Gerard Grigsby, PhD, LCPC, LPC
Are You Coping or Healing?
Updated: May 21, 2022
Some of my clients say they’ve been in therapy for years learning coping skills. They do affirmations, deep breathing exercises, grounding techniques, mindfulness, and other forms of meditation, but they are still just as anxious or depressed as they were when they started therapy. Many of them also tell me that when they are in their distress, the "coping skills" they've learned to use don't actually work, which is frustrating. Additionally, the effectiveness of these coping strategies is only short-lived.
"My deep breathing exercises used to help me manage my anxiety, but they don't work anymore!"
Here’s my perspective on this. Coping skills help you calm your nervous system down after you’ve gotten activated and gone into distress. They don’t address the underlying issues that cause your nervous system to get activated in the first place. You can learn all the self-care strategies in the world, but all they’ll do is help you self-soothe during crisis. You’ll still be just as vulnerable to getting “triggered,” but you’ll get better at putting your emotional fires out more quickly.
In my opinion, “symptom management” may be one important part of treatment, but it will never be enough to help you heal the psychological wounds that cause your symptoms. Here’s an analogy I share with clients to illustrate this point…
Imagine you have mold on the walls in your living room. You seek professional help and ask for an effective way to get rid of this mold. The first person you contact tells you to bleach and wipe down your walls. You follow these instructions, the mold disappears, and you’re relieved.
Some time later, you notice more mold. You use the same strategy to get rid of it, and you’re relieved. Before long, the mold reappears, so you seek out professional help from someone else. This person tells you to bleach your walls, wipe them down, and purchase a dehumidifier. You follow these instructions, the mold disappears, and you’re relieved.
Of course, the mold comes back, but you have an effective strategy to make it go away, so you believe you are addressing your mold issue. You keep at it this way for years and get reeeeeally good at managing the mold in your house…until it starts to spread. Now you’ve got mold in your living room and your bedroom, so you seek professional help again. This person tells you to bleach your walls, wipe them down, use a dehumidifier, and keep your windows open. You follow these instructions, the mold disappears, and you’re relieved.
This relief feels good enough for you, so you keep at it this way for several more years, until you’re a pro at removing mold. Over time, you start to learn patterns that help you prepare for the mold in advance. If it’s humid, you whip out the bleach and open the windows, knowing you’ll see mold soon. If there’s heavy rain in the forecast, you plan for heavy mold removal the next day. This works really well…until you see mold in your kitchen. Exasperated, you seek professional help again!
Unlike the previous professionals you consulted before, this one thinks to ask you, “Have you ever taken a peek behind your walls to see if something specific is causing this mold?” This is puzzling to you, because your strategies have been helpful up to this point. Also, you don’t like the idea of digging around inside your home to address your mold issue. Skeptical, you say, “Why would I need to do that? That could cost lots of money and time, and it will be such a hassle. Who knows what I might find back there!? Don’t you have some strategy I can use to make this mold go away?”
This professional tells you that the strategies you’ve used have only addressed a symptom of a larger issue. If you learned another strategy, you would just use it until you saw more mold somewhere else. “Do you want to go inside and address whatever is causing this mold so you don’t have to work so hard keeping your walls clean?” Reluctantly, you agree…
Several weeks later, you discover that you were right. This process does take time. It does cost money. And you do encounter some things that scare you. However, for the first time, you have the opportunity to take a good look at the foundation of your home. One day, with the professional’s help, you spot a small crack. The very vulnerability that has allowed water to seep into your home. The source of your mold issue. Now everything makes sense.
“Let’s patch this up and restore the structural integrity of your house,” the professional says. “We can help your foundation be the way it was supposed to be before this crack made it vulnerable.” With more work and time and continued help from the professional, you eventually patch up that crack. You also add a protective vapor barrier around the perimeter of your home. You replace the dry wall, re-caulk, and repaint. Then you wait….
A year later, you can’t remember the last time you saw any mold. None in the kitchen, none in the bedroom, none in the living room. Even after the heavy rain. Your walls are clear. Not a stain in sight. Now, you feel good in your home and can trust that your mold issue isn’t an issue anymore.
I share this analogy to let you know that real change is possible. If you have the ability, please find a good therapist who is trained to do more than just help you “cope.” If you want to get connected with someone who can take you inside and heal, feel free to check out the following therapist directories:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Directory
These directories list therapists who have been trained in the use of specific treatment modalities. If you don't like any of these approaches, that's totally fine! Feel free to shop around until you find a therapist who uses an approach that works well for you!