When Coping Skills Break Down

Published: August 10, 2023

The clinical and organizational worlds merge when teams are under pressure. The lens through which we measure adaptability is both strategic and psychological. Sometimes we use the perspective of workplace wellness by focusing on culture. Other times we zero in on human coping skills and view the world through a behavioral health perspective.

Whether in business or sitting in a therapy office, we all must figure out how to manage adversity. There is no difference between the skill sets needed to navigate life’s challenges, whether a management or a mental health issue. No one truly leaves their personal secrets at the door when they come to work, and nobody completely leaves the stresses of work at the office when they come home.

We navigate the twists and turns of life in many venues with a constant influx of internal and external stimuli. We have varying abilities to dial up or tone down our attention to prioritize our focus where it’s most needed. Other than while we’re sleeping, when our brains slow down to about four cycles-per-second to enable restoration, cognition and perception processes at about quadruple that speed.

There’s an invisible battle raging in each of us to decipher the complex world we live in. On one side is all the input bombarding our senses with the hope that our brains can decipher the data. On the other side lies all of our years of accrued experience predicting the way the world is supposed to behave. All too often, they don’t match up.

When was the last time a day turned out the way you thought it was going to turn out? Never, right? Every day has a surprise or two in store. We move through each day by relying on past experience to guide us, as though the future had any chance of replicating the past.

From a neuroscience perspective, there’s a 4-to-1 ratio of brain activity going outward (what we expect to occur) versus inward (sensory input from the environment). Our coping response is activated to varying degrees based on the difference between what we expect and what occurs. When the environmental input matches our expectations, we continue moving forward with ease. When we get surprised by unexpected stimuli, good luck!

Environmental input encourages us to make edits on our accrued experience. Our accrued experience is the baseline for what we expect to unfold each day. But there are always errors. The universe keeps throwing unexpected events that don’t match up with our norms, and our internal editor doesn’t always keep up. The consequence is stress.

This is where the avalanche begins. Stress activates hormones that cut off the brain’s ability to access past experience and memory. Like a tip-of-the-tongue experience, the harder you try to remember, the further away the memory travels. Fight-flight-freeze occurs. These are not moments when thoughtful, considered decision-making happens.

The hack is to expect the unexpected. When you enter each day without expectations, there are fewer surprises. Surprises can be fun when they are not experienced as disappointments. When they are embraced as gifts of life’s randomness, our problem-solving capacity is activated.

The twists and turns of life are the building blocks of coping skills. Easy situations do not lead to growth. Life is supposed to be hard. Adversity is a blessing.

Remind yourself to work the problem. Allow discomfort to spark new solutions. Endure the embarrassment of not knowing what to do. If you’ve never been through something, you’re not supposed to know what to do. Imposter syndrome usually happens because you are, literally, an imposter. It’s a call for learning.

So, learn.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.