Many situations can lead us to drug and alcohol use, like stressful occurrences, external pressures, difficult emotions, or unprocessed trauma. We tend to turn toward external forces to help us relax, reward ourselves, and escape emotions. Before entering recovery, we didn’t know how to cope with these feelings or situations in a healthy way, so we would use substances to feel relief. Now that we have committed to a lifestyle of recovery, it is crucial to find alternative coping skills that address stressful situations, emotions and pressures.
A big part of finding effective coping skills is identifying how you’re feeling, understanding why you’re feeling that way, and figuring out what you can do to address those feelings. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired (HALT)? Are you experiencing anxiety? Are you stressed out because of your busy schedule? Are you feeling down lately, like you don’t have the energy to do things you enjoy? When we break down our thoughts and emotions, it’s a little easier to find an effective coping strategy. Connecting external stressors with their physical symptoms can give us much more insight into what works for us.
For example, a big stressor for me is feeling overwhelmed. When my schedule gets too busy, I’m irritable, I don’t sleep well, and I get frequent headaches. Because I’ve explored which coping skills work for me, I’ve been able to discover exactly what to do when I’m irritable, tired or in pain.
Here is a list of coping skills that research has proven to be effective in recovery:
Physical Coping Skills
These coping mechanisms can help increase energy levels, reduce the risk of health issues, and balance stress hormones. Effective methods may include:
- Going for a walk — Find a place indoors or get out into nature.
- Participating in sports — Start a game with friends or work on your skills independently.
- Going to the gym — Engage in or create a fitness routine.
- Practicing yoga — Learn a new pose or memorize your favorite sequence.
- Doing something with your hands — Create art or make something.
- Playing an instrument — Learn a new song or a new instrument.
- Utilizing a “fidget” — When you’re feeling anxious or angry, funnel that energy into an object (e.g. fidget spinner, stress ball, Hanayama puzzle, Rubik’s cube, etc.)
- Making a Zentangle or origami
Emotional Coping Skills
These strategies are helpful in coping with intrusive thoughts, constant worry, fear, feelings of uncertainty, apprehension, dread, or overwhelm. Effective methods may include:
- Practicing meditation and mindfulness — Explore different practices and find a few that are effective for you. Some examples may include breathing techniques, guided meditations, progressive muscle relaxation, or prayer.
- Learning your triggers — Slowing down and becoming more mindful will help you identify situations that trigger you and understand how to diffuse them.
- Keeping a positive attitude — Practice reciting three positive affirmations in the morning and in the evening.
- Writing or journaling — Keeping a journal can give you the opportunity to vent. Using writing prompts can give you the opportunity to change your mindset and explore different areas of thought.
- Writing a gratitude list — Take the time to make a note of the things you are thankful for. Don’t be afraid to reach out and express appreciation to those who have positively impacted your life.
- Enjoying nature — Go outside and enjoy it. Take the time to write down or just acknowledge your feelings, impressions, and surroundings.
- Trying the “5-4-3-2-1” mindfulness technique — Notice 5 things you see and describe the details, 4 things you can hear and describe the sounds, 3 things you can feel and describe how they feel, 2 things you can smell and what they smell like, and 1 thing you can taste OR a positive affirmation.
Social Coping Skills
These coping strategies can help manage symptoms, overcome fear, foster a sense of belonging, and improve your social life. The actions can ultimately help you to develop an overall better quality of life. Effective methods may include:
- Getting involved — Find an event or your favorite leisure activity to participate in with other people.
- Talking to someone — Be open about your challenges and actively reach out for support.
- Using humor — Find humor in books, on the internet, or with friends.
- Being assertive — Set boundaries, practice saying “no” without justifying your reason, and use “I feel” statements to express emotion.
- Serving someone in need — Look outside your own problems; practice random acts of kindness.
Practical Coping Skills
These coping skills can ease emotional and physical symptoms including insomnia, digestive troubles, etc. Effective methods may include:
- Getting into a good routine — This can help you manage many aspects of your life and help you to feel less overwhelmed (e.g. wake up to an alarm, drink a full glass of water, do some stretches, pick out your clothes for the day, wash your face & brush your teeth, recite some positive affirmations, say a prayer, eat a healthy breakfast).
- Prioritizing — Put important tasks first (e.g. make a to-do list and start with the easiest tasks. Cross them off once you complete them).
