What are Coping Skills?

by Erik Denton: MA, LPC, CADC I, ABA, Counselor, Consultant, Presenter

Life is streaked with a rainbow of emotions. Some we are quite fond of while we would rather avoid others like the plague. Our lives are filled with events, situations, and experiences which create droplets of chemicals within our brains that provide us with those feelings. Some people think it would be wonderful if we only experienced emotions that felt good. Others want the complete opposite where they would choose to only experience life through terms of logic. But the Vulcan race we see in Star Trek, that only views life logically rather than emotionally, does not exist. In fact, studies have shown that negative emotions are also essential to human growth, to maturity, and to promote change in human history. For instance, the two most powerful emotions that influence historical change are love and anger, with anger being considered a negative, unpleasant emotion by modern America. Life’s stress and circumstances bring negative emotions, and negative emotions can bring stress. While we sometimes  have to accept things we have no control over, acceptance will only lower our stress so far. This is where coping skills come in..

Every human being has things they are good at and are interested in as well as things they just enjoy in life. These things come in thousands of different packages, shapes, and sizes. What is remarkable about these activities is the relieving effect they have on the individual. It can be working on a car engine, sewing, watching a sports game, going for a walk, building a model, drawing, learning, or painting, etc. We are designed in a way that activities, interests, passions, and talents act as a stress and emotion venting system. I have always thought of this system as a series of water spickets. To be more specific, the old outdoor style of spigot with the knob on the top of it. The idea is that by engaging in the activity, we turn the spigot knobs on and allow our stress and other negative emotions to flow out of our bodies similar to how turning an outside faucet fully on allows the water to come pouring out. In counseling terms, these are called coping skills. As complex organisms, coping skills are essential to healthy living. They can be anything we enjoy, anything that taps into our creature or self-expression.

You may be asking, “Why are coping skills so powerful and effective?” That is a great question! I believe human beings are the most complex and sophisticated beings in the known and seen world. As such, we are also sixty-percent liquid, and that liquid is composed of one hundred and nine chemicals with forty-two of those still unclassified.  Emotions are part of the chemical makeup of human beings. Each emotion is experienced by a chemical droplet within our brains which is catalyzed by thoughts, actions, and other emotions. Past experiences are another springboard for new emotions which may be similar to those from past or similar situations. Our brain’s subconscious does not have a consciousness of its own. That subconscious is the automated system that operates over a billion things per second ranging from keeping us alive from threats to maintaining our health and healing. One of the main areas that emotion droplets are catalyzed from are our five senses; a sixth avenue being our memories of past experiences.

Coping skills provide several benefits. They distract our thinking away from something, including tough circumstances; they stimulate droplets of chemicals that make us feel good as well as counterbalance the painful, negative emotions we are experiencing; and they allow our spickets to open allowing the outpouring of stress and negative emotions to flush out. When that occurs, we feel better and less stressed!

I know this may sound very simplistic, and in some ways it is. For instance, think of something you really enjoy (excluding drinking, drugs, and smoking); something that is very relaxing to you. Now, think about coming home after a hard day at work, and you engage in that enjoyable activity. Generally speaking, you just released a certain amount of the stress you come home with. Theoretically, you would feel better (depending on the level of stress, and if you did not walk into more stress at home) then when you started the activity. Another way of looking at it is to view the human subconscious as similar to water. As water fills a reservoir behind a dam, when the water reaches a certain level, spill-ways in the dam open in order to lower the level of the reserves keeping the water from running over the dam. The dam, simplistically put, is a mechanical way of centralizing the flow of water. In a similar way, coping skills are an organic way of controlling the levels of emotional reservoir.  Human spillways, the spickets I was referring to earlier, can be any variety of interests and activities such as:

Basketball, weightlifting, reading, listening to music, coloring,

watching sports, playing a game, walking, hiking, cooking, photography,

auto machines, video games, or watching a television show or movie.

I mentioned earlier that coping skills are things you enjoy; they are your passions or things that you are good at. These are specific to each human being, and they may be things that other people struggle to understand. For instance, I knew a woman years ago who knew exactly what one of her main coping skill spickets was. “I don’t tell people, but sometimes when I come home from a hard day at work, I pull out my coloring books and crayons. I mean little kid coloring books, and I just color. There is something so soothing in the way the crayons on the paper feel. The stress of my day flows into the picture, and I have a much better evening than I would have!” She knew that what she enjoyed was something most adults would not understand and could possibly even look down on her for doing.  Now that I think about it, I wonder if this is why adult coloring books were created–it eliminates the child stigma.  My friend understood herself, and what worked best for her.

What she said resonated with me in a very real way.  As a writer and an artist, I love the way certain writing/art instruments feel when they touch and move on the paper.  As my friend stated, there is something very soothing that occurs within my senses. The spickets that drain your stress feed directly through your senses which is why the most important part is discovering who you are, what you enjoy, and what works best for you.  For a time in my career, I worked in a psychiatric residential treatment center for adolescents.  I worked four ten-hour days with three days off.  My first day off was Sunday, and I would bring a large drawing pad out to the family room, throw it on the floor, and begin to draw.  It did not matter what I was drawing, I could feel the stress of the four previous days flowing out my fingertips onto the paper.  When I first started doing the drawing on the floor, my wife was upset with me.  She wanted us to go and do things together from errands to activities.  At first, I think she thought I was being selfish; I also bought into that idea, too. 

