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Distractions vs. Coping Skills

One important distinction that I learned early in my career from a colleague was the difference between coping skills and distractions. This is an extremely important distinction to make, as they are absolutely not the same, and they both have a specific function.

When most people think of the word "coping skill," they are primarily thinking of a distraction. In my work with clients, I hear a lot of statements such as, "when I'm mad, I go to the gym and I feel better." This may be true, and there are many biological and neurological reasons why this is the case. However, this is not a coping skill. Whatever issue that existed prior to the gym may remain an issue. Furthermore, the lack of ability to process anger remains. If an individual only goes to the gym each time they experience overwhelming anger, then they will continue to experience this anger indefinitely, as the gym is a distraction. So is music, counting to 10, or reading a book (perhaps not if it were a self-help book).

Enter coping skills. Most definitions of coping will include something similar to "successfully dealing with or overcoming a problem." As previously mentioned, going to the gym does not overcome anger. In fact, anger isn't even the real problem. Anger is a human emotion and has a function. The inability to cope with this anger is the real problem. Therefore, we need a skill that will enable us to overcome this inability to cope with anger, which will eventually reduce the symptoms of anger.

We talk a lot on this website, and with our clients, about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Anger management styles that I have learned are based in CBT. In anger management, we teach clients coping skills that allow them to overcome their inability to process anger, so that they can effectively process their anger when it occurs, and they no longer need anger management. We don't teach clients to go to the gym when they are angry, or read a book (again, unless it's a self-help book, which I will provide below), otherwise they would be in anger management indefinitely. Instead, we teach them to cope.

All of that being said, let me make the argument for distractions. Distractions definitely have a place and are an important tool. If an individual is at a 10/10 for anger, I find it unlikely that they will utilize a healthy coping skill to process their thoughts. However, a client at this level of anger may be able to count to 10, or put their ear buds in and listen to music for a few minutes. When the anger is reduced to perhaps a 5/10 by utilizing this distraction, then the client can access and utilize coping skills. This is the function of distractions. To enable the utilization of coping skills. Lastly, distractions may be more accessible in complicated situations. Individuals may be unable to process and cope when they become angry during a work presentation. This may be a good time to count to 10 real quick, set aside the issue and the anger, then process and cope after the presentation.

I promised I would provide a link to a book that I would consider a coping skill and not a distraction. Now, this could go both ways, as sometimes reading self-help books allows us to feel as though we are working on our issue, when we are in fact avoiding it. However, it could definitely be a coping skill for some, and should be used in conjunction with professional help.

SOS: Help for Emotions

I have linked to this book before because I think it is an excellent resource, but be mindful of the self-help trap. This resource is best used in conjunction with a counselor or other trained professionals.