Coping Skills

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Coping skills for “staying in the present”

Ice cubes

This is the first coping skill I learned. If I am stuck in a memory of the past, I rub 1 or 2 ice cubes between my hands, to shock myself back into the present. Sometimes this works right away, sometimes it takes a few more ice cubes if it’s a really bad memory. Also, sometimes I don’t remember to get the ice cubes once I’m deep in a memory already, so my husband gets them for me if he’s here, and helps me. I’ve noticed that this worked really great at first, then as the months have gone on, I think it’s no longer “shocking” enough. But at least it worked to get me through those first few months! Sometimes if I hold the ice cubes for a bit, then put my cold hands on my cheeks, that really snaps me back into the present. Not to mention it feels good, which is truly an oasis in the middle of a painful flashback.

Rubber band

This is the second coping skill I learned. I wore a rubber band loosely around my wrist, and snap it to shock myself back into the present. This worked for a while! Sometimes I do it hard enough to leave a welt, but a welt is a heck of a lot better than a cut or a burn. The only time it doesn’t work is, just like with the ice cubes, I’m already to deep in a flashback to realize the rubbber band is even on my wrist.

Just walking around

If I’m having a “double exposure” thing going, or if I’m just feeling really “floaty” and on the edge of dissociation of a flashback… I walk around my house and touch familiar things and look at them, and say what they are out loud (“this is the stuffed animal he got me when …,” stuff like that). If my husband is home and realizes I am stuck in a memory, then he takes me by the hand, walks me around the house, and asks me to look at things and tells me what date it is and asks me where I am, etc. Sometimes just seeing your pet, or a photograph, or a stuffed animal, will help guide you out of a flashback.

“54321” exercise

I learned this on Sanctuary one night, someone was using this to help someone else out of a crisis time. It worked so great, I wrote this down on index cards for each room of my house, and also one for my purse! My husband also uses this to help me. The 54321 exercise helps me when I am dissociating, to get back into the present. It helps me when I am self-injuring, to not only get back into the present, but to become aware of my surroundings and not be so “out of it” that I can’t attend to my injuries. I have been honored to help other people online who are in crisis, with this exercise. So if this works for you, please pass it on! Help someone else in need. You can ask them, “would you like to play a game?” and then do 54321 with them, and you can “play” along. Sometimes, there’ll be 4 or 5 of us in a chat channel, and we all play it together with someone.

Here’s the 54321 “game.” NOTE: If this doesn’t work to bring someone up out of a dissociative state, that’s okay. The key is also distraction. if you or someone you’re helping, looks around the room enough, sometimes that is enough to bring someone back into the present. If not, well then at least it can keep someone distracted if they are feeling like self-injuring.

  • Name 5 things you can see in the room with you.
  • Name 4 things you can feel (“chair on my back” or “feet on floor”)
  • Name 3 things you can hear right now (“fingers tapping on keyboard” or “tv”)
  • Name 2 things you can smell right now (or, 2 things you like the smell of)
  • Name 1 good thing about yourself.

That last one is a doozy, eh? Sometimes it takes a while to come up with that one. Sometimes the only good thing I can think of, is that I am doing the “54321” exercise instead of harming myself. So, that’s a good thing. If you’re doing this with someone else, play along, you can make suggestions for the “1” part to help the person along.

Don’t get discouraged if this doesn’t bring you, or someone else, back into the present. It’s just a coping skill, like any other. At least you tried. Also, the answers you give (or get) to the questions are important… If someone is seeing things that aren’t in the room with them, then you know they are dissociated or having a flashback to an earlier time. This is valuable to know!

Coping skills for general wellness

Mindful meditation

Some people think “meditation” and think “monks in orange robes.” nahhh, it’s not that esoteric. Meditation is as simple as daydreaming. Sometimes just breathing in and out, and focusing on the sound and feeling of your breath, is a wonderful meditation.

If you don’t have your own meditation routine, do a web-search on “meditation.” You’ll find a gazillion sources on the web for meditation! or find a book at the book store or library. Or find a meditation tape to listen to. Just find something that is really comfortable for you, even if it’s as simple as listening to the sound of your own breath.

I use “mindful” meditation. I’m not one of those people that can empty my mind when I’m meditating, and I was getting really frustrated. A pain-management therapist I saw for my CFIDS and fibromyalgia pain taught me how to “mindfully “meditate:

First, get into whatever comfortable position you like. Then, begin whatever meditation or breathing exercise is familiar to you. Now, when thoughts and distractions arise in your mind, don’t panic. Simply see them floating up past you as “bubbles.” Don’t make any judgment, don’t feel panicked that they are there, don’t act on them. Just see them floating past you. If your arm itches and tries to distract you, visualize that thought as a bubble floating upwards and out of your sight… “oh, my arm itches.” (Well, scratch your arm, also *lol* but don’t let that break your meditation, is what I mean.) If you start to have a bad memory, visualize that as a bubble floating also… “oh, that is a memory I don’t wish to experience right now.” The key is, not making judgments, not acting. Suspend all that for a little while. After a while, you’ll find that the “thought-bubbles” become fewer and fewer. Or, you’ll find that the simple act of visualizing your thoughts as bubbles floating upwards is relaxing in itself! Either way, the point is not to empty your mind or do anything austere. Mindful meditation simply means, you are meditating, you have thoughts and feelings, and they drift past you, and you calmly observe them… Then you let them go, like a bubble on the wind.

Containment exercise

After you’ve done your meditation and breathing exercises, you can visualize a “safe place.” Whatever safe place is special to you. For me, it’s a local park where we go on picnics and feed a cat and some ducks. I visualize myself in the park, all alone. Then I visualize a “container.” For me, this is usually a purple box. I imagine that I am putting the memories, or whatever was causing me mental pain at the time, into the box. Then I visualize myself burying the box. My therp says the point of this exercise is to “put things away” for awhile, until I am ready to handle them later, when I’m feeling stronger. It’s so I don’t have to feel a sense of urgency or panic. I know that those thoughts and memories are safely stored away. And I know that I can do my meditation, and go “open” that box again, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, I have a memory I don’t want to open again. So, I visualize a black box. I bury those pretty deep *smile* and I never dig them up or open them.

More literal version: If you’re having problems visualizing, don’t feel bad!! Go get some boxes or jars or whatever containers you like. I have real containers as well as visualized containers. Write down what’s bothering you, and put it in the container. Put the container away, and don’t open it until you feel ready to deal with it. If it’s one of those things you never ever want to think about again, you can tear it up, flush it (good ol’ burial at sea *smile*), or even burn it. Note: If you want to burn stuff, be safe for goodness sakes! Do it on a barbecue grill, or in an empty metal trashcan or bucket, outside and safe away from your home. Ask someone to join you, to help you. Watch the ashes float away on the wind… That is very calming. Sometimes I write hate-letters to my dad, burn them outside, and watch the ashes float away from me. It’s very liberating!

So you see, there’s a lot of different ways you can do the “containment” exercise. The whole point of it is, to “contain” the memories and thoughts, and to not let them control you any more.

“Safe” places

For me, the bathroom isn’t a safe place. Because some of my abuse involved the bathroom, and going to the bathroom. The internal injuries my abuser caused me, caused me to have “interstitial cystitis” and “irritable bowel synrome.” So basically, my bladder hurts 24/7, and my guts are all in a knot. That makes life really difficult… Can’t stop going to the bathroom, ya know? I tried not drinking anything one time, but all that did was get me really dehydrated and I ended up in the hospital. So, I realized that the bathroom, and the act of going to the bathroom, were major “triggers” for me. I was dissociating badly, having flashbacks, and ended up injuring myself. I needed a way out of that! And I realized I had to find a way to re-claim those things as the simple and innocent things they should be!

In both my bathrooms, I have hung up pictures of my husband. I have also hung up lyrics and poetry that I’ve printed out. I have a few stuffed animals handy, and a few kid’s books. I also have tons of magazines and catalogs to read. So now, while I am still in a lot of pain while I use the bathroom, I no longer dissociate! Yay! I can stay in the present.

So… Whatever you need to do to make a “safe place” in your place of living, do it! Claim corners of your house, apartment, dorm room, whatever as your own. Put whatever makes you feel safe and comforted in those areas. Let anyone living with you know that that is your “safe place,” they’ll usually understand. I’ve reclaimed my bed as a safe place, I sit there with lots of pillows and stuffed animals and my cats, and I read, do puzzles, or color in a coloring book. Sounds childish, but hey, it works! I have even heard of people emptying out a corner of their closet, and putting in a few stuffed animals and books, so they can have a place to hide. There’s nothing wrong with that! Don’t worry about being “normal.” Worry about being safe.

Coping skills for self-harming

Drawing on myself

The spot I do the most cutting on is the inside of my left arm, it’s a place where my dad would viciously pinch me in order to punish or control me in public, but to other people it just looked like he had his arm around me. I also cut my wrist along a vein, this only happens when I’m badly dissociated and I don’t know why I do that.

I draw on my arm with a red marker. Sometimes, I slash at my arm as if I’m using a knife, making it look like “cuts.” Sometimes, I write healing messages to myself: “never again” or “no more hurt” are my favorite. I’ve recently switched from using a red marker to my favorite color, purple, because I want to start celebrating my body, not hurting it!

“Symbolic” cutting

I trace my left hand and wrist onto a piece of paper. Then I use a red marker to draw “cuts” all over it in a frenzy, or very controlled cuts that turn into symbols. I also write healing messages. Sometimes I tear these up, which is healing in itself (facing the fear, destroying the fear). Sometimes I note the date on a drawing, then keep it as a journal entry, sometimes I’ll even write what I was dealing with or thinking about at the time, that made me want to cut. This has really helped me identify my triggers!

The idea of tracing my hand really got my mind working. I’ve started painting again, which for me is a HUGE breakthrough, I’d had artist’s block for many years! I traced my left hand and wrist on a piece of paper. Then I did a painting celebrating my hand, but also it was a very dark painting. I put a rainbow across where I cut on my wrist, to symbolize healing.

I’ve also traced my hand and wrist, cut it out, and then cut across it with scissors. Do not attempt this unless you know you are safe using scissors! If you don’t feel safe around scissors, but if you feel you’d like to tear something, trace your hand/wrist/arm onto paper and have someone else cut it out for you… Have them make maybe 5 or 6, so you have plenty to work with. Consider buying children’s safety scissors, also.

If you burn yourself: Try tracing the part you burn onto paper, and get colors of crayons, markers or colored pencils that you identify as “burning” colors (red, orange, yellow, brown, black) then draw whatever makes you feel as if you are symbolically burning yourself. You can date these, note what you were thinking and feeling at the time, and use them as a “journal” so you’ll know in the future what triggered you.


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