Update: there is some new data suggesting the app helps reduce distress, improve wellbeing and improve healthy coping strategies – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cp.12185
Coping refers to the effort we invest in dealing with personal and interpersonal problems.
Coping strategies (i.e. the methods we use) can be roughly categorised as either adaptive (helpful) or maladative (unhelpful). Adaptive strategies tend to both solve the problem as well as lead to other related positive outcomes. Maladaptive strategies tend to only partially solve the problem in the short-term and typically have negative medium to longer-term outcomes.
For example, if a colleague tells me that I smell I could:
a) punch them in the face (maladaptive) – which might make me feel better initially, but would lead to all sorts of other problems, OR
b) attend to my personal hygiene (adaptive) – which would both solve the problem, and likely improve other relationships
There are literally hundreds of different coping strategies, far more than I could possibly list here. Some involve solving the problem directly, such as reducing or eliminating a stressor. Others involve changing how we think about a situation to take a new perspective. Finally there are strategies for managing the emotions that arise because of stress.
Each of us has our own personal set of coping strategies that we’ve developed over the course of our lives. We might have learned them from our parents/caregivers, from friends and colleagues. We might have done some self-development courses and picked up some new coping strategies along the way.
Regardless of where you got them from, your individual set of coping strategies is likely to include both adaptive and maladaptive ones. One of the joys (?) of life is working out which of your personal coping strategies actually work well, and which ones send you off the deep end.
We know that during times of significant distress, people often turn to unhelpful coping strategies such as drinking or drug use, isolating themselves, withdrawing from normal activities and being highly self-critical. Sometimes people are confused as to why they turn to these maladaptive strategies, but it does make sense. Often the causes of the distress (e.g. dysfunctional relationships, financial distress, lack of meaning and purpose) are difficult problems to solve. We can then get stuck in a loop like the one below.
This is by no means the only kind of coping loop we can get stuck in, but it does illustrate how we can get trapped using maladaptive coping strategies.
Getting out of a loop like this can be hard. It is why psychologists like myself suggest that if people are distressed in an ongoing way, they go to see someone: a friend, GP, counsellor, or therapist. Talking with someone is often one of the best ways to interrupt a loop like this.
There are other ways also.
Imagine when you are distressed, being able to hold a conversation with a non-distressed version of yourself. Could a calmer version of you, give a distressed version some good advice? Could you put that advice in your pocket and access it when needed?
This is where apps like “My Coping Plan” come in.
My Coping Plan guides you through the process of creating a plan for yourself to follow during times of distress.
What does it involve?
Like most apps you’ll have to create a user account (email and password) and go through a quick process of email verification.
It is then time to create your plan. Note: Don’t create your plan when you are feeling distressed. Instead do it when you are feeling a bit more grounded. You want to harness the wisdom of your calm self, not your distressed self.
A Coping Plan consists of 4 main elements:
- Things you can do on your own when you are distressed. For example, walk the dog, or do a 10 minute meditation. You can choose from a list of suggestions or write your own. The app provides some guidelines on distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy strategies, akin to the adaptive/ maladaptive strategies I spoke about previously.
- People you can spend time with. These are people whose company is relaxing and rejuvenating. You can select from your phone contacts or enter names and numbers manually. These are the people whose company you will seek out when you are struggling.
- People you can talk to. Similar to above, this is people who can help you work through what is upsetting you, or with whom conversation is easy and relaxing. These are people you might telephone or talk to on social media if you are struggling.
- Professionals who can support you. These are the medical or health or support professionals you call on when distressed. It might be a GP, a counsellor or therapist, or one of the publicly available support services like Lifeline. You can enter supports manually, or select from an existing list of supports.
If you complete those 4 sections, well done – you’ve created a coping plan!! It is saved in the app and is accessible then next time you open the app.
What do I do then?
Here is what I suggest:
First, go into the settings (Menu –> Settings) and get reminder notifications sent either weekly or monthly. This will remind you to keep you coping plan updated. For example, you might discover new ways of relaxing that you want to add to your plan.
Second, think about sharing your plan with a close family member or friend who you trust would want to help you during a period of distress. Go to Menu –> Share Plan and enter the relevant details.
Third, on the My Coping Plan page, where you can view your coping plan, there is a “Calming Down” section which includes a decent relaxation/mindfulness exercise (audio) which is worth listening to and learning.
Fourth, have a look at the “Staying Well” tab which has some basic well-being advice and decent short video on coping.
Finally, close the app and put it away for the time being. Make a mental note to yourself to try and remember to open it the next time you are feeling distressed.This is an app to revisit during times of
What I like about this app
This app is straightforward and uncomplicated. It helps you develop a coping plan, as indicated. Taking time to reflect on alternative ways of coping with distress is a valuable self-reflection exercise, and therefore I think the process of creating the plan is as important as the plan itself.
I think this app would be a good adjunct to therapy – e.g. work with a therapist to build a plan for times of distress.
I am also interested to see how this app develops, as data from users is analysed to understand the types of coping plans that are created.
What I dislike about this app
I experienced a few bugs when using this app. I had a screen freeze early in the process of developing my coping plan. I also had the audio relaxation/mindfulness playback stop when my screen turned off. Given the app was only released in October 2017, I expect these bugs will be ironed out in future updates.
Visually the app is a little bland, but that is honestly a minor issue.
I hope that over time they enhance the lists of “things you can do on your own” based on user data. The list at present is minimal and I reckon more could be done to provide users with evidence-based coping strategies (both as suggestions, but also instructions)
My main issue is one that is not specific to this app, but to apps like this more broadly (Beyondblue have a similar app). That is, how do we get individuals to actually fire up their plan when they are feeling distressed? My concern is that individuals, when distressed, may a) forget their plan or b) dismiss its relevance.
One possible solution is to develop the plan in collaboration with a trusted loved one, or therapist. That person, who you may reach out to when distressed, can be an additional reminder to view your coping plan.
Another solution is for the app, by default, to provide regular notifications – e.g., reminders to update plan, alerts to new coping strategy ideas. Keep the app fresh in the mind of the user.
Should you use it?
Do you get distressed often?
When you are distressed do you typically pick shitty coping strategies?
If yes to both, I think it is worth a go. The app refocuses your attention on the positive steps you can take to help yourself. Its a good antidote to the destructive thinking that often accompanies episodes of high distress.
If you use it and would like to provide feedback (it can be anonymous), use one of the communication channels below.
Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (firstname.lastname@example.org)