How do we cope?
We experience the effects of our ability to deal effectively with difficulty, or our lack thereof, on a minute by minute basis. On a given day, the number of situations that can unhinge the human mind are countless. Yet, I don’t recall a class in high school teaching me directly about coping and more importantly how to cope effectively. This is most likely because it is an ongoing course in the class of life. This article is the beginning of my inquiry into coping. As with all inquiries, we must begin with one of the most fundamental steps — observation. I know, it doesn’t sound very captivating but from where else to start than with evaluating ourselves — our everyday habits, reactions, ideas, strengths, and shortcomings.
Before we begin, let us clarify what it means to observe. To be able to stand in observation of the activity of our lives is not as easy as it sounds. When our minds get caught up in everyday emotions and you know the ones I’m referring to — anger, jealousy, and fear — our perspective becomes clouded by these emotions.
This is why it is helpful to take time at the end of the day to reflect. During this time, we must be open and honest with ourselves. If not, then what would be the purpose of the inquiry? At this initial step, we are not very concerned with dissecting the “why”. We are also not asking if the way we react (and therefore cope) is good or bad, helpful or maladaptive. We are not labeling our actions. The aim is simple — to observe and record our current coping mechanisms. Pema Chödrön, author of The Places That Scare You, refers to a similar activity in which she states that we must train in cultivating equanimity. She states that we are “noticing where we open up and where we shut down — without praise or blame.”
I recorded my observations in a notebook and found the following questions to be useful:
- How do I respond generally to unwelcoming situations?
- What were my social interactions today? Did any of them leave me feeling irritated or annoyed? How did I respond to these feelings?
- What situations triggered me to react with anger?
- Did I feel overwhelmed today? If so, when? What did I do after I felt overwhelmed?
A few things to note:
- Objective Evaluation — The more objective we can be here at the beginning, the more we can learn about the way in which our minds cope. Try to imagine yourself as the sky and your feelings and reactions as clouds. We are observing the activity of the clouds from the perspective of the sky.
- Feedback — If you find it difficult to answer these questions, ask people that you interact with often. I assure you, they will have plenty to say about your interactions with them (more than you may be willing to hear in one sitting from my experience). “Hey [insert name of partner/family member/friend], can you tell me honestly what you think of my interactions with you or other people in difficult situations?” “How do I respond when things get tough?”
- Health — In upcoming articles, this point will become more relevant, but I still think it is important to be aware of this during any process in which we are trying to effect psychological change in our lives. We are biological organisms. This means that we require a few essential building blocks to function. The biological health of the organism is crucial for its survival. That being said, consider your current state of health with respect to diet, exercise, medical and psychiatric conditions.
In upcoming articles we will explore: habit formation, effective coping mechanisms and actionable ways to effect change.
- View the checklist here.
- Cope — (of a person) to deal effectively with something difficult.
- Coping mechanisms — an adaptation to environmental stress that is based on conscious or unconscious choice and that enhances control over behavior or gives psychological comfort.
- Health — a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
- Equanimity — calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation.