5 Healthy Coping Strategies to Help You Through Tough Times

These simple and effective ways to cope will nourish you long after the hard times pass.

We've all been at the point where life feels like it's caving in. Whether it's the loss of a job, a big breakup, or a global pandemic. Some people are able to make it out of these situations unscathed, while others find themselves in a state of emotional crisis. Often the difference is that those who have been able to weather these life storms have developed effective coping skills.

Why is that important? "Having strong coping skills is like having a flashlight to help you navigate through the darkness. It allows you to see the path ahead much clearer and with purpose," says Lissette LaRue, MS, NCC, LPC, CHT, a psychotherapist, trauma release specialist, and founder of Healing From Within LLC. Good coping mechanisms help reduce the physiological, physical, and social-emotional impact of whatever it is you may be going through, explains Amanda Jurist, LCSW, a board-certified licensed clinical social worker who specializes in child, adolescent, family, and adult psychotherapy. "They make space for our emotional responses while also organizing us to navigate difficult times in a way that makes feelings of anxiety, deep sadness, and fear manageable—rather than exacerbating such feelings."

Unfortunately not all coping mechanisms are healthy options. Some mask the actual problem at hand while also creating additional issues, which LaRue says can create further stress, anxiety, and damage to self-confidence and self-esteem. For example, folks often turn to things like drinking and/or drugs, as well as binge-eating. With these outlets, "there may be a momentary shifting of emotions, but those same feelings that were felt at the onset will resurface," she says.

To help you brave life's curveballs and hardships—especially when getting professional help is not possible (or not enough)—try leaning on these healthy, expert-backed strategies.

01 of 05

Jot Down Your Thoughts

It's often said that journaling helps you tap into your innermost thoughts and feelings, offering a pathway to work through issues. In fact, research shows putting pen to paper (or typing it on the Notes app on your smartphone) as a means of dealing with emotions can help even those who moderately journal alleviate mental distress while boosting well-being. The study also revealed that those who journal experienced less depressive symptoms and anxiety after a single month and greater resilience after the first and second months.

"Journaling allows space for you to be reflective and dump your emotions onto a tangible page," explains Jurist. "Oftentimes, externalizing the experience that you're having allows you to let go just enough to feel your way through the circumstance." And, in time, it can be a source to return to to reflect on just how far you've come, "which can give you the confidence to navigate the next hard season with an air of power and hope."

02 of 05

Move Your Body

If you need an escape, there's nothing better to turn to than exercise. Not only can moving your body be an incredibly healthy, natural, and immediate distraction from your worries—being active comes with myriad longer-term benefits, including flooding the body with feel-good endorphins. You'll never regret working up a sweat and releasing these feel-good hormones. Simply put: "When we feel good, problems are easier to tackle," LaRue says. By engaging your sensory system, you're allowing the body to physically feel through its current emotions while receiving some sensory input, Jurist explains. "This sensory input also helps to settle your vestibular system, which can be disrupted during more anxious times." Even better if you can take your mindful movement to the great outdoors, as research shows doing so helps improve self-esteem and mood.

RELATED: 5 Ways Not Getting Enough Exercise Can Affect Your Mind and Mood

03 of 05

Engage in Breathwork

There's a reason people recommend taking a few slow, deep breaths when you're feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or upset: It really works. "In more anxious times, the breath tends to speed up, which sends messages to the brain to put you in a fight-or-flight state of being," explains Jurist, noting that connecting with your breath allows you to breathe through moments of distress while sending messages of safety and grounding to your brain and body. "Slowing the breath can bring the body back to homeostasis," she says, by initiating your body's "rest and digest" state (the parasympathetic nervous system)—the opposite of fight-or-flight (the sympathetic nervous system).

Experts at the University of Michigan suggest belly breathing (also called deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) for several cycles when you feel out of whack. This entails sitting or lying down; placing one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest; inhaling fully and deeply (but gently) through your nose; and exhaling slowly and completely through your mouth.

RELATED: Just 10 Minutes of Daily Mindfulness Meditation Benefits People With Anxiety, Study Finds

04 of 05

Hone in on Gratitude

"Practicing gratitude allows us to experience our emotional difficulties while reminding us that our world is made up of more than the current difficult moment," says Jurist. This is important because feelings such as depression and anxiety can feel all-consuming. "By consistently practicing this frame of thought, you'll find that you're more easily able to move through life's highs and lows, knowing that your world is never one-dimensional." Also noteworthy: Research that examined the heart rates of folks experiencing a gratitude event versus one of resentment, revealed that those who focused on gratitude saw a decrease in their heart rates, which the study says is associated with a calm or sedative state.

05 of 05

Create Structure With a Daily Routine

We have a tendency to harp on situations that aren't going our way. Constant focus or ruminating on a problem, though, can often lead us straight into depressive thoughts. LaRue says, giving your mind a break from these problems is key. "You don't need to think about it all day long," she says.

Healthy ways to distract your thoughts? LaRue advises using some of the tools presented earlier—journaling, exercise, mindful breathing—and developing a daily schedule. For example, set aside specific times during the day to engage in a five-minute gratitude list, a three-minute meditation practice, and/or a 10-minute walk outdoors. "The idea here is consistency, positive thinking, and building resiliency," she says. "When you've got a routine going it's harder to fall into a rut."

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  1. Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN. Online positive affect journaling in the improvement of mental distress and well-being in general medical patients with elevated anxiety symptoms: a preliminary randomized controlled trial. JMIR Ment Health. 2018;5(4):e11290 doi:10.2196/11290

  2. Berman MG, Kross E, Krpan KM, et al. Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. J Affect Disord. 2012;140(3):300-5. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2012.03.012

  3. Russo MA, Santarelli DM, O'Rourke D. The physiological effects of slow breathing in the healthy human. Breathe (Sheff). 2017;13(4):298-309. doi:10.1183/20734735.009817

  4. Kyeong S, Kim J, Kim DJ, Kim HE, Kim JJ. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Sci Rep. 2017;7(1):5058. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9

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