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  • Monika La Nuez, LCSW

Mastering the Cope Ahead Skill in DBT Therapy: Strategies and Tips


DBT Cope Ahead Skill

Have there been times when you’ve nervously anticipated a difficult event, situation, or conversation? Have you noticed yourself experiencing significant or debilitating anxiety, worry, or fear? It is natural to feel anxious and scared when anticipating events that are unpleasant or kick up your fears. It may feel impossible to regulate your anxiety and feel a sense of calm or peace leading up to big events. You may even experience uncomfortable or painful physiological symptoms, like an upset stomach, chest pain, muscle tension, and headaches. 


One skill that DBT therapy encourages that you use when anticipating difficult situations is the Cope Ahead skill.  This is a skill meant to help regulate emotions of discomfort, anxiety, fear, and worry when you know you will be encountering an event or interaction that will take you out of your comfort zone. The DBT Cope Ahead skill can be used in numerous situations such as:


  • Social events (i.e. birthday parties, family gatherings, school events for your children).

  • Presentations or public speaking events.

  • Having to address a difficult topic with a friend, relationship partner, or loved one.

  • Work meetings where you may have trouble speaking up.

  • Exposure to a triggering substance or situation that could elicit an unwanted behavior (i.e. exposure to alcohol at a party, shopping, gambling).

  • Trying something for the first time, like going to a gym class or learning a new skill in a group setting.

  • Something important to you, like a race, performance, or competition.


How to Use the Cope Ahead Skill


The Cope Ahead skill can be extremely effective in the weeks or days leading up to big, anxiety-provoking events. The goal in using this skill is to help ease anticipatory anxiety, worry, and fear and to help you claim your ability to remain in the present moment as much as possible. It is meant to help you increase your sense of calm as you expect difficult situations that are on the horizon, so that you can enjoy your life while anticipating the presence of a big event with equanimity and a sense of confidence that you will survive the difficult event once it occurs (and possibly thrive!).


Here are the steps for how to effectively use the Cope Ahead skill:


  1. Describe the situation: Describe the situation factually, either to yourself or to a trusted loved one. It can help to write out the facts and details about the situation if you find that writing helps to organize your thoughts. You may also want to describe what emotions, triggers, or reactions you imagine yourself experiencing.


Example: You are trying to stop drinking alcohol. You will be attending an important work function in which alcohol will be served.  Describing the situation can include the location where the work function will take place, how long the event will be, which work colleagues, clients, or associates will be in attendance, and what kind of alcohol you will be exposed to at the event.


You can also describe how you imagine yourself feeling, or how you’re already feeling, about the situation: i.e. anxious, tempted, ambivalent, out of control, and scared.


2. Decide what skills you will use: This is a vital step within the Cope Ahead skill. By deciding what skills you will use and committing yourself to remembering these skills, it is likely that you will more automatically access these skills on the day of the big event, conversation, or situation.  


Example: To avoid drinking at the work function, you decide that you will use the DBT STOP, pros and cons, urge surfing, opposite action, and extending negative consequences skills. You decide on a list of different people you can call if you feel the urge to drink at the event.  


3. Imagine the situation: In this step, you vividly imagine as many details as possible. One important aspect of this step is to imagine yourself coping with the situation in the present moment, not in the future. You also want to picture yourself IN the situation, not as a viewer or bystander who is observing the situation from the outside.


Example: You picture the sights, sounds, and smells of the work function you’ll be attending. You picture what the room looks like (if it’s familiar to you), what you and your colleagues will be wearing. You picture the kinds of conversations you’re having, and imagine potentially problematic scenarios, such as someone offering you a drink or a server approaching you with a beverage.  Get as detailed and granular as possible, as though you are currently living and breathing the situation.


4. Rehearse coping ahead: Actors rehearse their lines as a way of integrating their dialogue into their memory, so that their words spill out effortlessly and naturally the moment the stage curtains part. Musicians perform meticulously so that on the night of their performance, they can play their instruments with ease, presence, and passion. While you may view rehearsing as a skill limited to artists and performers, rehearsing is a vital and integral step of using the Cope Ahead skill. 


When you rehearse a difficult situation in your mind, you can rehearse exactly what you will do or say when confronted with the uncomfortable situation you are fearing. You can write down your plans to approach the situation or say out loud to yourself or a trusted friend how you will cope.  You can rehearse successfully navigating the situation and achieving the outcome you desire. By rehearsing, you increase your chances of acting and behaving effectively, naturally, and automatically, thus enhancing your chances of successfully coping through the difficult situation.


5. Practice relaxation afterward: Imagining and rehearsing for a situation you are dreading can be physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. You might feel fatigued, tired, stressed, or frayed after practicing the cope ahead skill. After all, by practicing this skill you are confronting an uncomfortable task within your mind’s eye and perhaps eliciting a physiological response similar to what you may experience once you’re face to face with the difficult situation at hand. 


Relaxation techniques can help to restore your equilibrium and sense of calm after practicing the Cope Ahead skill. Examples of relaxing activities include: stretching, meditating, engaging in deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, going for a walk or run, or enjoying a comforting cup of tea or coffee. Identify activities that will slow down your heart rate, ease tension in your body, and pace your breathing, as these physiological changes will signal to your brain that it is safe to relax. 


I encourage you to think about a possible event, conversation, or task that feels overwhelming, stokes your anxiety, or provokes your fear.  Find some moments throughout your day or week to try the five steps listed above and practice the Cope Ahead skill. This is a skill I use myself, and often helps me feel prepared to encounter difficult situations with increased calm and confidence. Likewise, many clients over the years have shared about how the Cope Ahead skill has helped them through difficult moments they’ve been anticipating. The Cope Ahead skill is a truly versatile skill that can work wonders with reducing your anxiety and helping you successfully navigate challenging situations, helping you feel confident about getting your needs met and building master over challenging situations.


Seeking anxiety therapy in Boca Raton, FL? Feel free to reach out to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation, and see how I can help you with your mental health and therapy goals. Call me at 917-843-7803 or at therapy@monikalanuezlcsw.com


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