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Action 44

Have tactics for the tough times

The ability to deal with challenges that life throws at us is not something that we're either born with or we aren't. One of the most exciting findings from recent research is that coping strategies, like many other life skills, can be learned, practiced and honed - often with wide reaching effects on the quality of our lives.

Why do it

All of us have to face day to day challenges. And all of us have times of stress or sadness, pain or trauma in our lives. How well we respond to these has a big impact on our well-being.

The good news is that many of the tools that can help us and others feel happier, are also tools that can help us cope in the face of difficulties. And these can also enable us to be open to new experiences and take on new challenges,[1] so helping us learn, develop our skills, build optimism about our future and our confidence in our abilities to deal with what comes our way in life.

So even if you are not going through any particular challenges at the moment, every single one of us can benefit from stocking up on more tools and techniques for coping.

Where to start

1 What is in your toolkit already?

A good place to start is to take stock of the tools and techniques you feel you make use of regularly and which ones work well for you.

You might not ever have thought of them as coping strategies, as such, but we all have them: a song that we listen to on the way to work to motivate us; going for a run when we are feeling down; meeting up with a friend we know always makes us laugh or who gives us the most balanced and considered advice.

It is equally important to consider what you might need work on - where are the gaps in your armoury? You might be an excellent problem solver but find it difficult when your mood is low but there is nothing to rationalise easily or obvious to 'fix'. Or you might know that you are skilled at working through difficult emotions and moods, but that you need to work at having goals and following through with plans of action. Having a range of tools is the key so that you have flexibility to better deal with what comes along.

It might also be that some of your coping strategies make you feel better in the short term but really don't help in the long run. For example having a few drinks each night because you are unhappy may work to dull the bad feelings at the time, but it does nothing to resolve what is causing them. So have a think - what other actions could you could try that might work better for you overall?

2 Use this Action for Happiness website to build your toolkit

Many of the keys and actions throughout this website can be good additions to your toolkit. As well as boosting how happy we (and others) feel, they can also bolster us in tougher times - both for dealing with everyday challenges and in times of greater trauma. As a starting point why not try:

Giving -Focusing on helping other people shifts our attention away from our own worries. It can often provide perspective when we realise that other people are struggling with things as well. And being able to be a source of support for our loved ones or for people in need has a positive impact on our own wellbeing as well as theirs.

Relating -Having support from people around us is extremely important for happiness and especially so when times are tough. So building our relationships is vital. It helps build happier and more resilient communities too!

Exercise - Be active or Get outside, get into nature - Each of these has been shown to be good tactics to boost feeling good and reduce feeling down.

Appreciate -Mindfulness is a powerful tool to help tune into how we are feeling and to calm and focus our mind.

Emotional positivity -Knowing a few different ways to increase our experience of positive emotions can be really helpful to draw on when the going gets tough. For example, the habit of gratitude is also a great one to get into and sometimes laughter really is the best medicine!

Acceptance -Sometimes our troubles are caused by us giving ourselves an unnecessarily bad time. So we can build resilience by working on some of the skills of self acceptance, such as knowing our strengths and developing more accurate ways to explaining what happens to us to ourselves.

Meaning -Connecting to something bigger than ourselves, such as a faith, spiritual practice or a good cause, is another very important way that helps to make us resilient.

3 Add writing to your toolkit

Emotionally difficult times can have detrimental effects on our physical and emotional health. Research conducted by psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that the act of writing about difficulty or trauma creates the opportunity to process it and find meaning and seems to have remarkable therapeutic potential. Whilst not everyone may benefit from it, those that have come from a wide range of different social and cultural backgrounds.[2]

Pennebaker asked people to write, for fifteen minutes a day over a week, about a traumatic or difficult event. Whilst for many it was not comfortable to recall such an experience, a year later those who had done so were healthier than the control group who had been asked to keep a regular diary. His procedure is now used by many psychologists and researchers today. Whilst it seems odd to find that reliving difficult experiences and negative emotions can be beneficial, Pennebaker suggests that by: "Facing our traumas, we no longer end up in psychological ditches. Rather we can build bridges to the considerable strengths that we all possess".[3]

So if something is troubling you why not try writing about it? Whether by hand or on your computer. Remember this is for you - you don't need to show it to anyone else (unless you want to). These are the exact instructions that he provided:

"For the next four days I would like you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your life. In your writing, I'd like you to really let you and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends or relatives. You may also want to links your experience to your past, your present or your future, or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day. All will be completely confidential." [3]

This exercise is free form - you write anything that comes to you.

For those of us that find it easier to have a structure, psychologist Sonia Lyubomirksy developed the following questions, based on Pennebaker's original writing exercise. (It may also be a helpful structure for a conversation, if you feel it would be helpful to talk to a trusted friend or family member.)[4]

  • First, be open that your loss or trauma has caused you a great deal of suffering or pain.[4]
  • Then, consider what you have done during the difficult time, or in response to it, that you are proud of.[4]
  • Next, consider how much you have grown as a result of your loss or trauma. For example, do you think that you have a new perspective on life (even if it's a negative one)? Are you are more compassionate now, or more grateful, sensitive, patient, tolerant or open-minded?[4]
  • How has the trauma or difficulty positively affected your relationships? Have any of them been strengthened in any way? Have any of them become closer, more intimate, or more supportive? [4]
  • How might you use what you have learnt going forward?

1 Vaillant, G.E. (1992), Ego Mechanisms of Defense: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers, Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Press

2 Niederhoffer, K.G. & Pennebaker, J.W. (2009) Sharing one's story: On the benefits of writing or talking about emotional experience. In S.J. Lopez and C.R.Snyder. Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:Oxford University Press

3 ibid, page 630.

4 Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How Of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting The Life You Want. New York: Penguin Press. p.166.