Coping Tips: Create Your Own Emotional Survival Skills Toolbox

Do you frequently find yourself feeling overwhelmed with strong feelings and emotions that seem to come and go -- or stay longer than is comfortable? You may have sudden shifts in feeling states, and you're clueless as to what may have triggered you? Stuff in your life feels so big sometimes -- and you feel powerless! What would you need to help you cope better? Many of the strategies that you've been using to cope with the many challenges in your life either are not working or are creating bigger problems for you (e.g. self-injury, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse). Perhaps now you've reached a point where you're motivated to change things. How does change happen?

I always emphasize taking "small steps towards change with a focus on progress over perfection" as a sustainable goal. Everyone is different -- a solution or alternative coping mechanism that works well for one may not be as helpful for someone else. I encourage you to create your own "coping toolbox" that you can personalize with cues, tips and messages that you'll understand when you feel triggered or are in a crisis. It can be a small go-to bag or box of your own design filled with ready for you, self-soothing objects and reminders.  For the bad moments (and days), I offer you some helpful tips from my own therapy toolbox that I've crafted to use with patients. These suggestions come from my DBT training, my experience as a therapist and my patients who have graciously shared their own valuable ways of managing negative emotions and behaviors. If you've tried "urge surfing" and riding the wave of emotion (very helpful for addictions and compulsions) or "swatting things away" with little relief. Try these suggestions for turning negative emotions into positive ones:

Self-soothing and the five senses, what does that mean? Many have not learned to do this, nor do they have a "data bank" for calming down when distressed. (usually this capacity comes from internalizing this from early caretakers). Instead of reading or taking up a hobby, some turn to drugs, alcohol or other self-destructive ways to regulate intense emotions. Learning to self-soothe is about finding healthier ways to calm down. Instead of your usual, harmful self-soothing mechanisms, try something different (I know this is not easy). Here are some helpful replacements using the five senses:

  • Scent - essential oils, perfume, incense
  • Sound - music, meditation bells, a relaxation recording, using a mantra, singing
  • Taste - candy, or something creamy, sweet, crunchy or whatever sensation you may like
  • Touch - stress balls, stuffed toys, a crystal or rock, hot water bottle, something textured, warm, or cold like ice, feel the earth beneath your feet
  • See - something pretty and visually stimulating to look at like a piece of art, post cards, jewelry, antique lace, flowers, leaves, ornaments or other sentimental objects that bring a sense of safety and calm

Mindfulness and relaxation, what can I do?

  • Labyrinth (walking or touch)
  • Visualization
  • Walking meditation
  • Guided imagery recordings
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Body scan
  • Knitting, needlepoint and crochet

Emotional awareness and distress tolerance what helps with this and how do I know what I need? First, getting better at identifying emotions is key. When you don't know what you're feeling, chaos reigns, and people tend to use avoidance (shutting down, freezing, running away) or turn to drugs to self-medicate or other dangerous activities to manage these emotions. Once you get better at identifying emotions such as sadness, fear and anger, learning to track and monitor emotions frees you up to try healthier responses when triggered. Remember that distraction is about learning to accept and tolerate  the tough moments as opposed to trying to avoid distress. After your distress has subsided, it is important to explore what triggered you and notice other ways you could have managed that experience of distress. Small steps are always awesome here!

  • Print-outs or a magnet with various emotions as faces if you're having trouble identifying what you're feeling
  • Crayons and paint for drawing about current feelings and emotions
  • Journaling and writing  (you can look at this later, or not)

Emotion regulation and distraction skills, what can I do when everything sucks and I feel like crap?

  • Create and decorate a personalized box or bag just for this purpose
  • Play a card game like Solitaire
  • Doodle
  • Scrapbooking
  • Collage making
  • Knitting
  • Sewing
  • Quilting
  • Use an app that is puzzle-like or otherwise engaging
  • Play an instrument
  • Listen to music
  • Organize your playlist of movies and music
  • Cook something
  • Take a warm bath
  • Garden or play outside
  • Put something together
  • Organize a closet
  • Fix yourself up
  • Plan a getaway
  • Go outside and get some sunshine
  • Read a book or magazine
  • Create your own blog
  • Develop a plan for the future
  • Watch a movie (non-triggering)
  • Watch sports
  • Talk with a friend
  • Help a friend
  • Remember good times
  • Think about loving people in your life
  • Plan something
  • Learn to meditate (lots of apps for that)
  • Try guided imagery (imagine that you're in a beautiful garden of your own making or on a serene lake)
  • Take a walk
  • Play with an animal
  • Exercise or do yoga
  • Bounce a ball
  • Play basketball
  • kickboxing
  • Dance

Opposite-to-Emotion Action, which helps counteract distressing emotions with actions that are the opposite of what you usually do, such as:

  • When I feel lethargy I want to stay in bed - try realistic, not-too-stressful things you can do to counter this such as tidying up, finish a task, going out for a coffee and see if your energy changes
  • When I feel depressed everything feels hopeless - change your thoughts and behaviors (which can change your emotions), so try cultivating gratitude for the good things in your life and challenge any cognitive distortions that may be feeding the depression by asking "are things really that bad, and how can I make things better?"
  • When I want to avoid people and isolate - think of someone you can call who you've had positive experiences with in the past, then make a list of things to talk about if that helps you
  • When I feel disappointed - become mindful of this and how quickly it can move to "nothing ever works out for me" -- is this perception really true? Are your expectations of yourself and others realistic, or harsh, demanding and perfectionistic? How can you develop kindness towards yourself, even and especially, if you were never treated this way in the past and feel you are undeserving?
  • When I am afraid of failing - make a list of all the ways that you are actually competent and challenge any cognitive distortions that you may have around your fear of failing or making a mistake.
  • When I feel angry - cultivate some calm and acceptance about your anger. Whatever you normally do, try the opposite action, so instead of shutting down when you feel angry try communicating something effectively or try walking away if you tend to stay as things escalate.

What would you add to your own personal toolbox? Send me an email and share your tips for coping with difficult feelings. You can also visit for more information about DBT skills and enhancing the quality of your life.