When we went out without me drawing first, I noticed I was irritable, stressed, and exhausted.  My wife noticed it, too.  She began to ask me why I was so moody and irritable.  I pointed out that after four days of a very stressful job, drawing released those emotions and brought my overall emotional reservoir down.  She understood after that and from then on, the first day after my shifts, she insisted on me drawing. The next two days we did what we wanted and needed to do. After I spent time drawing, the stress and irritability were gone making the rest of our time together more pleasant.

As a writer, one of those utensils for me is a pencil. I have always liked the feel of pencil to paper. There is something raw, beautiful, and soothing all at once. After five decades of using pencils, I found ones that feel the absolute best between my fingers. It is the Diren Ticonderoga #2, a black pencil with a black eraser that feels incredible.  Even though I have computers and laptops, I would always go to the black pencil and a pad of raw paper. They have always been one of my preferred spickets. The bottom line is that you have to know what works for you, and you are the one who has to discover and land on what that is.

One thing that I have noticed is that the things most  people have enjoyed and explored in their childhood have a tendency to embed throughout their lives.  Whether that was cooking, sewing, basketball, bowling, hiking, rock climbing, playing an instrument, theater, swimming, running, etc.  As children, we had far less responsibilities and more time to devote to exploring and engaging in the activities of the world around us.  We were able to find and enjoy specific activities.  As we grow older, responsibilities gather and solidify within our lives, and we lose track of those activities.  Reconnecting with those interests is a great way to reduce our stress and to enjoy life.  At times, the best place to start is with things you have already loved doing.  Below are several lists of activities from grade school age up through adulthood.  These are in no way an exclusive list but are a springboard that may help you to remember things that were once relaxing and enjoyable.

Children’s Coping skills


Run outside 
Play with a ball 
Go to a friend’s house
Go to a relatives house 
Play in the yard and search for bugs 
Use sidewalk chalk 
Blow bubbles 
Ride a bike/scooter/skateboard 
Jump rope 
Go to a playground 
Play basketball 
Go to your favorite place
Go for a walk with someone 

Quiet/ Relaxing 

Be around someone 
Do a word-search/color 
Read a book 
Listen to music 
Email a relative 
Text a close friend or relative 
Do a hobby 
Make something for someone 
Organize something (room, closet) 
Play with modeling clay or play dough 
Draw new superheroes 
Build houses out of cards 
Play solitaire 
Write a story 
Make paper snowflakes 
Watch T.V. or a movie 
Go to a favorite indoor place 
Use a stress ball
Bounce a ball 
Do deep breathing 
Read a favorite magazine or comic book 
Play with a paddle ball 
Take a bath or shower 
Hug or play with stuffies 
Paint with watercolors 
Use finger paints 
Do a paint by number 
Do a color my number on a phone or iPad
Build with Legos 
Write in a diary or journal 
Cuddle with a parent 
Cuddle with a pet 
Read to a pet or sibling 
Draw a picture of something you are looking forward to

Active / creative 

Write about something you are looking forward to 
Make a collage 
Organize your pictures or art work use a calming app 
Draw a map of your house 
Draw a map of your neighborhood 

With Someone Else

Play with a friend/sibling 
Play with a pet 
Do an activity with an adult 
Listen to music with an adult 
Go to a friend’s house 
Go to a relatives house 
Call a friend or relative
Ask for a hug 
Play tag with a friend or relative
Draw a picture with a friend or sibling 
Go for a walk with someone 
Play a game with family 
Teach a sibling something 
Cuddle with a parent 
Cuddle with a pet 
Help a sibling with something 
Read with a parent

Junior High Coping Skills


Make a social media video
Make up a dance
Practice an instrument
Engage in a hobby/interest
Do an arts and crafts
Learn a new hobby
Play a game with a friend or family member
Play an online game
Go for a walk
Go for a walk with someone
Call a friend or relative
Make a video diary
Make a silly video
Use a remote control item
Walk and purchase a favorite snack or drink
Use Youtube to find something you want to learn
Help a parent or sibling
Ride a bike, scooter, skateboard
Make a snack
Create your own coloring pages
Do Yoga
Play with a fidget toy
Take pictures
Paint a rock
Play with a pet


Text a friend/relative
Use a calming app
Read a favorite book
Listen to an audio book
Take a bath or shower
Listen to music
Watch music videos
Play an online game
Use a game system or phone
Write a poem
Plan on how to redo your room
Do a crossword puzzle
Do Sudoku  
Do a Word Search
Read a magazine or comic book
Use modeling day
Write in a diary or journal
Go to a favorite place
Make hot chocolate
Watch a favorite show
Watch a favorite movie
Do deep breathing
Do brain teasers or riddles
Watch a comedian
Do a puzzle
Use a relaxation app

