CBT Coping Skills and Strategies

CBT coping skills help you deal with uncomfortable emotions (anxiety, depression, etc.) so you can feel better physically, make better decisions, and more. These cognitive strategies are especially beneficial for individuals with certain mental health conditions, such as by helping reduce symptoms in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Are CBT Coping Skills?

CBT coping skills involve dealing with negative emotions in a healthy way. They provide strategies for getting through difficult situations with less tension, anxiety, depression, and stress.

Before discussing specific cognitive coping strategies, it's important to first understand how CBT works. This gives some insight into how the various CBT coping skills can help relieve anxiety, sadness, and other distressing emotions.

How CBT Works

therapist with young woman

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Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that psychological problems arise as a result of the way in which we interpret or evaluate situations, thoughts, and feelings. When these interpretations and evaluations are negative, it can lead to unhealthy behaviors.

CBT works by changing unhealthy behavioral patterns by changing the interpretations that lead to them. It also teaches you the skills and cognitive strategies needed to better cope with whatever life throws your way. Here are a few CBT coping skills that have this result.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called breathing retraining or deep breathing, is a basic cognitive coping strategy for managing anxiety. It is a simple technique but can be very powerful.

Diaphragmatic breathing involves pulling your diaphragm down while taking a deep breath in. You should see your abdominal area rise with each breath, which is why it is sometimes referred to as "belly breathing."

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Relaxation exercises can be an effective way to reduce your stress and anxiety. One such exercise is called progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and involves alternating between tensing and relaxing different muscle groups throughout the body.

With PMR, complete muscle relaxation is obtained by first going to the other extreme (that is, by tensing your muscles). In addition, by tensing your muscles—a common anxiety symptom—and immediately relaxing them, over time, the symptom of muscle tension may become a signal to relax.

Self-Monitoring

Self-monitoring is another basic CBT coping skill. To a large extent, is at the core of all the cognitive-behavioral coping strategies described here.

In order to address a problem or a symptom, we need to first become aware of it. Self-monitoring can help with this. With this awareness, we can then take action to regulate our behaviors so we have more positive outcomes.

Behavioral Activation

When people feel depressed or anxious, they may be less likely to do the things they enjoy. Therefore, it is important to learn how to be more active. Behavioral activation is a CBT coping skill that helps with this.

The goal of behavioral activation is simple. Get more active in areas of your life that you find pleasurable and enjoyable. Being more involved with and engaged in these experiences works by improving your mood.

Listing Pros and Cons

When faced with a decision, we can sometimes feel paralyzed or trapped. If this occurs, we may not know the best choice.

One way to move forward in situations such as this is to weigh the short- and long-term pros and cons of a situation. This cognitive coping strategy can help us identify the best path to take—that is, a path that is associated with less risk and is consistent with our goals and priorities.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a common CBT coping skill. How we evaluate and think about ourselves, other people, and events can have a major impact on our mood. This cognitive strategy focuses on identifying negative thoughts or evaluations and modifying them.

Cognitive restructuring involves gathering evidence about certain thoughts, recognizing how they may be misinterpreted or distorted, then replacing them with more positive affirmations. By modifying our thoughts, we can improve mood and make better choices with regard to our behaviors.

Setting and Managing Goals

Goals (or things that you want to accomplish in the future) can give your life purpose and direction, as well as motivate healthy behaviors focused on improving your life. However, they can also be very overwhelming and a source of stress. Because of this, you want to be careful when setting goals.

This CBT coping skill involves approaching your goals in a way that improves your mood and quality of life as opposed to increasing distress. This could be by setting smaller goals versus bigger ones, for instance, or breaking larger goals down into more manageable chunks.

A Word From Verywell

CBT coping skills can help you better handle and manage difficult emotions and situations. They work by changing how you interpret feelings and events. You can use CBT coping skills for anxiety, stress, depression, and more—providing some much-needed relief.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What coping skills can CBT teach?

    CBT coping skills teach you how to better deal with difficult situations, such as how to relax your body (so your mind can also relax), also changing how you look at circumstances and events so you have more positivity. These processes use the same types of strategies like those used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

  • How do you improve cognitive skills?

    Regularly practicing cognitive coping strategies such as these can help improve your skills. It can also be beneficial to work with a mental health professional as they can focus directly on improving your CBT coping skills in the therapy session. Taking care of your physical health, such as through a healthy diet and exercise, can also help improve your cognitive health.

  • How can CBT coping skills help with anxiety?

    CBT coping skills such as cognitive restructuring can help change thought patterns that lead to anxiety. Other skills, like diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation, help relax your body when in an anxious state, thereby reducing your feelings of anxiousness.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.