it.
And when you do find one or a few healthy coping skills that work for your uncomfortable emotions, practice it regularly so it becomes a habit.
So the list of healthy coping skills in this post is separated into two types: emotion-focused and problem-focused.
You might prefer one type over the other or you might prefer both. In the end, it depends on what you’re feeling, what your situation is, and how you prefer to deal with that situation.
Healthy Emotion-Focused Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions
Emotions-focused coping skills are helpful when you need to take care of your feelings. This is often utilized when a situation doesn’t need to be changed or is out of your control.
For example, if someone you cared about passes away, the only thing you can do is deal with your emotions to help yourself properly mourn and move on since you can’t change the circumstances.
Below are various examples of emotion-focused coping skills.
Please note that distraction is not the same as avoidance or numbing.
Numbing aims to dull your emotions and avoidance aims to keep you from facing your emotions and problems. Meanwhile, distraction aims to give you some space from the source of emotional distress. Distraction intends for you to return later to process your emotions.
While you can distract yourself, remember that this is only temporary. You will have to eventually confront your issues and deal with your emotions. Distraction simply helps you postpone dealing with it if it’s a little too much at the moment or if it’s happening at an inconvenient time or place.
Whenever uncomfortable emotions come up, you can use a journal to write down your feelings.
Writing down your feelings can help you reflect on them more deeply. It can also help you uncover disruptive patterns and notice when specific circumstances seem to contribute more to uncomfortable emotions.
Keeping a daily journal to simply jot down your feelings as they happen can help you feel better. It can also help you be more aware of your triggers and thought patterns. You can also use journaling as a way to explore more helpful possibilities.
Check out the 100 Days journal in the Shop designed to help you better identify and understand your feelings as well as foster an attitude of mindfulness, gratitude, and hope.
3. Deep breathing
You’ve probably heard of taking a deep breath when you’re feeling overwhelmed, either by a pleasant or unpleasant emotion to the point you can’t speak.
Slowing down and paying attention to your breath won’t make the emotions go away. However, practicing deep breathing can help you take a short break to step back and observe what’s happening around you and in you.
In addition, when you prolong exhaling through your mouth, a nerve in your body secretes a neurotransmitter that slows down your heart rate.
Meditation can help increase your awareness of your feelings and experiences. It lets you find out what’s going on in your mind, giving you a chance to fully experience an emotion for what it is.
Meditation helps you accept your emotions along with other benefits like reducing anxiety and stress.
5. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness, which is typically known as a form of meditation, helps increase your emotional and general awareness. It connects you to the present moment.
While practicing mindfulness is often through meditation, it doesn’t have to be. It can be incorporated into your daily life, like when you’re taking a walk, working out, or cleaning.
Mindfulness is a state of mind where you’re aware of your thoughts, feelings, actions, and sensations without judgment, distraction, or becoming reactive to them.
Research shows that exercise is effective in dealing with depression, anxiety, and stress.
When exercising, your body releases endorphins, hormones that make you feel good. There are a bunch of different ways you can exercise to fit your needs and preferences.
7. Get creative
Doing something creative, like coloring, painting, or drawing can temporarily distract you from your emotions. On the other hand, it can also help you express those emotions through art.
Creativity doesn’t only have to come through in traditional art. You can also get creative in other ways like cooking, playing an instrument, or dancing.
Research shows that cleaning could make you healthier and happier. Cleaning and decluttering have been found to have many positive effects on your mental health. When you clear your physical space, you also clear your mental space.
9. Give yourself a pep talk
Pep talks are also known as positive self-talk. They’re an internal dialogue used to process different situations and challenges. Research found that positive self-talk can influence a better outcome than negative self-talk.
10. Practice gratitude
Practicing gratitude allows you to acknowledge the good that you have going on in your life. While it may be hard to look on the bright side when you’re feeling bad, being able to do so can be very beneficial.
When you’re struggling with uncomfortable emotions, try to think about things you’re grateful for. It helps you look at the situation or problem you’re currently dealing with differently, which hopefully helps you feel better.
