Do you find yourself constantly worrying about every possible scenario that could go wrong? You’re not alone. Constant worrying, overthinking, and feeling out of control can take a big toll on your mental health and well-being. This makes it incredibly difficult to focus on daily tasks or enjoy life to its fullest. But there is a solution: Coping Ahead is an effective technique from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) that helps you prepare for stress and manage emotions ahead of time.
When I was 19 years old I learned to pilot gliders (airplanes without engines, also called sailplanes). Before each flight, we would always go through our pre-flight checks, even if the aircraft had just landed from a previous flight. We would make sure all of the controls worked as expected, the instruments were reading correctly, and of other important things worth double-checking when you’re propelling yourself two thousand feet into the sky!
The very last step of every pre-flight check was to review “eventualities.”
Though it’s been many years now since I last flew, I still remember vividly what I would say out loud to myself at this step, time and time again:
“If a wing drops on the launch and I cannot recover, I will release the launch cable and land ahead. At a safe height and speed I will start to climb. In the event of a launch failure, I will release the cable and lower the nose to a recovery attitude, and gain sufficient speed before maneuvering. I will land ahead if possible. Otherwise, I will turn downwind, which today is [left or right] and complete an abbreviated circuit or find a safe landing solution. The wind today is ___ knots which means my minimum approach speed is ___ knots.”
Coping Ahead saves time and effort.
The reason for talking through these eventualities in so much detail on the ground is that you’ve already made all of your decisions in the event of an emergency. In an unlikely situation where the pressure is on and seconds count, you don’t need to waste precious time or mental effort deciding what to do. You’ve already thought it through, and simply must follow your plan.
And this skill isn’t just for pilots! In DBT, coping ahead is an emotion regulation skill that can help you rehearse strategies ahead of time to better handle stressful situations or uncomfortable emotions. By visualizing and planning out how you will cope with challenging situations in advance, you start to feel more confident in your ability to face them, boosting your self-esteem and reducing stress.
What’s the difference between Coping Ahead and overthinking?
Overthinking is a common response to stress that can be counterproductive. It is also a common feature of anxiety that involves dwelling on worst-case scenarios, often leading to a cycle of negative thoughts and emotions. It can be triggered by a wide range of every-day stressors or perceived threats.
On the other hand, rather than going in circles about problems, Coping Ahead involves thinking about solutions. It is a deliberate and proactive skill, rather than a reactive response that actually impairs your problem-solving abilities.
How do I learn to Cope Ahead?
If you want to learn how to Cope Ahead, there are some practical tips you can try.
- Identify potential stressors in your life, such as upcoming deadlines or social events.
- Plan coping strategies that work for you, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, or seeking support from friends.
- Rehearse your coping strategies in your mind, visualizing yourself using them and picturing how they will help.
- Lastly, remember to take some time to relax and ground yourself. Well done!
If you are struggling with…
- Low self-confidence
- A sense of low control in your life
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Other conditions that cause intense emotional reactions to common life stressors
…then consider seeking support from a mental health professional. Coping Ahead is a skill that can be learned and practiced, and therapy can provide a safe and supportive environment for developing this skill. Contact our clinic to learn more about how we can help.
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was developed by Marsha Linehan, a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Washington. She was struggling to find solutions for her patients in hospitals and clinical practice who came in repeatedly with chronic suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. Through her work with DBT, she went on to become the Director of the Behavioural Research and Therapy Clinics at the university. Her primary research focuses on developing and evaluating evidence-based treatments for those with high suicide risk and multiple major mental health issues. All of this information can be found in the “About The Author” section of her book, “DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets” which is also the book we use in our Dialectical Behaviour Therapy Groups at Alongside You.
Now, let me tell you in her own words why Marsha Linehan developed, and is passionate about her own work in DBT. I happened to have the pleasure of doing some training with Marsha last year in Seattle and she summed up the goal of DBT and her work with clients in one sentence: “To have a life worth living.” I can’t think of a better way to explain the goal of DBT. So many of the people I work with, particularly those who struggle with chronic suicidal thoughts and actions, and multiple major mental health issues have ceased believing that it is possible to have a life worth living. This is my job as a therapist and the job of DBT – that is, to help the people I work with see that it is possible to have a life worth living.
How Does DBT Help Clients?
DBT focuses on four major skill areas: Mindfulness, Interpersonal Effectiveness, Emotion Regulation, and Distress Tolerance. The core of DBT begins with an analysis of each client’s behaviour through chain analysis, and missing-links analysis to find the causes of the behaviours and come up with a plan for problem-solving around these causes. Chain Analysis addresses when we engage in the ineffective behaviour, while Missing-Link Analysis addresses when we fail to use effective behaviours. This allows my clients to be aware of their struggles and plan accordingly in a proactive way.
- Mindfulness skills help clients reduce suffering and increase happiness and control of their own mind. Linehan is a Zen Master and incorporates mindfulness into DBT throughout. However, we don’t have to be Zen Masters to make use of mindfulness skills! There are many ways to practice mindfulness and I encourage my clients to try many different methods and find the best fit for themselves.
- Using Interpersonal Effectiveness skills can help clients develop new relationships, improve current ones and deal with conflict. Many of us struggle with asking for what we want or need in relationships, as well as struggling with how to say no to things we need to. Effective relationships is a core need for all of us in building our support systems and our resilience.
- The goal of Emotion Regulation Skills is to reduce emotional suffering. We’re not saying you should try to get rid of emotions because emotions play a very important role in our lives. Rather, we emphasize working on our skills and ability to manage, regulate, and change our emotions when we have a desire or need to.
- Distress Tolerance is described by Linehan as having the skills to tolerate and survive a crisis situation without making the situation worse. This is important for two primary reasons: pain is a part of life that we cannot avoid, and the ability to tolerate distress is a necessary step in making any changes in our lives. Without distress tolerance skills, the stress of making changes will circumvent our attempts to move forward in a different way. Through Crisis Survival Skills and Reality Acceptance Skills, clients learn to tolerate their distress and make lasting changes in their lives.
While DBT was originally developed to help highly suicidal clients, and those meeting the criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, DBT is also able to help with other issues. For those struggling with Depression, Anxiety, Trauma, Stress Management, Anger Management, Conflictual Relationships, DBT can be a good choice. If you’re struggling with any of the above issues, using these four core skills of DBT can help you build the core mindfulness skills necessary to remain present in our lives. DBT helps you better manage your emotions and reactions to situations, be more effective in your interpersonal relationships, and tolerate the distress involved in making changes in your life. If you’re dealing with any of these issues, I hope this gives you hope. DBT is not the only solution, but it is a proven, effective solution that produces results!