Whether you are currently coping or cooping is an important question. Which are you doing? What is the difference? The importance of this difference was starkly brought home to me recently by the experiences of a friend.
Cope means to deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties. Whereas coop means to confine in a restricted and often crowded area. We can coop up our emotions and worries in an overcrowded brain.
There are many pressures in our lives and never more so than during the pandemic. How we manage those pressures will impact on our mental wellbeing. For some, the last year has been a perfect storm, as my friend discovered. All the uncertainty of the lockdown, severe health problems, isolation from family, strained relationships, dealing with a poor manager, concerns about the future career, and loss of social and physical outlets, led to excess worry and not sleeping. Everyone thought my friend was coping really well with all this, but unfortunately, it was not coping, it was cooping. Everything was penned up internally, which regrettably had a dramatic impact on their mental wellbeing.
Coping or Cooping?
There is a big difference between dealing with the problems we face and internalising them. You may not be able to resolve every situation, but you can manage what is within your control, carry out causal analysis and problem solve. This creates greater self-esteem, better judgement, and therefore, healthier mental state.
Internalising issues does not remove the problem and our threat survival system can be very corrosive if allowed to build up, especially over prolonged periods. Worry has a negative health impact.
Those people who are particularly good at cooping their emotions can seem very calm and controlled on the outside, but a train wreck can be going on internally. The symptoms of this can be very subtle. Picture the serene swan, which is paddling like mad underneath. If you bottle-up (coop) your stress emotions and do not find a release for them, they can ‘eat you up’. Rational thinking goes out the window, a stressful downward spiral can start and you can become mentally unwell.
Stress is “The adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them,” according to the Health and Safety Executive.
On the Mental Health First Aid course, the analogy used was a stress bucket. Every day we are faced with different stresses, which go into our ‘bucket’. If you have release mechanisms, then you can keep the levels at a relaxed or normal level. These releases might be socialising, talking about your issues with someone you trust, exercising, resting, and having fun.
The pandemic has removed the ability to utilise these releases and has added extra worries on top, so the bucket overflows, causing distress. If you ‘put a lid’ on that bucket, more stressors can still pour in with no way to get out. Pressure will build and something will have to give. What can break is mental wellbeing.
Some people have greater mental resilience (bigger buckets) to cope with these situations, others do not. Even ‘strong’ people can crack if pressured for a long period of time or faced with a perfect storm of issues.
Coping with Cooping
You can offer support to someone or get help for yourself.
1. Approach the person and assess
The first thing is to recognise whether someone is coping or cooping. Just asking ‘how are you?’ can be a start. You may need to ask this more than once. Most of us have an automatic programmed response to that question. I know I have responded ‘fine’ even when I have a cracking migraine. It is better to find different ways to ask, such as: ‘How’s life treating you?’ Or ‘I’m finding it a real strain at the moment, how are you coping?’
We can be fearful of asking these types of questions, in case we are unable to cope with the answer. A Time to Change survey showed that nearly 75% of managers were not confident to have that type of conversation. There is no need for fear, just showing that someone cares can make a difference. I found that attending the Mental Health First Aid course gave me much greater confidence to have those conversations, even to ask about suicidal thoughts.
2. Listen non-judgementally
The greatest gift we can give anyone is to really listen without passing judgement. It can be easy to assume that they should behave or feel in a certain way, because that is how you would. We can also be tempted to offer advice. You need to be very careful about what advice you give and to know your boundaries.
Your silence or insightful questions can be more powerful than any advice, as this allows the person to think things through for themselves. Sometimes we have to hear ourselves say something to clarify our thoughts. The person may have been cooping these thoughts up for months and talking to you can be the release they need to start to ‘empty their bucket’.
3. Give support and information
Loneliness and beliefs that no one understands or cares about you can be major stressors. By offering your support and letting the person know they are not alone can be highly beneficial. It may help to give information like 1 in 4 people are dealing with mental ill health at any time, that it is not a sign of a weakness, there is every chance that this period will pass, and people do recover from these episodes.
4. Encourage them to seek professional help and other support
There are many organisations which help people stop cooping up their concerns and find ways to cope. The person’s own GP is a good starting point. You may have mental health support in your place of work who they can go to. If you think that the person is at risk of self-harm, then immediate action will be required.
Although harder during the pandemic, encouraging them to talk to family or a trusted person can be a benefit. All of this also applies if you are the one whose bucket is full.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
A lot of harm can be done to the person or their family if the mental ill health becomes severe; and recovery can be longer. Early intervention is easier when there is a culture of openness and people are encouraged to talk about mental wellbeing. It is even more important, although more difficult, to look for any signs that they may be stressed or unwell when we are only seeing people virtually .
Cope not Coop
However tough things may be, there is always a solution, and the best starting place is to talk about it. We have innate creativity and resilience to not just survive, but thrive. You can take control of what is controllable and cope with what needs to be done. Cooping things up is only harmful to yourself, and eventually, to those around you.
Are you coping or cooping? If you are not sure, then I am happy to talk to you.
Also published on Medium.