- Eating well — What we put into our bodies can influence how we feel physically and emotionally (e.g. limit your sugar intake; drink at least 64 oz [eight full glasses] of water every day).
- Exercising — This can help manage stress, boost endorphins, and relieve tension.
- Getting enough sleep — Creating a reliable nighttime routine can help when experiencing trouble sleeping (e.g. take a shower, put on comfortable clothes, do some stretches, drink a glass of water, say a prayer, journal, reflect on your day, set an alarm).
- Breathing — Shortness of breath is a common physical symptom when triggered. Take the time to remember to breathe slowly and deeply (e.g. try the 4-3-5 breath! Inhale to the count of 4, hold for 3 seconds, then exhale to the count of 5).
Recreational Coping Skills for Recovery
Here is a list of recreational coping skills that are divided into groups such as relaxation/self-care, mental engagement, physical activity, socialization, creativity & spirituality.
- Doodle or draw
- Paint: canvas, paper or furniture
- Play an instrument
- Create a video
- Draw a cartoon
- Create a new outfit
- Visit an art museum
- Go to the symphony
- Do a craft project
- Create a new recipe
- Write a song or poem
- Cook a new dish
- Decorate your house
- Make a Zentangle or Origami
- Drink a cup of hot tea
- Wear soft, comfy clothes
- Take a bubble bath or long shower
- Get a massage
- Wash your hair
- Wrap up in a blanket
- Give yourself a facial
- Play with Play Dough
- Blow bubbles
- Light candles
- Read a children’s book
- Make a snack
- Take a nap
- Sing/listen to music
- Sit in the sun & watch the clouds
- Watch a funny video
- Watch a good movie
- Play with a pet
- Drive with the windows down
- Braid your hair
Engage Your Brain
- Do a crossword puzzle or a maze
- Research a topic
- Play a word game
- Organize something
- Listen to a podcast or Ted Talk
- Write a story
- Learn a new skill
- Visit the library
- Plan something
- Read a good book
- Call a friend
- Make a gift for someone
- Write a thank you card
- Write a letter or note
- Meet a friend for lunch
- Visit a nursing home
- Counsel someone
- Give money away
- Organize a card game
- Invite someone shopping
- Break bread for a neighbor
- Take a walk
- Wash dishes
- Do 10 minutes of yoga
- Dance in your living room
- Iron some clothes
- Plant something
- Go to a park
- Cook a nice meal
- Dust the living room
- Buy flowers
- Drive to a new town
- Hula hoop
- Jump rope
- Play basketball
- Do an exercise video
- Jog around the block
- Cut the grass
- Play tennis
- Rearrange your room
- Water aerobics
- Walk through a sprinkler
- Walk at the mall
- Wash your sheets
- Ride a bike
- Take a karate lesson
- Weed the garden
- Go bowling
- Attend a spiritual service
- Read the Bible or a spiritual book
- Memorize a quote
- Listen to music
- Watch worship channels online
- Do yoga
- Listen to a sermon or inspirational video
- Pray with a friend
- Visit a bookstore
- Attend a book study
- Organize a meeting
- Do volunteer work
- Recite mantras / affirmations
Decide what works for you.
Now that you have a comprehensive list of coping skills, pick a few to practice every day. The more we practice putting these coping skills to use, the more familiar our brain becomes with them, and that makes it easier for us to access these coping skills in times of stress.
Use this basic outline to write down coping skills that work for you. You can refer to this list when you’re feeling the following emotions:
Depressed (What can I do when my mood is low?)
Anxious (What can I do to get back to center?)
Angry (What can I do to calm myself down?)
Overwhelmed/Stressed (How can I make my to-do list more manageable?)
Lonely (What can I do to feel connected?)
About the Author:
Adelinn Cook, BS, TRS, CTRS, is the Director of Recreational Therapy at Wasatch Crest. As the curator of Wasatch Crest’s robust Recreational Therapy program, she facilitates adventure therapy outings, experiential group therapy, expressive therapy, and mindfulness exercises such as yoga and meditation. She works closely with clients to create personalized recreational therapy treatment and aftercare plans. Using evidence-based therapeutic methods, she guides clients to discover their passions, develop resilience, and ultimately develop meaningful lives in sobriety.
In her leisure time, Adelinn enjoys rock climbing, fly fishing, disc golfing, and painting. She is also working toward her yoga instructor certification. Adelinn received her bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from Indiana University, Bloomington.