Coping skills are often referred to but not always taught. I found myself wondering if I had missed something in grad school as I began to see clients and hear colleagues talk about coping skills that they were teaching their clients.
I felt like I missed some sort of secret knowledge and if I had it then I’d unlock exactly how I should be providing therapy.
The truth is, we all have coping skills whether we call them that or not. We all have had to deal with stress and overwhelming emotions and found ways to get through it.
Sometimes, though, they aren’t as helpful as we hoped they would be. So, that’s where therapeutic coping skills come in.
They aren’t a fix to problems. They’re simply tools to use to get us back to some sort of equilibrium and stability, which is key when working with clients.
To do much of the important work in therapy, we need to make sure that clients can handle difficult emotions. As it’s often said, things tend to get worse before they get better. But if our clients can’t tolerate what “worse” looks and feels like, we won’t make any progress.
So, today we’re going to learn 1 of these skills that you can use immediately with your clients build their distress tolerance.
This is a DBT skill that uses the acronym IMPROVE to help someone tolerate difficult emotions when there is no immediate solution. Let’s dive into each letter and how you can teach it to your clients.
Imagine a peaceful place far from your worries. What are the sights, sounds, and smells you notice? Or bring to mind the best possible outcome of your current challenge.
Example: Visualize a stressful social situation going well.
Is there any meaning you can find or create from your situation? Reflect on ways you can use your current experience to gain insight or help others.
Example: List how you might grow from this current situation
Use prayer or meditation to accept what you cannot control or seek guidance on navigating a difficult situation. Connect with a higher power or your own wise mind.
Example: Imagine looking at yourself from an outside perspective. What perspective might you gain?
Find a quiet place where you can practice a relaxation technique of your choice. If you notice your attention wandering back to your worries, gently bring it back to your practice.
Example: Deep breathing, drawing a bath, getting cozy with blankets
One thing in the moment
Immerse yourself in a simple or repetitive activity that requires your full engagement.
Example: a chore around the house, a puzzle, or a mental task like counting or memorizing.
Take a short break from your worries and do something fun or nourishing. This can refresh and open you to a fresh perspective when you get back to your day.
Example: take a walk, enjoy a good meal, play a video game
Practice being your own best advocate by repeating words of warmth and encouragement to yourself. Choose a phrase that feels genuine and motivates you to keep going.
Example: “You’re doing so well with all you’re carrying. I’m proud of you.”
Below is a helpful worksheet created by Therapist Aid that you can use with clients as you teach and practice this skill.
Click on the image to access the free PDF.