What is “Coping”?

Often, one of the first things I learn about clients who have previously sought help for mental health is that they’ve encountered some professional advice about coping skills. Examples of this include suggestions to rely on things like:

– Journaling
– Meditation
– Breathing techniques
– Taking a walk
– Thinking grateful thoughts 

 …and other examples of “self-care” to cope with unpleasant emotions and difficult situations. I’ve also noticed that educating clients about coping skills is something that many counsellors are surprisingly passionate about. During my education, sometimes whole classes would be taken up with students and instructors pontificating wisely about teaching coping skills. A casual observer might think that many mental health professionals think coping skills are the answer to everything from depression and anxiety to drug use and relationship problems. That casual observer would not be far off the mark. In the mental health field of today, teaching coping skills is very on-trend.

So, what exactly is coping?

Coping is the process of engaging in some activity that provides temporary respite from an objectionable situation or state of mind. Most people would agree that some kinds of coping, like alcohol use, can be destructive. There are also more neutral kinds of coping, like those listed in the image above. 

However, I believe there is no such thing as positive coping, in that I think coping is neither something to celebrate nor to aim for. Of course, being able to deal with the pain inherent to being human – which ranges from life’s passing discomforts to its grievous tragedies – is important. But coping brings to mind a distinctly avoidant stance toward problems. The idea of “positive” or “effective” coping is internally contradictory. By its very nature, the existence of coping means there is an underlying issue that is not being resolved. If you are always coping, something is not going right that will not improve by merely coping with it. And, like most things that are not going right currently, if left unaddressed, the problem will only get worse and require more and more “effective coping”. This is one way people sometimes wake up in chains of their own making, chains they are so used to that they were not even aware they are imprisoned. The coping isn’t optional anymore, but a compulsion that the rest of their thoughts, behaviour, and relationships must orient around in order for the coping – and avoidance of the problem itself – to continue. 

So, the problem with a coping skills approach is that it is, at best, symptom management. New ways of coping do nothing to ameliorate the underlying issues that are creating the need to cope to begin with. The teaching of coping skills barely qualifies as treatment, in the same way that morphine isn’t an effective treatment for a broken foot: It merely dulls the pain and allows you to limp on.

So, why are mental health professionals so eager and excited to teach coping skills? While there are probably many reasons, I have a theory or two.

For starters, teaching coping is essentially advice-giving. Some might choose another term for it, like teaching or psychoeducation, but we should call a spade a spade. Giving advice is very easy. It doesn’t require any meaningful therapeutic ability, and anyone can feel confident while advising about coping skills. But in the end, a therapist who leans heavily on such advice-giving could – and should – be replaced with a website or pamphlet. 

Secondly, a focus on coping skills sets the goals for clients’ treatment plans so low that it’s practically impossible for the therapist and client to not attain them. Setting loftier goals exposes therapists to the potential of failure and the sense of fraudulence that can emerge when we can’t deliver on our client’s hopes. So, the therapist is teaching coping skills because doing so is their way of coping.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many therapists have taken few leaps beyond coping themselves. How could they hope to guide a client into territory they have never explored?

There are two limited circumstances in which teaching clients to cope makes sense. The first is if it is a stepping stone on the way to real therapy that mitigates the risk of some kind of seriously destructive behaviour. The second is if everything has been tried, the client is 100% certain there is no hope of dealing with the problem at its source, and the therapist concurs that a life of coping is truly the best the client can hope for.

In all other cases, for a mental health professional to advise clients to cope is to let them down in a major way. It says to them that their endless coping is an acceptable outcome, and that a higher state of being is unattainable. 

It also sells them the idea that endless coping is even possible. That is often untrue. When we can no longer cope, maybe life is not telling us to cope better, but to heal the wound that got us into that mess in the first place.

Often, one of the first things I learn about clients who have previously sought help for mental health is that they’ve encountered some professional advice about coping skills. Examples of this include suggestions to rely on things like:

  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Breathing techniques
  • Taking a walk
  • Thinking grateful thoughts 

 …and other examples of “self-care” to cope with unpleasant emotions and difficult situations. I’ve also noticed that educating clients about coping skills is something that many counsellors are surprisingly passionate about. 

During my education, sometimes whole classes would be taken up with students and instructors pontificating wisely about teaching coping skills. A casual observer might think that many mental health professionals think coping skills are the answer to everything from depression and anxiety to drug use and relationship problems. That casual observer would not be far off the mark. In the mental health field of today, teaching coping skills is very on-trend.

So, what exactly is coping?

Coping is the process of engaging in some activity that provides temporary respite from an objectionable situation or state of mind. Most people would agree that some kinds of coping, like alcohol use, can be destructive. There are also more neutral kinds of coping, like those listed in the image above. 

However, I believe there is no such thing as positive coping, in that I think coping is neither something to celebrate nor to aim for. Of course, being able to deal with the pain inherent to being human – which ranges from life’s passing discomforts to its grievous tragedies – is important. But coping brings to mind a certain, avoidant stance toward problems. The idea of “positive” or “effective” coping is internally contradictory. By its very nature, the existence of coping means there is an underlying issue that is not being resolved. If you are always coping, something is not going right that will not improve by merely coping with it. And, like most things that are not going right currently, if left unaddressed, the problem will only get worse and require more and more “effective coping”.

This is one way people sometimes wake up in chains of their own making, chains they are so used to that they were not even aware they are imprisoned. The coping isn’t optional anymore, but a compulsion that the rest of their thoughts, behaviour, and relationships must orient around in order for the coping – and avoidance of the problem itself – to continue. 

