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Mental Health Coping Strategies for Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and More

Updated: 6 days ago

Learn coping skills for anxiety, depression, PTSD, stress, and other types of emotional dysregulation to build better mental health.

coping skills for mental health

Skip to Section:

  1. How to Use This Guide

  2. Coping Skills for Anxiety Includes strategies for anxiety, worry, fear, and other related symptoms.

  3. Coping Skills for Depression Includes strategies for depression, grief, fatigue, and burnout

  4. Coping Skills for PTSD & Trauma

  5. Coping Skills for Panic Attacks

  6. Coping Skills for Guilt & Shame


Stress is like a smoke detector. It tells our body when something isn't quite right by using different emotional messages. Anxiety might be saying, "Hey, let's get out of this situation before it hurts you." Anger could be communicating, "Threat detected: engage fight mode." And depression: "This situation has depleted all of my resources."


These signals are important, and we don't want to ignore or get rid of them completely. But for many people, it feels like the smoke alarm is always going off, and the constant beeping makes it hard to enjoy life.


Enter coping strategies—skills you can learn to help your body tune-up its smoke alarm system and help it separate a true fire from *burnt toast. In other words, learning coping skills supports our mental health by training our body to feel safe in the environments we truly want to live in, situations we truly want to experience, and relationships we truly want to cultivate.


*Only you get to say what is a real threat and what is not. Stress and trauma are highly subjective, and safety is highly personal.


How to Use This Guide

One type of coping skill can help with more than one issue. For example, a breathing exercise can be helpful for both panic and anger. This guide is organized by symptom type to help you easily figure out where to begin, but it might be helpful to try coping skills across different symptom types — you might be surprised to see how they work.


Essentially, coping tools help us move our bodies in one of two directions:

  • By calming a hyper-aroused (e.g., anxiety, anger, or jealousy) nervous system*, or

  • By stimulating a hypo-aroused (e.g., depression, dissociation, or numbness) nervous system.

*Nervous system = The body's stress signaling system that sends messages between the brain and body based on what we perceive and sense in the world around us.


So the first step is to ask yourself, "Am I looking for calm or am I looking for energy?"


Use the chart below to see which symptoms tend to be similar in how they affect the nervous system. Note that people experience these symptoms in different ways. For example, guilt will shut one person down while causing emotional intensity in another. It's more important to know how an emotion shows up in you personally. This chart is intended to be an example to guide your own exploration:

Symptoms commonly associated with hyper-arousal

("I'm looking for calm.")

Symptoms commonly associated with hypo-arousal

("I'm looking for energy/relief.")

  • ​Anxiety

  • Worry

  • Anger

  • Fear/phobias

  • Panic attacks

  • Jealousy

  • Judgment

  • Destructive tendencies

  • Depression

  • Dissociation

  • Grief

  • Burnout

  • Fatigue

  • Numbness

  • Low motivation

  • Guilt/shame

Therapy is a useful tool for identifying the complex signals our body is sending. Once we understand those signals, we have a better idea of how to take care of them either by addressing the real threats in our environment or by using a specific coping skill to calm or stimulate our body.

 

Coping Skills for Anxiety

How to calm anxiety, worry, fear, and other related symptoms.

how to deal with anxiety

Anxiety is an important emotion that has helped humans survive for a really, really long time. We don't want to simply "cope it away" because it's uncomfortable — but we can learn to discern when it is helpful and when it is not.


So first, investigate this feeling. What does this emotion believe is a threat right now? Then determine:

a. Does it feel like the anxiety is signaling a real threat (i.e., an actual fire and not just burnt toast)?

b. If so, is it something you can address, change, or control?


If you answered "no" to either of these questions, it might be the right time to try out a coping skill:


Breathing Exercises

  • Box breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.

  • Ujjiyi breathing: A technique that adds resistance to breath through constriction. It sounds like a soft snore or ocean waves. Imagine using your breath to fog a mirror, but with your mouth closed and breathing through your nose. (How-to available here.)

  • Prolonged exhale: Practice making your exhales longer than your inhales.


