You’re probably pretty good at coping. Goodness knows we’ve had a LOT to cope with over the last year or so.
Coping enables us to survive, to pull through, to keep going when the going gets tough, to not succumb.
If you see someone struggling to cope have you ever asked, “Are you alright?”
You might then get the response of “Not so bad thanks”, “I’m managing” or “I’m OK.” Even though they are not, because no one likes to be thought of as not coping.
I’ve always thought of coping as a good thing, a positive virtue and an essential part of our resilience skills until a recent conversation I had with a fabulous Professor of Paediatrics based in the States. We were talking about stress in the health system and how it shows up as anxiety, depression and burnout.
I mentioned how I’d always lived with a high level of anxiety, imposterdom, of never being “enough” and that I’d only realised fairly recently that my average level of anxiety wasn’t what the vast majority of people experience.
She asked when was I free from anxiety? The truth being it is usually for those few short days away on vacation away from work and my laptop and phone.
She said “So, what you do on a daily basis is your coping strategy.” “What if you were able to stop coping and change the relationship you have with anxiety?”
Kapow! The lightbulb of insight flashed in my head.
I was an able coper. Coping well, except during those times when my anxiety gets the better of me.
My ability to cope, that I had adopted and nurtured over a long period of time, was getting in the way of truly thriving.
It was time to stop treading water and learn how to float.
No wonder my legs are tired.
When you are coping, you may have adopted helpful adaptive behaviours like making sure you get enough sleep, join a gym or start a meditation practice.
The risk being you may also adopt some maladaptive behaviours like relying on alcohol or smoking to help you relax.
When you’re coping, everything feels OK on the surface, you’re working hard doing stuff that you enjoy, you’re getting on with your colleagues and you’re earning plenty of money, but as soon as the pressure ramps up and your stress levels rise your ability to cope is threatened.
Your usual strategies are no longer working no matter how many extra loaves of sourdough you cook or massage sessions you book.
Coping is fine as a short-term strategy, but never for the longer term. Because something eventually gives which is when poor physical health, mental illness of burnout takes a hold.
The sweet spot is to move from coping to thriving by embracing what feeds your soul to be the best version of yourself at a deeper level, supported by those adaptive behaviours of self-care, strong interpersonal relationships and emotional stability.
Mental wellbeing is different from physical wellbeing because it incorporates body, mind and brain.
If you are an admirable coper but would like to find your own sweet spot of wellbeing it’s time to let go, take off the water wings that have served you so well until now and choose to shift.
What will you be doing differently to uncouple from those maladaptive behaviours and coping?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase
If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.