How you cope when faced with stressful situations sits absolutely within your control, says Philippa Saunders, and it’s a skill you can learn.

Think back to something that happened that shook you to the core at the time. It might have been illness, a relationship ending, losing someone close to you. You might have wondered how on earth you would cope.

Great British Life: Philippa Saunders offers sound advice on coping with unplanned eventsPhilippa Saunders offers sound advice on coping with unplanned events

Sometimes in life we’re faced with situations that are out of our control. Something that we can’t do anything about, because that’s just how life is at times. But here’s the thing that might surprise you: life is not about what happens to you, it’s about how you choose to react to it.

‘Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it’ - Charles R. Swindoll

No matter how catastrophic a situation might seem, you can always control your reaction to it. It is a skill that takes time and practice, but it’s one of the most valuable skills you can ever learn. If you let your happiness depend on another person, place or thing, then you’ll never be in control of it, and it might well crush you from the inside.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong, or you don’t have any right to feel sad because of a given situation that is out of your control. But you always have the power inside to decide how you think, feel, react to anything that you cannot control.

Take being given a compliment – when someone does this, how are they trying to make you feel? Good! You and I both know that it’s completely up to us what we make of a compliment. We have the power to think, feel and react to it. If you can do it for a compliment, what else do you think we could do it with?

Great British Life: When you believe you can cope, you canWhen you believe you can cope, you can

My coping skills have been tested recently. It’s been challenging, but I’ve coped. It doesn’t mean that I have enjoyed what I’ve gone through, or that it’s been easy, but what got me through is the belief in my skillset and ability to cope. Knowing and trusting that no matter what happens, I’ll cope with it. It’s taken me time and practice to get here, so I thought I’d share some tips on how to do the same.

Distance yourself from your thoughts

The first step in learning to deal with thoughts and their impact on your mood is getting some distance from them. It’s not about controlling your thoughts as such, it’s about controlling your reaction to them, about having the realisation that thoughts are not actually facts. If you can do this, your thoughts lose some of their power over you, and how you feel. This is a vital step in learning that you don’t have to be ruled by your emotions. Be intentional with which thoughts you give attention and energy to. Ask yourself ‘Is this a helpful thought, or a powerless one?’. If the latter, change it to something that is more helpful.

Tell yourself until you believe it

Coping skills are a matter of belief. Your belief in your skills and resources to respond positively and adaptively to situations that take you out of the safety of your comfort zone. The moment you change your belief from “I can’t cope with that” to “It might not be nice, but I can cope”, it’s a game changer. Process it well afterwards too - say to yourself “I didn’t like that, but I’m not dead!”. This helps increase your self-esteem, which is one of the linchpins of your mental health.

Great British Life: Coping skills are a matter of beliefCoping skills are a matter of belief

Practice gratitude

It is very difficult to be anxious and grateful at the same time. Get into practising the habit of gratitude. At the end of the day, before you go to sleep think about three things that you’re grateful for. They don’t have to be big things. It will help you react better to the things that are happening right now. Evidence suggests that this will also help you have a better night’s sleep.

Get some perspective

Try to step back and seeing the bigger picture. If the situation involves someone else, put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you fly off the handle and think about what is going on for them.

Critical thinking

Questioning and challenging your thoughts and emotions. Is this thought based on reality or on an emotion/habit of thinking? How else can you look at the situation? Can you respond differently? What is the likelihood of it happening?

Emotional control

Emotions don’t happen to you, they are created by you. By the way you choose to respond to a situation. Thoughts are not facts, and emotions are not facts either. Just because you feel scared doesn’t mean that it’s scary. Just because you feel stressed doesn’t mean that the situation is stressful. The second you believe your emotions, you are justifying your response and you lose the ability to gain a different perspective. Focus on calming yourself down – talk to yourself in a calm way (as you would a good friend in the same situation). Then you will have clarity in your choice over how to respond.

Use the difficulty

Ask yourself “how can I use this difficulty?”, “what can I get out of this?”. There is never anything so bad you can’t use the difficulty in some way. Find the silver lining. Even for something as harrowing as a bereavement, the silver lining might be bringing the family or friends closer together or for you to stop taking life for granted. Choose not to let things get you down.

Coping in challenging or uncertain times does not mean pretending that everything is fine. Not denying the reality of the situation (maintaining perspective), however difficult, is important. But having a belief that you will cope no matter what, is the best coping skill that you can ever have.

Life doesn’t happen to you, it’s the other way around.

Philippa Saunders is a licensed ThriveR Coach based in Knutsford. You can find her on Instagram @thrive.with.philippa and Facebook @thrivewithphilippa