Journaling Exercises

  • Investigate with curiosity: Respond to your anxiety (or another emotion) with the following questions:

    1. What's bothering me right now, and what is the emotion attached to it?

    2. What is useful about this emotion, or how is it trying to protect me?

    3. In what ways is this emotion currently limiting my life?

    4. What is one thing I can do to take care of this emotion?

    5. What is one thing I can do to let go of this emotion for now?


Sound Exercises

  • A calming voice: Listen to a recording with a narrator whose voice you find comforting. Sleep podcasts, instructional YouTube videos, nature documentaries, Joe Pera Talks With You... find one that's soothing to you.

  • Humming: Humming or chanting by yourself or with another person can help regulate the nervous system and utilizes breath, vocal chords, and sound.

  • Playlists: Make a playlist of music that you associate with calm and comfort. Maybe you find the sounds soothing, or the songs remind you of memories that are grounding and connective.

  • Binaural beats: Grab a pair of headphones and search up some binaural or 8D music, which is recorded in such a way that creates an atmospheric 3D audio effect that some people find calming.


Movement & Somatic Exercises

  • Gentle rocking: We instinctually rock babies when we hold them, and the movement of rocking can still be regulating even as we age. Try swaying back in forth or rocking in a chair.

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): A technique that helps us practice feeling and then releasing tension in the body. You can explore guided PMR recordings on YouTube to introduce you to this strategy.


Visualization Exercises

  • Safe Place: A guided sensory experience intended to practice using calming sensory information to regulate the nervous system. You can find guided Safe Place recordings on YouTube to get you started.


Coping Skills for Depression

How to move through depression, grief, fatigue, and burnout

how to overcome depression

With depression coping skills, we're really talking about strategies for mobilizing through what feels like a frozen, collapsed state of being. For this reason, these skills may be applicable for other experiences like fatigue, grief, and burnout.


Depression, and emotions like it, tend to signal that something is overwhelming in life. Anxiety amps us up and tries to get us to act on what's wrong, whereas depression shuts us down into a defensive ball of conservation. It might be saying something like, "Something is wrong, and I can't do anything about it."


Breathing Exercises

  • Energizing "Breath of Fire": A traditional exercise in Kundalini yoga, "breath of fire" tends to be a more stimulating breathwork technique that uses deliberately short exhales. Follow this tutorial to learn more about who this technique may benefit and how to do it.


Sensory Exercises

  • Temperature Shift: Applying hot or cold temperature to the body can feel mobilizing:

    • A hot shower (adding invigorating scented soap like citrus or peppermint may also be helpful for some)

    • Splashing your face with cool water

    • Holding ice cubes in your hands under running water

  • Playlists: Make a playlist of music that you associate with movement and uplifting energy. Maybe its tempo feels energizing, or there are positive memories associated with the songs.


Movement & Somatic Exercises

  • Dance: Whether or not you “know” how to dance, we all have some instinctual creative movement within us. Turn on different types of music and let your body do its thing. Notice how different tempos, beats, sounds, and movements affect you.

  • A mindful walk: This skill recruits the help of multiple sensory resources. Decide on a short walking route, and try to notice as many sensory details as you can:

    • What can you see around you? Identify new sights as your walk progresses.

    • What can you smell? Notice the natural aromas and see if you can identify them.

    • Close your eyes—what noises can you hear?


Coping Skills for PTSD & Trauma

How to feel safe while healing from PTSD and trauma.

how to recover from ptsd

For many people, PTSD and trauma can make us feel stuck in a cycle of different symptoms: anxiety, followed by depression, followed by more anxiety, and so on. For this reason, you'll see several coping strategies listed here that also appear under the above sections on anxiety and depression.


At the core of PTSD are what we call "trauma responses." These are the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors we use when something activates a troubling memory. Our bodies are sent into Survival Mode, which is often where we feel control has left the figurative building. These coping strategies may be helpful to practice before a trigger happens, or when one has occurred and you notice yourself feeling activated,


Breathing Exercises

  • Box breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Exhale for 4 seconds. Hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.

  • Prolonged exhale: Practice making your exhales longer than your inhales.


Sensory Exercises

  • Sensory First-Aid Kit: Grab a bag or box. Think about things you can put inside of it that you associate with safety. These could be:

    • Photos of friends, family, pets, or a favorite place

    • A perfume or scented oil that carries memories of someone safe or a good memory;

    • A soft blanket;

    • Phone numbers of loved ones to reach out to

    • A small object that represents a positive memory, a person, a funny story, etc.

The possibilities are limitless—just take a walk around your home and see what kinds of things seem like touchstones for safety.

