How to Cope by Using the Triangle

Previously published in the Hughson Chronicle-Denair Dispatch


Looking back at Halloween and looking forward to adventures in holiday gatherings, I thought it worth the time to review those basic coping skills we can easily lose track of when things have either been too hard or too easy. When things are too hard, we get overwhelmed and forget how to pace our responses. When things are too easy, we are not challenged to cope consciously. Coping skills, like any skill, require practice and regular application to become the automatic responses we would like them to be.

In the absence of fancy graphics, if you will, on a piece of paper draw a triangle. At the top write, “cognitive.” At the left-hand point write “physical.” At the right-hand point, write “behavioral.” There are three key components to our emotions.

First, let us discuss the physical component. Negative emotions, such as anger or sadness, can be triggered by our bodies if we are hungry, thirsty, over-tired or if we experience particular hormone fluctuations. By negative, I do not mean the emotion itself is to be valued as good or bad, but rather, it does not feel good. If you find yourself wild with emotion, check in on your physical state to see if that may be affecting your stamina in the face of powerful emotions.

The cognitive component refers to our thoughts. Certain beliefs, whether true or false can frame a situation to look worse than it is or bring it from bad to worse. If someone has angered you and you take the time to review the many times this has happened before, how does it make you feel? Replaying old wounds is a thought habit that increases our anger and leads to resentment. Painting pictures that lock people into an expected pattern of behavior, “I should have known he’d act that way!” does the same. In our thoughts, we create a story narrative of what happened, though it often lacks the nuance of great literature. You may be the hero, the victim or the villain in your narrative.

The behavioral component refers to the things we do that increase the negativity of a situation. Body language may be our response to perceived threats (crossed arms, fighting position, resisting eye contact or excessive eye contact) but it creates a feedback loop in which the other person now perceives us as opposition. Passive aggressive responses and complaining do little to make us feel better. Combative “fightin’” words will also likely increase the heat of a situation.

Just as each of these components can add to the emotional response, we can intentionally use each component to decrease the stress on our system. Physically, taking time for some deep breathing and getting out of the physical presence of the person who grates on us can start the process of calming down. Going into a situation you know will be trying, like a marathon, make sure you properly rest, are hydrated and fed, carrying snacks on hand as needed.

Thinking about thoughts is called meta-cognition. Learning to meta-cognate, to think about what you are thinking, will help you be on the lookout for any irrational beliefs, create a more nuanced storyline and get a feel for the other person’s shoes. Sometimes we have to go deep to get there, but it is well worth the effort to understand why that relative always seems to push your buttons.

Behaviorally, we have choices to make. Choosing how we react and the words we use. When you are offended or angry, try keeping your hands at your sides, fists unclenched. For family or friends, attempt affection (hand on the shoulder or handshake). Sometimes we need to alter our behavior to accommodate others. Sometimes situations are unhealthy for us and we need to make the difficult choice to say no to allowing this person or situation in our lives.

With graphic in hand, in a hard spot, we can ask how each of these components is contributing to our negative reaction and how we can use them to reduce the overwhelming emotions we are experiencing.

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