Have you ever found yourself doing the same thing over and over? The very same thing you swore you wouldn’t do next time? This is a common theme we see in our San Francisco therapy practice.
One way to interrupt the cycle of repeating behaviors is to use a DBT skill called Cope Ahead.
Cope Ahead guides you through a rehearsal in your mind. If you can anticipate a hard situation, Cope Ahead allows you, in advance, to practice what to do in that situation.
This skill is a valuable one to learn because you can use it often. It’s particularly good for any situation that you know gets you into trouble.
- a scenario where you may be tempted to engage in a behavior you know hurts you
- a situation at work or in your closest relationships that has happened before and happens regularly
Cope Ahead allows you to develop a plan in advance to deal with these situations.
Mastering this skill is tough, however, because it asks you to get honest with yourself about the areas that trip you up, instead of being surprised when they happen (sometimes, again and again).
First: Think Ahead about Situations that Get You into Trouble
The first step to using Cope Ahead is to get really honest with yourself about the kind of situations that are repeatedly hard for you. For example:
Addictive or Compulsive Behavior
If you struggle with any kind of addictive or compulsive behavior, whether that’s around drugs, alcohol, food, purging, sex, self-harm, or shopping, you know intimately how hard it is to stop the cycle once it starts.
When you Cope Ahead, you do the opposite of what many addictive and compulsive behaviors tend to get us to do. You take your head out the sand and look straight on at the times when you are vulnerable, in order to better avoid repeating the undesired behavior.
For example, if you know that at end of a long, stressful day you are going to be vulnerable to thinking that reaching for your substance or behavior (whatever it is) is a good idea, let yourself really know that. Be honest with yourself about the times that you are most likely to want to engage in a behavior you are trying to stop.
Lashing out Emotionally
You can use Cope Ahead to deal with emotionally challenging situations where you are vulnerable to reacting in frustration, fear, or hurt. If you find yourself doing or saying things that you later wished you hadn’t, Cope Ahead can be a tool to help you change.
Again, look for patterns in your past. Know thyself. This is so important in advance planning. Is going home to visit family a trigger for you? When you get critical feedback at work, does this cause you to react? How about when you and your partner have a disagreement about a particular issue that really gets under your skin?
Procrastinating and Avoiding
If you struggle with avoidance or procrastination, you can use Cope Ahead to better understand why you avoid taking action or making choices. This can be challenging. If you tend to avoid doing things you need to do to build the life you want, you may find it painful to acknowledge that to yourself.
Next: Tap into Your Wise Mind (vs. Your Emotion Mind)
The advantage to looking inward when you’re not in the situations that push your buttons is that you can take a step back. You have the time and space to think things through. If you can, look at these parts of yourself with your wise mind.
What is wise mind? Wise mind is a fundamental DBT concept. In a sense, it’s the opposite of the emotion-based autopilot we use when we’re reacting to a situation as it unfolds. Wise mind is the synthesis of reason and emotion. The majority of our most effective decisions come from wise mind.
However, many behaviors or choices that you later regret are done in an emotional, automatic state of mind. (Remember, avoidance is a behavior, too; the lack of a behavior is in itself a behavior.) For example, you might have a moment where you think, “I really shouldn’t do this (say this mean thing to my partner, storm out of the house, reach for this joint).” But that thought is brief, and almost immediately another part of you takes over.
The part that takes control is your emotion mind–another fundamental DBT concept. Emotion mind triggers your reactions, and you act in that state. Later, when you are calmer, you can access wise mind to reflect. But by then, some damage may already be done.
Cope Ahead helps by letting you harness the power of your wise mind before you act, instead of after. While you are calm and centered, it has you map out the situations that get you into trouble so you can plan to act differently in the future.
Having support is important while practicing this skill because it can be challenging. Cope Ahead asks you to go somewhere that’s hard; to bring your wise mind–the mind that looks at yourself honestly and clearly–to situations that hurt.
Finally: Plan Ahead to Cope Effectively
Envisioning the situations that cause you trouble is just part of the equation. The next step is to plan how to deal with the situation the next time it comes up. This step is when you use the power of your imagination to think about actually being in the situation and coping effectively. You rehearse it in your mind.
Research supports this kind of advance mental planning. Athletes use mental rehearsal to improve their performance. For example, a tennis player can mentally imagine their game before playing. Picturing yourself succeeding can actually help you to succeed.
How to Cope Ahead: 5 Steps
Cope Ahead involves five steps.
1. Describe the problem situation (and check the facts). Are you in your wise mind when you’re looking at this situation? Are you keeping a neutral distance? Name the emotions and actions that you anticipate you will feel that interfere with you responding effectively. For example, will you feel angry if someone criticizes you at work, or panicked if a friend is late for dinner?
2. Decide what skills to use. Which skills do you want to use in the situation? Get specific. Does taking a timeout work if you’re coping ahead with anger? Do you want to distract yourself with another activity when you feel like engaging in an addictive behavior? Or call a friend, or go for a run? Get creative about what exactly you will do to cope.
3. Imagine. Now that you know the situation and the skills, imagine the situation in your mind as vividly as possible. Be sure to picture yourself actually in the situation, not watching it. Imagine it happening in the present, not the past. Bring details to mind: Where are you? Who is around you? What are you thinking or feeling?
4. Rehearse coping in your mind. Once you’re in the situation, practice coping effectively. Picture what you will do. What are your actions and thoughts? What will you say and how will you say it? If you anticipate a potential new problem arising, imagine coping with that as well. Rehearse coping with the things you are really scared of.
5. Practice relaxing after rehearsing. Finally, go easy on yourself after your rehearsal. Doing this kind of mental imagining of a hard situation is stressful on your psyche and body. Relax after you’ve run through all the steps! Stretch, take some deep breaths, or do whatever feels relaxing to you.
Cope Ahead is a challenging life skill, but it’s so worth the time and effort. If you practice often, it will get easier for you. And the first time you find yourself coping better in a real-life situation, feeling calmer and more in control of your responses, you’ll see and appreciate the value of taking the time to rehearse in advance.