  • Playlists: Make a playlist of music that you associate with safety. These may be songs that are tied to positive memories of places or people, or maybe they're just tracks you love for no apparent reason. Let the playlist run, and see what sounds you can pick out of the music if you need a little extra grounding.

  • Humming: Humming or chanting by yourself or with another person can help regulate the nervous system and utilizes breath, vocal chords, and sound.


Movement & Somatic Exercises

  • Changing posture: Notice how your body feels when you sit slouched. How does your breath feel? How do different areas of the body feel, such as shoulders, back, hips, etc.? Now sit upright with a straight spine. Did your breathing or sensations change?

  • Gentle rocking: We instinctually rock babies when we hold them, and the movement of rocking can still be regulating even as we age. Try swaying back in forth or rocking in a chair.


"Play" Exercises

  • Day of play: Whatever age you are, "play time" is important, however that looks. Humans and animals play when feeling safe, and engaging with play can help us connect to the body's safety signals. Choose a day and time, and block that out for your time to "play," which can look like so many different things. A few examples:

    • Hiking or backpacking somewhere new outside;

    • Puzzle escape room with a friend;

    • Board game or tabletop RPG;

    • A sport you enjoy or have never tried—disc golf, pickleball, rollerskating...there are lots of random sports out there that are accessible even to people don't identify as "athletes."

    • Creative builder video games like Stardew Valley, Minecraft, or The Sims.

    • Learning a new artistic craft like basket weaving, woodworking,

Still stuck on what kinds of "play" work for you? Taking this quiz on your "Play Style" may help.


Visualization Exercises

  • Ideal Parent Figure: Intended to help your nervous system become familiar with security, trust, and confidence, increasing access to these feelings in relationships.

  • Safe Place: Intended to practice using calming sensory information to regulate the nervous system.

  • Inner Child: Intended to help you generate a secure attachment within yourself by connecting with a younger self who may have sustained attachment injuries.


Coping Skills for Panic Attacks

How to quickly respond to panic attacks with coping strategies.

coping skills for panic attacks

Panic attacks describe a body-based reaction where intense fear or discomfort surges through the body. Changes in heart rate, sweating, trouble breathing, shaking, dizziness, and nausea are all common physical experiences attached to panic attacks. While these episodes can be challenging, there are techniques you can try to prevent or get through it.


Breathing Exercises

  • Hand Over Heart: Simply place your hand on your heart and breathe into that area. You may also place your other hand on your belly and breathe there, too. Notice the feelings of expansion and warmth, and repeat this process.

  • Breathing Visualizer: Use this visual tool below to help pace your breathing.



Grounding Exercises

  • The "54321" Technique: This strategy uses the space around you to ground you into the present moment and space. Here's what you do—simply identify:

    • 5 things you can see

    • 4 things you can touch

    • 3 things you can hear

    • 2 things you can smell

    • 1 thing you can taste

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR): A technique that helps us practice feeling and then releasing tension in the body. You can explore guided PMR recordings on YouTube to introduce you to this strategy.

  • Internal Safe Place: Find a comfortable place and bring to mind a place that feels safe. You can use this guided visualization to learn how to identify your Safe Place and fill in all the sensory details that promote a sense of safety and calm.

  • Build a Safety Nest: Find a spot in your home—maybe it's a comfy chair, a corner by the window, or a spot outside on the patio. You can add comforts to this space like pillows, blankets, a candle, or an object that you can hold. As you settle into your safety nest, remind yourself that this is your space and it is safe.

  • Safety Mantra: Write down a short, simple sentence that communicates a sense of safety to you, and repeat it as many times as you need. Some examples:

    • I am safe here and now.

    • Right now, it's like this.

    • This will pass.


 

This article is written for the sole purpose of providing information on mental health topics. It is not a substitute for professional mental health counseling, diagnosis, or treatment, and should not replace or alter any treatment or care you are receiving without direct consultation from your mental health or medical providers. Any questions regarding your treatment should be brought directly to your professional and medical practitioners.

 

References

Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. Norton.

Curran, L. (2013). 101 trauma-informed interventions: Activities, exercises and assignments to move the client and therapy forward. Premier Publishing & Media.

Ogden, P., & Fisher, J. (2015). Sensorimotor psychotherapy: Interventions for trauma and attachment. W.W. Norton.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Wallin, D. J. (2015). Attachment in psychotherapy. Guildford Press.

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