This is the third in a series of 26 posts covering a variety of stress management tools and techniques, starting with the letter A. For some background information on stress and bipolar disorder, the blogger recommends reading her three-part series, “Getting a Handle on Stress When You Have Bipolar Disorder,” starting with the first one.
Welcome to the A to Z Guide to Stress Management for People with Bipolar Disorder. In this series I will give you a wide variety of stress management tools and techniques to try. Some go hand and hand, and some may appear contradictory—for example, changing your thoughts and accepting your thoughts can both work. Everyone is different. There will probably be some methods you like and some that don’t work for you. Also, a particular tool or technique may work better in some situations than in others. Keep an open mind, experiment, and discover what helps most.
And now for “C”:Use Coping Statements.
In the story of The Little Engine That Could a train broke down and needed a new engine to get over a steep mountain. Most of the available engines gave excuses as to why they couldn’t help. Only the Little Blue Engine agreed to take on such a challenging situation. As the train neared the top of the mountain, it lost power and slowed down. But the Little Blue Engine refused to give up. Inching up the mountain it told itself, “I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—I think I can—”
The train finally reached the top, and as it coasted down the mountain the Little Blue Engine said to itself, "I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could."
Self-Talk: Are You Your Own Worst Enemy or Best Friend?
The Little Blue Engine understood the effectiveness of using self-talk to cope with stressful situations. Self-talk is the running commentary going on in our heads much of the time, the internal voice that’s observing, interpreting, and analyzing. Many of us talk to ourselves as if we were our own worst enemy, using negative self-statements over and over. Negative self-statements are self-critical thoughts that can:
- Increase stress, anxiety, and depression
- Lower performance
- Become self-fulfilling prophecies (for example, “I think this interview is going to go badly” resulting in the interview, well, going badly).
Here are a few examples of negative self-statements
- You’ll never be able to do that.
- This is way too much for me to handle.
- This is horrible.
- We really messed that up.
- You should just give this up.
Self-talk tends to be automatic. Neuroscientists are discovering that repetition of the same thoughts, feelings, or behaviors over time literally creates a rut in the neural pathways of the brain—which means your own self-talk can become so habitual that you’re not even aware of it. It also means it’s very hard to stop negative self-statements without a deliberate effort. The good news is that with effort and practice you can actually rewire your brain and create new, more effective neural pathways.
One way to increase your capacity to handle stress is to replace negative self-statements with coping statements. These are supportive, self-empowering, or calming self-talk statements that can help you:
- Interrupt self-critical thinking
- Increase confidence
- Reduce stress
- Feel more in control of your circumstances and view stressors more as challenges than threats
- Learn to treat yourself as if you were your own best friend
Stress Inoculation: Building Up Your Resistance
Coping statements (and self-talk in general) are used in a variety of therapies, including a form of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) called stress inoculation. Stress inoculation involves building up resistance to stress in the way getting a flu inoculation builds up your resistance to the flu.
When you’re faced with a stressful situation, you can use coping statements at up to four different points in time:
- Before the stressful situation
- At the onset of the stressful situation
- During the stressful situation
- After the stressful situation
Using coping statements before a stressful situation (hours, days, or even weeks ahead) helps you increase confidence in your ability to face the stressor, reduce anticipatory stress, and approach the stressor effectively. Coping statements will vary depending on the nature of the stressor, but here are some examples:
- You can develop a plan to deal with this.
- This may be challenging, but I can do it.
- I've done this before so I know I’m capable.
- I will do the best I can, and that’s all I can do.
- Nobody's perfect, we’ll just do our best.
At the Onset
Using coping statements at the onset of or immediately before a stressful situation helps you get yourself into a positive mindset. Here are a few examples:
- You can psych yourself up and meet this challenge.
- I can handle this.
- You’ll be okay whatever the outcome.
- We’ll just take things one step at a time.
- When I feel tension, that’s a cue to cope—so I will pause and take a breath.
