What is the difference between self-care and coping?

In a previous post, I talk about my belief that we experience emotions in 4 ways-our body, our thoughts, our behaviors and our words.  I talk about this with clients nearly every day as a means for coping with distressing emotions because it provides a place to start.  If we can notice how our bodies, minds, behaviors and words are being used in a particular situation, than we can start to change them.  We can calm our body, reframe our thoughts, do different behaviors and change the way we speak.  In some ways that is what therapy is all about.  Much of what we discuss in a session is around those 4 categories and, if you have every seen a therapist, you might agree with that.

When we are talking about those things, we are usually in a space when we are talking about coping with what is occurring in our lives at that time.  What about how we take care of ourselves before the coping is necessary?  I often will ask my clients “what is the difference between a coping skill and a self-care skill?”  In a lot of ways, the things we do to cope with an emotion and the things we do to take care of ourselves are the SAME THINGS.  The difference is when we choose to do these things.  When it is after the distressing emotions has taken place (or in the middle of the distressing emotion), we call it coping.  But when we do the same thing before the emotional event, we call it self-care.  Think about it.  I use meditation to cope with high anxiety.  I also use meditation daily to keep myself grounded.  I like to go and get a pedicure when I have had a rough week, but getting a pedicure is also something that helps me to feel pampered and special.  I use paced breathing when I am starting to get angry with something.  I also start my day with a paced breathing exercise so that I can begin it on an even note.  For the most part, it is the same thing.

Why is this important?  Because I think that sometimes it is easier for us to notice how important these skills are when we are in need of coping.  When we have had that rough day, or rough hour, and need to regulate our emotions.  We do not do quite as exquisite a job of taking care of ourselves before the coping is necessary.  There are probably a ton of “reasons” for this.  Perhaps we don’t believe we have time, or we choose to put our energy into something other than ourselves (our children or our jobs in a lot of cases), or we don’t think we can afford to spend the money on some of those things or, sometimes, we simply don’t think that it is worth the time to take care of us.  I am here to challenge that.  Because I have to wonder if we spent a little more time taking care of ourselves, would we get to the point where we feel the need to “cope” nearly as often?

So, I think we can approach it in the same way.  By paying our attention to our body, our thoughts, our behaviors, and our words.

Body- What do you do on the regular that is kind to your body?  I do like pedicures, but that is not the only way to take care of your physical self.  Can you take the time to use a lovely smelling lotion each day?  Can you give yourself a few extra minutes in a nice hot shower?  Can you spend an extra dollar on the brand name dish soap that you think smells really good?  Can you plan a meal that you truly enjoy once per week?  Can you give yourself permission to get the fancy coffee on Sundays?  Can you find the time to take a bath after your kids have gone to bed?  Can you schedule a pampering event like a pedicure or a massage?  When you take care of your body, your body takes care of you by being relaxed and getting sick less.

Thoughts: When you are walking around, do you notice that your thoughts are not very kind to yourself?  Do you call yourself names like “idiot” or make comments on what you think you see in the mirror?  Do you tell yourself “you are never going to have time to finish everything that you have to do”?  Can you be intentional about changing those thoughts?  Create a mantra for yourself with regard to your schedule.  Take thirty seconds to say some affirmations in the morning.  Be intentional about receiving the compliments that you usually deflect.   Spend a few minutes each day practicing gratitude for the people and things in your life.  How might those changes shift your perspective on your day and your life?

Behaviors: What are you doing for yourself on a regular basis?  Can you create some habits that would take care of you?  Take thirty minutes a day to engage in a behavior that is positive.  Read a book, go for a walk, call a friend, meditate, write in a journal, tend to a garden, sit still and do absolutely nothing.  These are the things that we don’t have “time” for, but I wonder if we make the time do them on the front end of our stress and distress, if we actually create more time in the long run?

Words: How do we speak to and about others as well as ourselves?  I think a lot our self-talk happens in our thoughts, but what about the way you talk about ourselves to others?  Do you tell our co-workers “I don’t know what I am doing”? or do you qualify requests that you have with “you don’t have to say yes to this, but”?  And do you start your explanations of mistakes with “I am so dumb that I….” ?  In that same regard, do you make comments to people that are unkind because “it was meant as a joke” or “I said that to be funny”?  Being intentional about the way we speak to and about ourselves and other people can create a dramatic shift in the energy around us.


Next time you are driving the struggle bus, check in with yourself.  What have you done for your body lately?  Your thoughts?  How are you behaving?  How are you speaking to yourself?  Put some energy into changing those four things and I think you will find that yourself feeling emotionally regulated without the need to cope a little more often.  Worth the effort?  I think so.


With Gratitude, Jessica Brubaker

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