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Using Coping Cards to Help Manage Anxiety

Saying the right words to yourself, at the right time, can ease anxiety.

via Flickr, "Lord Jim's" photostream
Many people with social anxiety or problem shyness have self-defeating thoughts. Some examples include, “I look out of place,” or “I sound stupid,” or, “I don't fit in.” One simple tool you can use to deal with these unhelpful thoughts is to develop coping statements to counteract them.  

What are some of the characteristics of a useful coping statement? First, it should be in your own words, not in language that seems abstract or removed from your problems. Second, it should apply directly to your particular concerns: if you worry about others noticing you blushing, a coping statement about sweating just won't do. Third, a good coping statement should be realistic. Sometimes I find someone trying to counter frightening thoughts with statements such as, “I'm not going to get anxious,” or, I will be calm–I won't say anything stupid.” Such statements don't work well because they are unrealistic: you can't expect to completely control or eliminate anxiety. Further, notice how the coping statement, “I won't say anything stupid,” has the anxious person promising to be perfect. Maybe he or she will make a remark that's a little foolish; such things happen. The statement would be better if it reminded the anxious person that it's okay to be human, that everyone has awkward moments–it's not a calamity. Finally, coping statements should be relatively brief and simple. Keeping them short and to the point makes them easy to remember and use. This is important, because you may want to memorize your coping statement to make it truly useful.

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Try writing your own coping statement now. Generally, many coping statements can fit into the following format:

Most people will accept it if [what you fear happens]. I can cope with disapproval. It's not that bad.

Here are some examples:

  • Most people will accept it if my hand shakes while I'm eating. I can cope with disapproval it's not that bad.
  • Most people will accept it if I stumble when giving a presentation. I can cope with disapproval. It's not that bad.
  • Most people will accept it if I say something silly on a date. I can cope with disapproval it's not that bad.

Notice how the first sentence reminds you that the probability of disapproval is lower than your fear says it is. The second sentence reminds you that you are capable of dealing with disapproval, and that the consequences of disapproval are not as severe as your fear would lead you to believe.

After you have your coping statement written, how do you actually put it to use? There are several ways. You can repeat your coping statement to yourself when you feel anxious. This serves to interrupt maladaptive thoughts (It's difficult to think of two different things at the same time). In addition, repeating your coping statement offers you a healthier interpretation of the situation, thus attacking those unrealistic beliefs. Some people also like to use their coping statement along with their breathing skills. For example instead of counting, you can repeat your coping statement each time you inhale and exhale.

Some of you may have the reaction, “It's all very well to rehearse coping statements when you're calm, but I know when anxiety hits I won't be able to think straight.” It's true that reassuring thoughts can be hard to summon as you get closer to the actual fear-inducing situation. That's why composing a brief, to-the-point coping statement, and memorizing that statement, is so important. You should know your coping statement so well that you can retrieve it instantly, without hesitation. It's essential to practice saying you're coping statement to yourself on a daily basis.

You may also want to create and carry a coping card--an index card with a series of coping statements written on it. This card gives you space to elaborate on and personalize your basic coping statement by adding other helpful comments that would be difficult to memorize. Although the coping card is a simple idea, many people I’ve worked with swear by it. They have been able to discreetly review their card for a little “coping refreshing course” just before giving a talk, for example. Of course, a coping card should not become a distraction. Instead, it should prepare you to focus on what you're experiencing and how to handle it.

Let's look at an example of a coping card for someone who is afraid of public speaking. The basic coping statement is, “Most people will accept it if I make a mistake during my speech. I can cope with disapproval. It's not that bad.” Here's what a longer coping card might look like:

When a situation comes up in which I have to speak in public, chances are I'll be anxious. My heart will race and I'll probably sweat. Still, I can do my best even if I am nervous–I can get through it. I just need to remember that the anxiety is uncomfortable, but it will soon pass. It's not important to be perfect–I'm human like everybody else. I will feel proud of having the guts to face this. When I face up to my fears, that helps me get over them. Most of all, I will remember that any kind of disaster is unlikely. Even if I do run into some disapproval, it's not the end of the world. The people I care about most will love me no matter what.  

The most important thing to remember is that the statements on your card should reassure you in a realistic way. Coping cards aren’t magic, but they can be one useful tool in your anxiety management toolkit.

Adapted from Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia by Markway, Pollard, Carmin and Flynn.

Barb also writes on self-compassion at The Self-Compassion Project

To follow Barb on Twitter, click here.

Dr. Barbara Markway, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over twenty years of experience. She is the author of four popular psychology books and has been featured in media nationwide.

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