Last month, I wrote a post entitled Three Things You Should Know About Emotional Eating. In it, I shared that emotional eating, in the context of a diverse and healthy coping progression, can be a valuable self-care tool.
But, what exactly is a healthy coping progression?
And how do you go about developing one?
Coping strategies are uniquely personal. And finding a process that works for you can take some fine-tuning.
Below, I’m sharing what healthy coping looks like and how I explore it with clients.
Coping Strategy Basics
Navigating stress, trauma, and grief is a universal human experience. Everyone suffers. And likewise, everyone works to manage emotions and minimize pain through mental and behavioral practices called coping strategies.
These strategies vary widely in intention and outcome.
Some efforts, called avoidant coping strategies, serve to distract the mind and soothe feelings.
While other, active, strategies effectively explore and resolve stress-inducing problems.
Quite often, we use various methods of dealing with stress and emotional discomfort in response to a singular triggering experience. Meaning, both avoidant and active coping practices can be used together to mitigate the same stressor.
That’s because coping is a complex process, not a solitary event.
When performed healthfully, it’s a flexible progression that goes beyond evading and articulating emotions to successfully addressing problems and executing positive change.
The Three Categories of Coping
In my work with clients around developing healthy coping progressions, I divide conscious stress responses, or coping strategies, into three categories: suppressive, expressive, and productive.
These include relatively benign behaviors like:
- Emotional Eating
- Physical Recreation
- Reading a Book or Watching TV
- Diving into Work or Home Projects
- Surfing Social Media
As well as harmful behaviors like:
- Disordered Eating
- Substance Abuse
These practices offer temporary relief or distraction from feelings but do nothing to address the underlying causes of those feelings. Still, suppressive coping strategies serve two critical purposes.
The first is to aid you in fulfilling daily responsibilities by providing a momentary escape from the discomfort inherent in facing your pain. And the second is to alert you that an experience or event in life requires your compassionate and curious attention.
While there’s plenty of stigma around numbing emotions through suppressive coping strategies, at times, it’s quite necessary.
You can’t possibly navigate difficult feelings while sitting through college exams, meeting deadlines for a client, or helping your children with homework. When life demands that you “get shit done,” these practices make sense.
Still, when cultivating healthy coping progressions, it’s essential to be deliberate about transitioning from suppression mode to methods that allow for the acknowledgment and expression of your feelings.
Otherwise, you’ll never gain the clarity necessary to address the circumstances and conditions that are making you upset in the first place.
And ultimately, that’s what leads to continued suppressive coping experiences and an unhealthy cycle of emotional avoidance.
That’s where expressive coping strategies come in.
These practices, like journaling, intentional self-talk, venting to a friend, confiding in a family member, or speaking with a coach or therapist are useful means of processing and articulating feelings.
Not only that, they provide opportunities for you to determine the source of your stress, imagine desired outcomes, and brainstorm tangible solutions.
Unlike suppressive and expressive coping strategies, productive coping is solution-focused.
This phase of the coping progression is all about taking action to address problems and find tangible fixes for what’s feeling “off” in your life.
Instead of tending to the emotional symptoms brought on by stress and trauma, productive coping strategies are aimed at creating positive changes to shift or eliminate triggering experiences through practices like boundary setting, asking for support, and making adjustments (in work, relationships, schedules, habits, or environment).
Each of these strategies can have a place in a healthy coping process.
Because in moments of pain, frustration, and stress, it’s often necessary to distract or soothe emotions before finding time to recognize and articulate feelings, acknowledge behaviors, and address the underlying problem or need.
How Does it Work?
Now that you understand the components of a healthy coping progression, follow these steps for implementing the strategies into your life.
When you’re experiencing stress, trauma, or grief:
- Ask yourself this question, “Am I able to work through my emotions and seek support in the present moment, or do I need to find temporary relief or distraction from what’s bothering me?”