Using coping statements during a stressful situation helps you maintain confidence and persistence, and deal with being overwhelmed or afraid. One example is the Little Blue Engine’s “I think I can—” Here are some other examples:
- There's no hurry; we’ll just take this step by step.
- I’m feeling tension—so I will pause and take a breath.
- You’re doing just fine.
- No matter what the outcome I can cope.
- I feel fear and that’s okay; I can keep it manageable.
Using coping statements after a stressful situation can help you in multiple ways.
If the situation went as you hoped, you can:
- Congratulate yourself
- Acknowledge and reinforce your coping efforts (this is what the Little Blue Engine was doing when it told itself, “I thought I could”)
- Assess how bad you thought it would be with how bad it actually was
If the situation didn’t go as well as you would have liked, you can use coping statements to:
- Get some perspective on the situation
- Reward yourself for trying
- Learn from the experience
Here are some examples:
- You did it!
- You controlled your thoughts so you controlled the stress.
- I believed I could handle it and I was right.
- I made way more out of that than it was worth.
- Next time I face something like this I’ll remind myself of my ability to cope.
- This isn’t the end of the world.
- I’m proud of myself for trying.
- Learning from this experience will allow us to do better next time.
How to Write Coping Statements
You can use pre-written coping statements if they feel right for you, but it can be helpful to write your own. Here are some tips for writing effective coping (or other types of self-talk) statements:
1. Write statements that are personal and meaningful to you and that “resonate” with you. I often find there’s a sensation of “rightness” in my body when I hit upon the right combination of words.
2. You can use “I,” “you,” or “we” to address yourself, and this may vary across situations or time periods.
3. Keep them short and sweet.
4. Try to make them specific and relevant to the stressor you’re facing.
5. Make sure you believe your coping statements. They should challenge you to stretch your view of yourself, others, and the world—but they should also be realistic.
It’s helpful to write your statements on coping cards, an index card or small piece of paper you can carry with you and review over and over.
My personal experience: I’ve found coping statements very powerful in managing stress and getting through difficult times For example, I recently faced a stressful interpersonal situation that involved giving someone some disappointing news. Those types of interpersonal stressors have in the past triggered me and thrown me off course. I was procrastinating because I anticipated the difficulties the situation might cause and was trying to prevent them.
It didn’t take me too long to realize that avoiding the situation would get me nowhere. So I made a commitment to face the situation head on, and I resolved to get through it intact. I sat down and wrote some coping statements to get me motivated to face the stressor and to make sure I came out the other side without being derailed. This process also involved reflecting on the situation and reappraising how threatening it was and how well I could cope.
In the past I would have dealt with such a dilemma very differently. I would have put off giving the news much longer, I would have ruminated about the situation, and I wouldn’t have let it go for at least a couple days. But by using coping statements, combined with reappraisal and some other stress reduction strategies I planned while writing my coping statements (like going for a walk), the situation was over and I had moved on within a matter of hours.
How to start: The next time you have an upcoming stressful or challenging situation, no matter how small (actually it’s best to practice with small stressors), create some coping statements and write them down on coping cards. If possible write them for before, at the onset of, during, and after the stressful situation (you may need to redo or refine them as you go along). Carry the cards with you and repeat your statements to yourself over and over at the appropriate times. Another option is to plan an event or situation that will challenge you, and then use coping statements to get yourself “to the top of the mountain.”
Additional resources: Unfortunately, stress inoculation training isn’t widely available to the public, but general CBT can help (self-talk is used a lot in CBT). Donald Meichenbaum, one of the founders of CBT and the founder of stress inoculation, has an excellent self-help book called Roadmap to Resilience that covers many of the skills used in stress inoculation (although it’s geared toward military I find it highly relevant to people with bipolar disorder; it’s also super user-friendly and engaging). You can also do an Internet search for “coping statement examples” or something along those lines to get ideas and inspiration.
You can find the rest of Carrie’s IBPF posts here or read additional articles on her Addiction.com blog. You can also visit the website for Counseling and More, her private practice, or Bipolar Beast, a company designed to empower people with bipolar disorder.