So, the problem with a coping skills approach is that it is symptom management at best. New ways of coping do nothing to ameliorate the underlying issues that are creating the need to cope to begin with. The teaching of coping skills barely qualifies as treatment, in the same way that morphine isn’t an effective treatment for a broken foot: It merely dulls the pain and allows you to limp on.

So, why are mental health professionals so eager and excited to teach coping skills? While there are probably many reasons, a have a theory or two.

For starters, teaching coping is essentially advice-giving. Some might choose another term for it, like teaching or psychoeducation, but we should call a spade a spade. Giving advice is very easy. It doesn’t require any meaningful therapeutic ability, and anyone can feel confident while advising about coping skills. But in the end, a therapist who leans heavily on such advice-giving could – and should – be replaced with a website or pamphlet. 

Secondly, a focus on coping skills sets the goals for clients’ treatment plans so low that it’s practically impossible for the therapist and client to not attain them. Setting loftier goals exposes therapists to the potential of failure and the sense of fraudulence that can emerge when we can’t deliver on our client’s hopes. So, the therapist is teaching coping skills because doing so is their way of coping.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many therapists have never taken the leap beyond coping themselves. How could they hope to guide a client into territory they have never explored?

There are two limited circumstances in which teaching clients to cope makes sense. The first is if it is a stepping stone on the way to real therapy that mitigates the risk of some kind of seriously destructive behaviour. The second is if everything has been tried, the client is 100% certain there is no hope of dealing with the problem at its source, and the therapist concurs that a life of coping is truly the best the client can hope for.

In all other cases, for a mental health professional to advise clients to cope is to let them down in a major way. It says to them that their endless coping is an acceptable outcome, and that a higher state of being than that is unattainable.

It also sells them the idea that endless coping is even possible. That is usually untrue. When we can no longer cope, maybe life is not telling us to cope better, but to heal the wound that got us into that mess in the first place.

Often, one of the first things I learn about clients who have previously sought help for mental health is that they’ve encountered some professional advice about coping skills. Examples of this include suggestions to rely on things like:

…and other examples of “self-care” to cope with unpleasant emotions and difficult situations. I’ve also noticed that educating clients about coping skills is something that many counsellors are surprisingly passionate about. During my education, sometimes whole classes would be taken up with students and instructors pontificating wisely about teaching coping skills. A casual observer might think that many mental health professionals think coping skills are the answer to everything from depression and anxiety to drug use and relationship problems. That casual observer would not be far off the mark. In the mental health field of today, teaching coping skills is very on-trend.

So, what exactly is coping?

Coping is the process of engaging in some activity that provides temporary respite from an objectionable situation or state of mind. Most people would agree that some kinds of coping, like alcohol use, can be destructive. There are also more neutral kinds of coping, like those listed in the image above. 

However, I believe there is no such thing as positive coping, in that I think coping is neither something to celebrate nor to aim for. Of course, being able to deal with the pain inherent to being human – which ranges from life’s passing discomforts to its grievous tragedies – is important. But coping brings to mind a distinctly avoidant stance toward problems.

The idea of “positive” or “effective” coping is internally contradictory. By its very nature, the existence of coping means there is an underlying issue that is not being resolved. If you are always coping, something is not going right that will not improve by merely coping with it. And, like most things that are not going right currently, if left unaddressed, the problem will only get worse and require more and more “effective coping”. This is one way people sometimes wake up in chains of their own making, chains they are so used to that they were not even aware they are imprisoned. The coping isn’t optional anymore, but a compulsion that the rest of their thoughts, behaviour, and relationships must orient around in order for the coping – and avoidance of the problem itself – to continue. 

So, the problem with a coping skills approach is that it is symptom management at best. New ways of coping do nothing to ameliorate the underlying issues that are creating the need to cope to begin with. The teaching of coping skills barely qualifies as treatment, in the same way that morphine isn’t an effective treatment for a broken foot: It merely dulls the pain and allows you to limp on.

So, why are mental health professionals so eager and excited to teach coping skills? While there are probably many reasons, here are some theories.

For starters, teaching coping is essentially advice-giving. Some might choose another term for it, like teaching or psychoeducation, but we should call a spade a spade. Giving advice is very easy. It doesn’t require any meaningful therapeutic ability, and anyone can feel confident while advising about coping skills. But in the end, a therapist who leans heavily on such advice-giving could – and should – be replaced with a website or pamphlet. 

Secondly, a focus on coping skills sets the goals for clients’ treatment plans so low that it’s practically impossible for the therapist and client to not attain them. Setting loftier goals exposes therapists to the potential of failure and the sense of fraudulence that can emerge when we can’t deliver on our client’s hopes. So, the therapist is teaching coping skills because doing so is their way of coping.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many therapists have taken few leaps beyond coping themselves. How could they hope to guide a client into territory they have never explored?

There are two limited circumstances in which teaching clients to cope makes sense. The first is if it is a stepping stone on the way to real therapy that mitigates the risk of some kind of seriously destructive behaviour. The second is if everything has been tried, the client is 100% certain there is no hope of dealing with the problem at its source, and the therapist concurs that a life of coping is truly the best the client can hope for.

In all other cases, for a mental health professional to advise clients to cope is to let them down in a major way. It says to them that their endless coping is an acceptable outcome, and that a higher state of being is unattainable.

It also sells them the idea that endless coping is even possible. That is usually untrue. When we can no longer cope, maybe life is not telling us to cope better, but to heal the wound that got us into that mess in the first place.