When Coping Skills Don’t Work

4 mins read

I’ve been there. 

The place where anxiety is high, the heart is racing, breathing is rapid and shoulders are tense. And what do I do? I try to breathe, I try to focus on my breath and have a longer exhale. I lean into the coping skills I’ve been told will help. And what sometimes happens?


And it’s an infuriating, scary and lonely place to be — the place where the coping skills that people have told you to try aren’t making any difference. 

Here are some tips if you find yourself in this place, too:

  • Try implementing coping skills during times when you feel OK: During the times that you need coping skills are when your symptoms are high and prevalent. But, for coping skills to be effective, it can be beneficial to implement them during times when your symptoms are minimal, too. Integrate deep breathing into part of your daily routine or engage with your five senses during breaks at work. Implementing them consistently can help your brain with “muscle memory” and implementing them during times of heightened symptoms can be more effective.
  • Remember the goal: It’s very normal to want to feel better and to not have any experience with mental illness symptoms. But, in the moments when the symptoms are heightened, there’s likely no coping skill that will take them from 100 to 0. Instead, you’ll hopefully feel a slight, gradual decrease in the severity of the symptoms.
  • Keep doing them: You may do deep breathing, be okay for a second, and then the symptoms come right back. So do it again. And again. And again. It won’t be like this forever. If you are engaging in therapy, implementation of coping skills may be very frequent in the beginning. But, through processing with your therapist, the underlying contributing factors to your mental illness should get addressed and you won’t have to implement the reactionary coping skills as frequently.
  • Have a toolbox of several coping skills: Maybe today just isn’t the day for deep breathing, maybe you need to engage with your five senses instead. It’s not uncommon that people come across coping skills that they enjoy more and find more beneficial. Don’t get yourself stuck by only having one coping skill in mind. Keep a few in mind so you can turn to another if one doesn’t work.
  • Write a letter to yourself: Are there things that you think of when you are feeling better that you wish you would do when your symptoms are strong? If so, take time to write a letter to yourself and have it in a format and/or place where you can easily access it. This way, when the symptoms strike again and rational thinking isn’t too strong, read the letter and it can help you remember.

Mental illness is hard. The times when coping skills don’t work the way we want them to can be scary and frustrating. If you find yourself in this place, give these tips a try. 

If you continue to find your symptoms are unresponsive to your coping skills, I recommend reaching out to a mental health professional and we can help you figure out what may be contributing to this.


Kylie Larson, MA, LPC


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Outside of the therapy room, Kylie enjoys spending time with her family, exploring the world through the eyes of her son, adventuring with her husband, running around with her dogs, cheering on our Kansas City teams, gardening, being active, reading and exploring new recipes.

Professional Background
Bachelors in Elementary Education from Kansas State University, 2015
Master of Arts in Counseling from MidAmerica Nazarene University, 2020

Kansas Counseling Association
American Counseling Association

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