Coping Skills Help Make Behavior Change Last
~Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., Center for Motivation and Change
Making a change in your life is a pretty big deal. If you’ve moved into the action stage of change, we’d first like to first offer you a huge congratulations! This is a bold move, and one that deserves a lot of praise! Next we’d like to offer you some helpful tips to help make this change a little bit easier, and hopefully a lot more permanent!
Learn a few coping skills
You may have heard this term, coping skills, before and you may not really know what it means. Coping skills are things that you can do to help tolerate a difficult time by using constructive and positive strategies. More specifically, coping skills are what you need to tolerate the difficult moments that come along with making a significant change in your life (like giving up an unhealthy habit, learning a healthy behavior, not giving into impulses, etc.).
When we talk about coping skills, we can break them up into two categories, internal (things that happen in your own head, no one can necessarily tell that you’re doing them) and external (things that happen outside your own head, more active and visible to others).
You already have a ton of coping skills that you use daily (even hourly!) without realizing it. The goal is to start to recognize what you do to manage different life situations and apply those skills to the changes you are trying to make, in a more “conscious” manner. This way, when you feel a little shaky or insecure about achieving your new behavioral changes, you can apply some of the skills that already come naturally to you. As you try to change a habit however, you may realize you are lacking some skills and that you need to learn a few more!
What is the best way to learn new coping skills? Involve other people! When you are making a change, whether it is eating healthier, or trying to exercise more regularly, or stopping/changing your use of substances, support from other people can be hugely helpful. Studies have found that we often make similar changes as our peer group. In other words, behavior change (both healthy and unhealthy) is contagious and we learn to make changes from watching other people make them. By listening to and watching other people you will speed up your own learning process as you figure out new coping skills to make the changes you are working towards. If you surround yourself with good role models, you will learn a lot. It can also be helpful to find a therapist or mentor who can teach you some of the skills you might be lacking as you face new changes.
Spending time with other people who are trying to make changes, or who have already been successful at making them can also be especially helpful in those moments when your motivation to keep up those changes has waned. Organizations like AA, NA, SMART Recovery, Weight Watchers, and others use the idea and power of a supportive community to help their members maintain difficult changes. Why does this work? There are many reasons, but one of the more powerful ones is that they can cheerlead us when we need a little extra help. You may feel like rolling your eyes at the thought of having/needing a cheerleader in your corner, but give it a chance! Cheerleaders can help pump you up in times when your energy level is low, and help keep you going even when you don’t want to. Sports teams have cheerleaders for this very reason, and you should have some, too.
Another new coping skill? Remembering to reward yourself. You’ve made a bold decision to make a change in your life. Big decisions like this come along with a certain amount of angst, and a certain amount of effort to actually implement the change. At the end of all of this, you deserve a reward. Even if this change is something that you feel you’re “supposed” to be doing, like eating healthier, or stopping using drugs, at this point in your life, it is a change and something that deserves an extra little something. Also, if you know you have a reward coming, it might help you through those tough moments.
What constitutes a reward? Well, that’s different for each person. Whatever you find rewarding (and holds with your stated goals and personal values) can be a reward. Maybe it’s a nice meal (if your goal isn’t food related), or it’s that new outfit you’ve been thinking about buying yourself. Try and pick something that’s immediate, and not too big (you don’t want to use your biggest guns just yet!). You may also want to identify some rewards that are farther away (like a concert that you want to see) which can help you to maintain motivation moving forward.
Starting to make a major change is both exciting and a bit scary. Asking for help and surrounding yourself with good role models or teachers can really help. And rewarding yourself for your efforts and for tolerating all the ups and downs of behavioral change can keep you motivated long enough to really make lasting change.
Dr. Wilkens is a Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC which she co-founded with Dr. Jeffrey Foote. She specializes in motivational treatments and group psychotherapy, and has worked with traumatized populations in both individual and group modalities.