11. Do something you love
Doing something you love or engaging in a hobby can help distract you from whatever’s bothering you at the moment as well as boost your mood. But remember, this is a temporary escape. Be careful not to head into avoidance territory.
12. Listen to music
Music can be a good way to temporarily distract yourself from uncomfortable emotions. However, music is also very effective at bringing up emotions.
So for this specific coping skill, try to focus on music that can bring you positive emotions. You can create a playlist full of songs that lifts your spirits so that when you need it, you have it right there.
However, you can also use music as a way to express those uncomfortable feelings. It’s important to be able to express and process those feelings. If music can help you with that, go for it.
13. Go for a walk
Research shows that just a short walk can improve your mood. In addition, regular walking helps modify your nervous system, decreasing your feelings of anger and hostility.
14. Spend time in nature
Similar to walking, spending time in nature also improves your mood and reduces stress. It also improves physical health, increases confidence, and boosts self-esteem.
You can take a walk through the woods, stroll on the beach, look at the stars, or listen to the sound of water flowing. And if you’re walking, you can take a walk through nature to increase the benefits.
15. Take a bath or shower
Taking a bath or shower can be relaxing, thus helping you calm down. According to research, bathing is correlated to a decrease in stress hormones. It seems that bathing may help the balance of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter.
16. Play with your kids
According to research, children tend to laugh about 15 times an hour. Meanwhile, the average adult laughs about 15 times a day.
Spending time with your children can perhaps bring some laughter into your day and help get you out of the emotional funk you’re in. It can also help remind you to savor the good moments as well as let you spend some time with your kids.
17. Play with your pets
Spending time with animals helps reduce stress and anxiety as well as brings joy and comfort. Our pets make great companions. So whenever you’re feeling emotional, try hanging out with your pet to reap some of the benefits.
18. Talk to someone you trust
Getting things off your chest can be very relieving, especially to someone who can validate your feelings and experiences whether it’s a loved one or a professional.
However, make sure you’re not constantly venting and overwhelming the other person. Try to make it a conversation, not a one-sided rant. And try to be receptive to any advice or insight the other person has to offer.
19. Reframe your perspective
Trying to reframe the way you’re thinking or seeing the situation or problem can help you change your initial, possibly extreme reaction, into something healthier and more appropriate.
For example, if someone cuts you off on your drive to work, you might be angry. And just that alone might be enough to ruin your day.
However, what if you try to look at the situation differently? Maybe someone important to the driver is in the hospital and they’re trying to rush there. Or maybe they just really have to poop…
Either way, changing how you look at the situation doesn’t mean you’re condoning their actions or accepting their treatment. But it does, in a way, justify their actions so you can feel less angry or maybe even feel less attacked as a result.
People tend to be more understanding and forgiving when there’s a good reason or excuse behind someone’s behavior. In this case, “justifying” for the other person doesn’t benefit them; it benefits you. Reframing your perspective is meant to help you.
20. Manage stress
When you’re under a lot of stress, managing your emotions can become more difficult.
Even people who can generally manage their emotions effectively might find it harder in times of high tension and stress. So finding healthy ways to manage stress can also help your emotions become more manageable.
21. Practice self-care
Self-care is healthily identifying and meeting your needs. It simply means taking care of yourself so that you can be well.
During moments of strong emotions, self-compassion and self-care are crucial. Taking care of and being kind to yourself is a healthy way to cope with those uncomfortable emotions.
You can learn and practice various emotional self-care practices as a healthy coping skill, though other forms of self-care can emotionally benefit you as well.
Healthy Problem-Focused Coping Skills for Uncomfortable Emotions
Problem-focused coping skills are helpful when you need to change your situation or make an adjustment in your life to prevent further stress. You can see it as removing the trigger to your emotional response.
For example, if you’re having financial difficulties, emotion-focused skills might help you temporarily feel better. However, it doesn’t resolve the issue, which means that you’ll eventually feel the same again. In these cases, problem-focused skills might be more effective.
1. Focus on problem-solving
Focusing on problem-solving means confronting the problem and trying to find a reasonable solution for it as long as it’s a problem that can be solved.