- If you’re in need of temporary relief, prioritize benign suppressive coping mechanisms (don’t cause harm to yourself or others) and schedule time alone, or with someone you trust, to process your emotions later.
- When you have the time and emotional bandwidth to investigate your feelings, employ expressive coping strategies, and prioritise honest reflection with questions like these:
- How do I feel right now?
- How do I want to feel?
- What am I currently experiencing that I don’t want to?
- What do I want to experience that I’m currently not?
- What’s getting in the way of those desires?
- If I could wave a magic wand and shift my circumstances what would change?
- If my circumstances cannot be changed, what’s my best-case scenario for moving forward?
- Remember to pay attention to your body signals while coping and respond to your needs and desires for rest, movement, food, personal space, and human connection throughout the process.
- Use the information you gathered through expressive coping strategies to take action and experiment with making meaningful, positive change in your life.
Lisa’s Coping Progression
Here’s a real-life example of this process from the lived experience of a past client. We’ll call her Lisa.
Lisa hired me to support her in recovering from disordered eating and exercise. After several months of consistently applying what she learned in our coaching sessions, she was feeling successful.
Her tumultuous relationship with food and body was over. She was practicing intuitive eating and exercise, treating her body with compassion, and approaching any remaining unwanted thoughts and behaviors with curiosity, not criticism.
One such behavior was her tendency to eat beyond physical comfort and drink more alcohol than she felt comfortable with on the weekends.
I knew what Lisa was eating and how she was moving during the week.
She wasn’t depriving herself of nutrients, pleasure, or food energy.
She wasn’t over-exercising.
And though she had the occasional mental judgment around eating and existing in her body (everyone does), she was working hard to reframe her thoughts and dismantle diet mentality daily.
I also knew the details of Lisa’s professional life.
She was drowning in work at a prestigious, competitive engineering firm. So, it didn’t take long to conclude that her unwanted weekend binges were less about deprivation and more about coping.
Lisa was stressed and overworked. Not to mention, the perfectionism that she’d previously applied to food and body continued to show up in her career.
So, every weekend, once she’d finally escaped the office, she would comfort and distract herself from the looming responsibilities and demanding boss that awaited her on Monday mornings. That distraction came in the form of emotional eating and drinking.
What Lisa’s Coping Progression Looked Like
Once we made these connections together, Lisa and I got to work executing a healthy coping progression.
First, we determined that Lisa had been seeking temporary relief from her distressing work situation with suppressive coping mechanisms.
And, while they worked in the short term to distract her, they couldn’t possibly change her professional circumstances. Not to mention, the food and alcohol hangovers were creating additional stress and discomfort.
It was time for Lisa to move on to expressive coping strategies (while still eating cookies and enjoying a glass of wine if that’s what she wanted). She chose to spend several days observing her thoughts and feelings around work and writing her needs, desires, and reflections in a journal.
Then, we discussed those observations together. By the end of our conversation, Lisa was clear on what was no longer working in her professional life and committed to making changes, despite fears around disappointing her superiors or falling behind her colleagues.
Lisa knew that emotional eating and drinking were mere signals. She also knew that her weekends of numbing and avoidance were unsustainable and potentially harmful.
So, Lisa decided to constructively respond to the pressures of her career with changes in time management, firm boundaries with clients and colleagues, and candid conversations with her professional mentor and boss.
In time, she created more space in her schedule, set clear working hours with her clients, and respectfully declined offers to take on additional projects. And, as we expected they might, Lisa’s weekends of emotional eating and drinking dissipated.
Thanks to a healthy coping progression, she was able to move through a difficult professional season and transform her weekly working experience.
While not every stressor can be resolved so easily (there’s no “fixing” grief and loss), these beneficial practices can help you too. Suppressive, expressive, and productive coping strategies are the keys to managing and identifying emotional discomfort, discovering practical solutions to your problems, and finding reliable support for your pain.
So, the next time you’re dealing with difficult feelings or nagging stress – why not give them a try?
Originally posted at Seven Health, HERE.