Suzanne Manser, PhD

Licensed Psychologist

Coping Strategies

If you are currently trying to manage emotional pain, these are a few strategies that may help. The first thing you try may not make you feel better. Don’t let that be your excuse to stop trying. Instead, pick another strategy to try, then another. At worst, you’ll pass some time. At best, your thoughts and feelings will shift away from the pain and toward something helpful.

If you want to distract or calm…

  • Breathe deeply for a few minutes: As you inhale, imagine the air going down to your belly. Allow your belly to fully expand as you inhale and relax back toward your spine as you exhale. Inhale slowly, counting to 5. Hold the breath for a count of 7. Exhale slowly and deliberately, counting to 8. Repeat. This exercise calms the body on a physiological level. If you focus on the experience of each breath, it calms the mind as well. For example, notice how the air feels on the tip of your nose as you inhale.
  • Get a deck of cards and play solitaire or whatever is your game of choice.
  • Watch some TED talks. Here are a few links to get you started: Funniest TED talks, Business Insider’s Mind Expanding TED talks that are less than 10 minutes, Lifehack’s list of inspirational TED talks and Brene Brown’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability.
  • Do a few yoga poses. If you are not familiar with yoga, try my favorite pose: mountain pose.
  • Do puzzles: jigsaw, crossword, Sudoku, word search.
  • Try a guided mindfulness meditation. If you don’t like the first one, try another. The person’s voice or style of meditation can make a big difference in your experience.
  • Do the “5 Things” mindfulness exercise: Look around. Choose one thing you see and describe it to yourself in as much detail as possible. It should take at least a minute or two (this is the key). Do this for 4 more things you See. You can also do 5 Things you Smell and 5 Things you Feel. This exercise directs your attention to and keeps it focused on something other than your pain.
  • Plan your next vacation or your ultimate dream vacation down to the details. Choose the location, where you’ll stay, where you’ll eat, what you’ll do, what you’ll pack. Go to TripAdvisor for ideas.
  • Look for inspirational or funny quotes on Pinterest.
  • Get out your crayons or colored pencils and color. Coloring is soothing and creative, and there are a lot of options. Find an adult coloring book you like or go online for free coloring pages. Try a Zentangle coloring page.
  • Knitting and crocheting are similarly soothing if you have the skills or are willing to learn.
  • Write a list of everything you can think of that you are grateful for.
  • Make a playlist of songs that make you feel like dancing. Listen to it. Ideally, dance.
  • Watch YouTube videos of your favorite comic. Or baby goats. Or whatever makes you smile. The physical act of smiling actually improves your mood a bit.
  • Go for a walk outside if you can. Notice your surroundings while you walk – the sights, sounds, and smells. Notice the temperature of the air.
  • If you have an urge to use an eating disorder behavior, follow the steps on urge911.com
  • If you can, do these things outside, in whatever kind of green space you may have available to you. Green spaces improve mood.

For longer-term relief from suffering…

  • Identify your strengths (the VIA-IS Strengths Survey is free: www.viacharacter.org). Each day, choose one strength to focus on and practice throughout the day. This is especially helpful for coping with depression.
  • Develop a daily mindfulness practice (e.g., daily meditation or a daily gratitude journal). Once you are in better charge of your focus, you will be able to move it in more meaningful, helpful, and/or distracting directions. It does not have to linger on your pain.
  • Identify what is most important to you in life (if you need help with this, try reading my article: The Value of Values.). Do at least one thing every day in support of these values. Notice how it feels when you make choices that align with what you care about.
  • Be willing to make room for pain. It is a part of life and can’t be avoided. You may be able to learn from the pain. You may not. Either way, do your best to not let the pain be the center of your attention. Widen your scope to focus on the things that are important to you, or on anything that captures your attention. (These articles may help with this concept: Making Room for Painful Emotions and 2 Tools to Help you Manage Overwhelming Feelings. )
  • Take a week-long break from social media. Notice how you spend your time instead. Notice how you feel.
  • Focus on helping others in some way: Smile at everyone you pass. Open the door for people. Pay for the person behind you in line. Choose an organization to volunteer with. Hand out bags of goodies and essentials to homeless people. Providing service to others has been found to be especially helpful for coping with depression.
  • When something positive, no matter how small, happens to you (e.g., when someone compliments you, when see a beautiful something, or when you feel good about completing a task), take 30 seconds to savor the moment. Allow the positive feelings to linger. Repeat the words said to you, and try to believe them. Write the experience down (consider keeping a journal just for this). Spending 30 seconds to engage at this level with the positivity of the moment allows your brain to encode it more deeply. You will actually learn from that moment to seek other moments like it – you will start to look for the positive in life.
  • Identify people who don’t make you feel good about yourself (including online friends or people you follow), and reduce the time you spend with them. Spend more time with people who make you feel good about yourself as you are right now. If you don’t yet have those people in your life, start strategizing about how and where you will meet them or find solo activities that make you feel good about yourself.
  • This article on how to improve your mood using neuroscience has more ideas: A neuroscience researcher reveals 4 rituals that will make you happier.
“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

— Theodore Roosevelt