High School Coping Skills


Cook a new dish
Do something unexpected for someone
Help someone with something
Go somewhere: i.e- library, park, mall, etc.
Go for a walk
Reorganize your space
Go for a run
Go to the gym
Make a video for social media
Make up a game or scavenger hunt for your friends
Create a dance
Go on a nature walk
Call a friend or relative


Do yoga
Collage about things you enjoy most in your life
Go swimming
Go biking or skateboarding
Spend time with a pet
See if a good friend can do something with you
Play a game with someone
Go hiking
Go for a drive
Go bird watching
Bounce a ball
Take pictures
Create funny memes and share them
Do your hair or a friend’s hair
Do facials with a friend/sibling
Visit with a friend
Visit with your family
Teach yourself a new hobby i. e. knitting, photography
Go shopping for specific things
Play on outside sport
Make up an outside game
Focus on improving your skills at a hobby you already know


Think about your favorite place
Draw, sketch, or doodle
Do a paint by number
Do diamond art
Deep breathing
Use a relaxation app
Hold an ice cube 
Suck on a hard candy i.e peppermint
Sit in the sun, or shade, in a favorite place
Put on a favorite lotion
Have a favorite drink
Start a sketch journal
Read something you have been looking forward to
Take a bubble bath 
Read or listen & an audio book or podcast
Write down a set of affirmations and decorate them
Watch a favorite movie that makes you feel good
Write a poem
Write a short story
Write several jokes about something that happened this week 
Collage about things you enjoy most in your life
Write a list of things you are thankful for
Play on a game system or phone
Do something you haven’t done in a long time
Visit a friend
Visit with family
Play a game with family
Teach yourself a new hobby i. e. knitting
Go shopping for specific things
Play an outside sport
Make up an outside game
Focus on improving at a hobby you already have
Watch a sports game
Use candles or essential oils
Read inspirational material
Read the bible (or other religious material)
Do homework
Paint your nails
Watch an animal video on Tik Tok or Youtube
Practice radical acceptance

Adult Coping Skills


Write in a journal
Draw in a journal
Write a poem
Write a short story
Cook or bake something you enjoy
Cook or bake something for someone else
Eat a snack or meal you enjoy
Exercise at home
Do yoga
Draw a picture
Make a social media video
Paint a picture
Rearrange or redesign an area or a room
Plant a garden
Plant flowers
Replant the yard
Play with a pet
Do something with a family member
Play games with a friend or family member
Do a new crafting activity
Make or edit a video
Write a song
Make a list of gratitudes
Start a new hobby such as: photography, pottery, sewing, woodworking, etc.
Do some gardening
Plant flowers around the house 
Plan a themed dinner
Learn or practice a martial art
Learn or do canning
Learn or work with a dehydrator
Learn candle making
Learn cake decorating
Play or learn to play an instrument
Take voice lessons
Learn to rap or beatbox
Learn graphic design 
Pick up juggling
Learn magic tricks
Do a podcast
Learn videography/filmmaking
Learn balloon twisting
Learn flower arranging
Learn leather crafting
Learn Origami
Learn how to brew your own beer 
Explore board games you have never played
Play chess
Arrange a trivia night
Get a new pet
Look into home improvements 
Explore coding or website design
Look into volunteering
Explore public speaking
Fantasy drafts


Go for a walk
Go for a run
Go to the gym
Ride a bike
Go to a park
Enjoy new restaurants
Do some window shopping
Go out with a friend
Go for a drive to somewhere you have never been before
Go for a bike ride
Explore wine tasting
Do pilates
Take a dance class
Go rock climbing
Go canoeing or kayaking
Mountain biking
Rafting or tubing
Skiing or snowboarding
Scuba Diving
Fishing, crabbing, or lobstering
Horseback riding
Ice skating
Joining a sports league
Learn to fly a plane
Learn sailing
Take an improv class or go to an open mic
Learn bird watching
Join a book club


Listen to music
Go through deep breathing
Read a favorite book or magazine
Read information on your smartphone
Listen to an audio book
Watch a tv show or movie you enjoy
Listen to a podcast
Do your nails, hair, makeup
Take a bath or shower
Do something with your hands
Knit, Crochet, etc.
Learn or do calligraphy
Engage in gaming
Do a puzzle
Write a poem
Write or draw in a journal
Learn or work with scrapbooking
Learn punch needling
Make a playlist of music
Write a song
Learn to cook a new dish or series of dishes
Learn to bake something specific
Learn a new language
Learn calligraphy
Look into taking a college class or master class

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“I don’t know what to do. No matter what, my son doesn’t do what I say just because I’m the one who said it.” As a therapist, I hear this a lot in my office, and I have also struggled with this as a parent. We love our kids, and we want to care for and guide them in ways that are good for them. Our children, however, push consistently to make their own decisions. The question my clients are asking is, “What do I do?”


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