Effective Coping for Emotional Distress

Earlier today I offered some reflections on what people-of-faith need to know about depression.  I promised that I’d offer some additional thoughts on effective coping for emotional distress.shutterstock_203291770

Effective coping strategies enable a person to gather their psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational resources so that they can respond to the problems they are facing.  By contrast, ineffective coping strategies simply allow a person to escape, withdraw, or numb themselves for a time, but when the “break” is over the person using these strategies finds him or herself no better positioned to address the problem-at-hand.  Examples of common, but largely useless and ineffective “coping strategies” include things like isolating, watching TV, drinking/drugging, withdrawing from spiritual support, excessive sleeping or eating, blaming, and other behaviors that attempt to give you distance from the problem but don’t give you any new directions, resources, insights or supports.

Here are some examples of effective coping strategies for dealing with emotional difficulties…

 -Drawing Closer to Others:   It is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18).  In times of trial, drawing closer to the people who share our life, asking for help, going out with friends (even when we don’t feel like it–especially then) is critically important.  Satan is a “roaring lion” (1 Ptr 5:8) waiting to devour you.  Be like the smart antelope.   When you are dealing with emotional distress, don’t let yourself get separated from the herd.  Instead, ask yourself, “When I feel better, what do I usually do/enjoy doing with others?”  Then do those things whether or not you feel like it right now.  I know you don’t want to be a burden, but talk about your struggles with others.  Give people the gift of letting them use their gifts to bless you.  In the long term, you’ll be glad you did.

-Draw Closer to God:  Ask yourself, “When I feel good, how do I pray? How do I experience God the most?”   Cling to those things now.  No, you may not get the same thing out of it you do when you’re in a better place, but his grace will still flow freely and you will begin gathering important spiritual resources.    People who actively engage in personally meaningful spiritual practices are more resilient than those who do not have or take advantage of spiritual supports.

-Participate in Healing Rituals:  People who are depressed or anxious or dealing with other emotional problems should definitely take advantage of Anointing of the Sick.  It is an important healing sacrament. Confession can also be helpful for banishing both obstacles to grace and the guilt that separates you from God’s love.  Don’t hesitate to ask your pastor to bless you or to ask others to pray over you and for you.  Sacraments have the power to effect the healing the signify, but all spiritual rituals have real power to propel healing.

-Make Meaning:  Research shows that “meaning making” or asking what value you can draw from a difficult time in life is a very powerful coping strategy.  One of the most depressing aspects of emotional distress is the apparent meaningless of it all.  In my book, The Life God Wants You to Have, I discuss many ways we can make meaning out of pain.  When we ask questions like, “How can I respond to this in a way that will make me a better person, glorify God, or, for that matter, make Satan sorry that he ever decided to pick on me?”  we begin to see the significance hidden with the moment.  We discover how to use everything life throws at us as an opportunity for growth.

-Recall Your Past Victories Over Struggle:  Write out a brief description of the last half-dozen or so times you thought you were doomed but things ended up working out somehow.  Focus on how, specifically, God delivered you from these trials.  Is there a pattern?  Do you see that pattern at work now?  How did you respond to those struggles when they were at their worst?  Was all the drama worth it?  Are you creating the same drama now?  Is the drama any more worthwhile this time?

-Gratitude Journaling:  Superficially, this sounds trite, but a large body of research supports the assertion that the simple act of writing down 3-5 things you are sincerely grateful for every day can increase your baseline experience of happiness by about 25%.  One’s happiness set point is very difficult to change.  The fact that this exercise can have this powerful an impact on one’s basic experience of happiness is near miraculous and it should not be overlooked by anyone looking for better ways to cope with emotional distress.

-Exercise:  A very large body of research shows the effectiveness of exercise as a coping strategy.  Exercise changes your body and brain chemistry.  It helps wake you up, focus your mind, engage your creativity, and tolerate pain (both physical and emotional) more effectively.

-Seeking Professional Help:  As I shared earlier, psychotherapy is a very effective means of learning new coping strategies.  Psychotherapy can be best thought of as physical therapy for the brain.  It has been shown to change brain chemistry and function and strengthen under-performing parts of the brain.    By beefing up brain function through cognitive and behavioral exercises as well as therapeutic conversations that support clients in thinking about old problems in new ways, clients learn to handle stress more effectively.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of coping strategies, but its a great start.  Do you have other ideas?  Share them in the comments box!  And if you would like to learn more about how the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-counseling practice can help you experience a more abundant marriage, family and personal life, visit us online or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment.


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