Coping isn’t a five letter word (it has six).

In my last post, I referenced having a long list of things to do to distract and calm myself “that I actually use.” While the list is personal, the concept and potentially some of my options are universal, and so I offer them here.

Marsha Linehan’s DBT manual features a list of “Adult Pleasant Events” in the Emotion Regulation curriculum, and I have often poked fun at the suggestion therein to chop wood, but the reality is that for the right person, that’s a great idea. When you’re overcome by either an overwhelming, extreme emotion or an intense urge to make what my preschool aged son calls “not a safe choice”, finding the right distraction, alternative outlet or self-soothing strategy is key to making it to the other side of the experience without making your life worse.

Before I get to my own list, there’s another DBT concept worth mentioning called Willingness, which is part of Linehan’s Radical Acceptance module in the Distress Tolerance portion of the DBT curriculum. Willingness is set in opposition to Willfulness, and it basically means you have to actually give recovery strategies an open-minded, whole-hearted chance. Example: refusing to try an alternative coping strategy because your special, special pain could never be helped by something as simple as taking a walk. That’s willfulness. Example: sticking to your commitment to actively engage in  15 minutes of a self-soothing strategy that sounds stupid and pointless at the outset before reassessing your desire to give into an urge to binge. That’s willingness. I’m not a huge believer in the magic of the cosmos, but I will say that the number of times I’ve gotten a phone call from a supportive friend at minute 14 of the aforementioned scenario is uncanny. In other words, it’s often not just the calming or uplifting properties of the strategy that gets you through, but rather, the shift in mindset to being willing to make space for recovery that makes the difference.

So, without further ado, here is my (partial) go-to list of Adult Pleasant Events. I’ve chosen my top few tried and true because this post is brought to you by a napping infant who is likely to wake up soon.

  • Leave my current space. Like it’s on fire. I have often found that making the choice to leave the place where I’m upset or triggered opens a fresh perspective. Sometimes this means going outside for a walk, other times it means going into my mother-in-law’s bathroom to cry with the sink running.
  • Serenity (it’s an essential oil blend, not an ephemeral concept). Because the olfactory nerves terminate near the amygdala in the brain, scents are highly evocative of emotion and memory. I have found that Serenity consistently evokes feelings of peace and contentment for me, as well as now being associated with memories of previously having coped well.
  • Making and drinking a cup of tea (usually decaf jasmine green because it reminds me of my sister). This one is multi-faceted. A watched pot never boils, and I use that to my own advantage and stand with the kettle while it heats, which forces me to slow down and opens an opportunity for mindfully observing my thinking. The warm steam and aroma as the tea steeps offer a soothing sensory experience, and also evoke memories that calm and uplift me. 
  • Drinking 20 oz of cold water out of a Mason jar. The Mason jar evokes memories of the supportive friend who first introduced me to the joys of vintage jars, as well as humorous ones of the various clients who have seen my jar and accused me of drinking moonshine in my office. The coldness of the water forces me to slow down and pay attention because I’ll be rewarded with brain freeze if I don’t. Also, I associate water with cleansing, which can work as a metaphor in moments where I’m working through a difficult emotion like shame or toxic anger.

Just drink a glass of water and your eating disorder or depression will be cured forever! sounds like an obnoxious article in a self-help magazine, but it’s not the strategies themselves that do the heavy lifting. Yes, it’s useful to find strategies that speak to you and tap into your particular set of memories and preferences, but the real magic comes with cultivating willingness to employ them.

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