Sometimes, depending on what the situation is, the best way to cope is to face it head-on and resolve it as quickly as you can so it can no longer cause you distress.
As mentioned before, emotion-focused skills in cases like these might only be temporary because the problem will still be wreaking havoc on your emotional health until you take the steps needed to resolve it.
Disengagement, or removing yourself from the situation, might be necessary for certain situations. For example, if you’re stuck in a toxic relationship, perhaps it’s time to leave it. Or if you’re stuck in a dead-end draining job, maybe you can consider finding a new one.
Disengaging means removing or walking away from the source of stress in your life that isn’t going to get better or change.
3. Ask for help or support
You can ask someone for help or a perspective on your situation so you can go through your options together.
When emotions are running high, you might not see everything clearly. An extra set of eyes from someone who’s more objective can be helpful. They might be able to provide insight into solutions that you might not have thought about.
4. Seek therapy
If your emotions continue to feel overwhelming and might even seem to impair your everyday functioning, you can seek professional support.
Long-term or persistent emotional dysregulation and mood swings are linked to certain mental health conditions. Frequent trouble controlling emotions might also relate to trauma, family issues, or other underlying concerns.
5. Establish healthy boundaries
Many people who went through childhood abuse or trauma were conditioned to ignore or violate their own boundaries as a way to cope with their toxic environment.
If that was your past, you might be used to having no boundaries or are used to letting others cross them. And it likely causes a lot of stress and emotions for you whenever someone crosses your boundaries or makes you uncomfortable, but you’re too scared to speak up.
Therefore, you need to learn how to establish healthy boundaries. Being able to set boundaries is being able to create that safe space for yourself. It might be hard at first, but once you can set boundaries, you’re less likely to fall victim to constant violations. As a result, you’ll deal less with the stress and emotions it might cause.
6. Improve your time management
Maybe you feel easily overwhelmed or emotional because you don’t seem to have enough time to get things done or you just don’t feel like you’re being productive or efficient enough.
In that case, it might help to work on your time management. You can create a to-do list and plan out a schedule to complete tasks accordingly.
When you’re disorganized and mismanaging your time, you become more prone to stress. So learning how to manage your time better might help reduce some of that stress.
7. Simplify your schedule
Maybe it’s not your time mismanagement but possibly just having too much on your plate. In that case, try to simplify your schedule. You might be pushing yourself to do more than you can handle.
So try to prioritize tasks and give yourself a reasonable amount to do in a reasonable amount of time. And remember that it’s okay to ask for help and give yourself a break sometimes.
8. Make a list of coping skills you can use
You can make a list of healthy coping skills you can use when uncomfortable emotions arise. You can keep it in your wallet or on your phone so you have access to it whenever you need it.
Once again, when you’re feeling emotional, it could be hard to see things clearly. You might have trouble recalling what healthy coping skills work for you or you might be tempted to resort to unhealthy ways to cope.
Having a list can remind you of healthy coping skills you can utilize for your emotions. That way, you only need to practice the first part – remembering to take out the list when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
You can add healthy coping skills from this post. You can separate it into categories. And you can make a personalized list of healthy coping skills that work for you. For example, instead of “engage in a hobby” or “call someone”, you can put down “play guitar” or “call Penguin” instead.
9. Be proactive
While proactive coping skills are a type of coping style itself, it’s also sort of a problem-focused coping skill because you’re preparing for a problem that may happen in the future.
Coping skills are often used as a reactive strategy, like using it as a way to feel better when you’re feeling bad. However, research shows that proactive coping skills can be very effective in managing future challenges you might face.
Being proactive might be one of the better ways to cope because you’ll be ready for whatever comes. That way, it spares you the possibility of having to feel any of the uncomfortable emotions or at least prepares you for dealing with those emotions.
Remember, healthy coping skills that work for someone else might not work for you. And it may take some time to see what works or doesn’t work for you. But that’s okay. It’s a process and it will take time.
The healthy coping skills on this list are just a few ideas to help you find ways to cope with uncomfortable emotions and situations. In the end, you’re the one who knows what would work best for you. So it’s up to you to figure it out.