The Coping Strategies Approach

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People develop coping strategies for dealing with challenging issues in life. Each coping strategy does, of course, have consequences.

A person may aim to deal with issues by reflecting, talking, smoking, getting angry, falling ill, taking drugs, helping others or whatever. The coping strategies the person develops may fall into one of two categories.

They help themselves or other people.

They hurt themselves or other people.

People can expand their range of coping strategies. Many young people I worked with in therapeutic communities, for example, had learned coping mechanisms that got them into trouble.

We helped them to learn other ways of dealing with life’s challenges. This gave them more choices and freedom to shape their futures.

Looking back on your own life, can you think of a situation when you expanded your own coping strategies? Previously you may have had difficulty dealing with certain issues, but then you found a way forward.

You may have added to your repertoire by choosing to stay calm, breathe deeply, talk to a friend, behave in another way or whatever. The new approach produced more beneficial consequences.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you expanded your coping strategies for dealing with a difficult challenge.

Describe the specific coping strategies you used previously to deal with the challenge.

Describe the specific coping strategies you added to deal with the challenge.

Describe the specific outcomes that resulted from you adding the coping strategies for dealing with the challenge.

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Babette Rothschild describes the importance of helping people to add to their coping strategies in her book Trauma Essentials. She believes that safe trauma therapy aims to improve a client’s quality of life.

In her book Babette outlines ten principles that are essential for any trauma therapy. Below are some of them. You can learn more about her work via the following link.

Establish safety for the client within and outside the therapy.

Create a safe atmosphere in which the client can explore challenges at their own speed. If possible, provide the person with tools or techniques they can use to calm themselves and take control when provoked by traumatic memories.

Client and therapist must be confident in applying the brakes before they use the accelerator.

‘Applying the brakes’ has become her slogan for working with trauma slowly. The client should learn how to apply the brakes to stop the process or take control of flashbacks or other symptoms.

Identify and build on the client’s internal and external resources.

Resources are partners that make survival and life after trauma possible. Wise therapists will listen as carefully for coping mechanisms as they do for possible trauma. It is vital to help a client to build on their resources.

Regard defences as resources. Never get rid of coping strategies or defences; instead, create more choices.

By definition, defence mechanisms are coping strategies that help us to deal with adversity. They cause trouble, however, when these are the only mechanisms for dealing with problems.


People learn coping strategies in different ways. They may learn them from watching models – such as parents, friends and others they admire. Sometimes the strategies work, sometimes they provide temporary relief, sometimes they lead to more difficulty.

People can expand their options for dealing with difficult challenges. Different people will feel comfortable, however, with using different options.

Some may feel comfortable using deep breathing, talking, reflecting or exercising. Some may prefer using techniques from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, recalling times they have managed similar situations successfully or using other methods.

Looking at your own life, what are the methods you feel comfortable employing? If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. Looking to the future, this invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to use coping strategies for dealing with a difficult challenge successfully.

Describe the specific coping strategies you may be able to use to deal with the challenge successfully

Describe the specific benefits – both for yourself and other people – of being able to use these coping strategies to deal with the challenge successfully.

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