S1E3 Coping

Have you ever felt proud that you handled a situation well, easily got over a frustration, or overcame the loss of someone or a pet? You were likely using coping skills. In this episode, Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin talk about the science behind coping skills and even share some of their favorite skills they use personally.




Nikki: Hi, it's Dr. Nikki Rubin and we are going to talk about coping today.

Pete: I love coping.

Nikki: I know, me too, I love coping as well. Don't always love that we have to use it right?

Pete: But thank goodness we have it to use.

Nikki: Yes, thank goodness we have it to use. So, Pete, do you want to start by just talking a little bit about when you hear the word coping, and obviously, it's a word that's thrown around a lot out in the world.

Pete: Well I mean it is, and I think it’s funny because we can also say that initially, as we thought about this episode, we thought it would be coping with COVID. And we just think it's more important, we cope with no matter what is faced with us. I think the way that we think about coping is that it is just the way that you manage stress. Obviously, you and I as behaviourists, we think about what can I do to make a situation a little bit more tolerable? I know we hate that word. Do you hate that word?

Nikki: Well yes, I’m not a big fan of the word. Let's switch it to how can we navigate. I like that word, how can you navigate things that are difficult?

Pete: The other thing I find myself is building a relationship. How do I build a relationship with the fact that I'm going to feel anxious when I get on a plane? Or crowded trains are not that enjoyable.

Nikki: Right, for most people frankly.

Pete: Have you ever been on a crowded train and be like, yes…

Nikki: I have not. That's one thing I enjoy about living in Los Angeles, we don’t have to do that a lot.

Pete: Well in traffic, have you ever gotten in traffic and said, “Yes, I’m in traffic again!”

Nikki: No, I have not, that’s a fair point here. So when you hear coping, or I would say what most people say out in the world is, what are your coping strategies? What does that mean to you as a human, and then also, as a psychologist?

Pete: Yes. What do I do to build a relationship with experience? What do I do to accept that experience? What do I do to try and make a situation more manageable like what you said? Things that I do personally, well meditation is a big piece of my life, and that's something that we've talked a lot about. I've noticed that, and we always joke that on the outside, I have this very peaceful persona. But on the inside, I'm like, “go, go, go!” I have three full time jobs right now as we sit here recording this. And because it is that inner relationship I can go, go, go. But also, it doesn't matter. So meditation has brought that to me. Exercise is a big piece of my coping mechanism, Oreos, hello.

Nikki: Double stuff, yes.

Pete: Amen. You take the double stuff off, and you actually put two double stuff together, so it's quadruple stuff.

Nikki: That makes me a little nauseous thinking about that. Not in a judgmental way. Just what my middle sweet tooth can tolerate.

Pete: Well how about a spoonful of Nutella on that?

Nikki: No. I’m definitely getting sick.

Pete: That goes to show the gradient of our sweet tooth, sweet teeth, whatever.

Nikki: Sweet teeth. So for you, you're a lot of things that are sort of these very important, behavioural strategies of meditation, exercise. Which for me, same thing. I really have the experience though, because a lot of times when people are asked about their coping strategies, those are the ones that they go to, which not that those are bad or wrong, those are an integral part of what we're doing. But I also really want people to be thinking about coping as what you're saying, the relationship with what's hard, is how they're experiencing their emotions and how they're thinking about what's happening. Is that something that you consider when you're thinking about coping?

Pete: No, I think in a previous episode, we talked about it covert and overt behaviours. I think that that's the same for coping. Sometimes people use counting numbers or, visualization, but I do think about it as a skill.

Nikki: Yeah, it is totally.

Pete: So whether it's covert, overt, whether it's behavioural or emotional, I think we talked about an emotional coping.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: I don't know if we talk much about that. But I certainly think of Daniel Goleman’s work with emotional intelligence. Thinking about what's my understanding of my emotion? And am I emotionally intelligent because we all feel anger, we all feeling sadness; we all feel jealousy, the negative emotions.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: But how do we feel them?

Nikki: Yeah, and I'm going to weave this into coping as well. What you just said was our negative emotions, which I again hear out in the world a lot. I am definitely not a fan of the phrase negative emotions or positive emotions. Because I think that actually does a disservice to people when they're trying to navigate their emotional experience or try to cope with them, because they’re negative, we don't want to have them. But like you said, we all feel those things. I don't think a lot of times people consider that part of coping is about making space for things that we don't want.

Pete: And that's mindfulness right there.

Nikki: Yeah, totally. Yeah.

Pete: It’s neutral. We're not getting to a negative or a positive experience. And I think of Bernè Brown’s work, and I love that what she found is that, in order for me to experience positive emotion, like we all want, that positive, we have to leave space for…

Nikki: Right, yes, Pete is using air quotes right now, in case.

Pete: Thank you.

Nikki: He said ‘positive’ in air quotes.

Pete: Right, because we don’t like saying positive or negative. But again, we all want to feel peace. We want to alleviate pain.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: We are healers. And this is where I get like a hippie, we are healers, and people come to us because they want to feel more positive things.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: And at least, I think that we try and push away the negative, rather, the coping is letting them be there.

Nikki: Correct.

Pete: Exactly. And finding a space for them all to be together.

Nikki: Yes. And actually, one thing I find myself talking a lot about is, I'll say, in my practice, and I’ll say to students that I feel like it's this secret of the universe, which it's not actually a secret, to talk about this for 1000s of years that there's this fascinating paradox that if we want to cope more effectively, if we want to have more ‘comfort’ in our lives, I'll use that word instead of positivity. To have more comfort in our lives, it actually requires starting with making room to embrace what we don't want. And it just never ceases to fascinate me, frankly. I mean, you want more comfort, you can have more comfort. First, you got to welcome in the discomfort.

Pete: And that's what we talked about last episode, related to culture. You want to grow and make some change; you have to have a tough talk.

Nikki: Yeah, totally.

Pete: Yeah, you have to feel uncomfortable and say, you do have privilege, or that you don't understand what it's like to be black, and those are things that socially, what are those things they say not to talk about? You don't talk about religion, you don't talk about politics, race. So we have to talk about it, and I found with clients I have relationships with, they don't talk about money, let's say. And then what? Or I'll straight up say this, I've had people close to me in my personal life, their partners didn't know about the will. What kind of relationship actually is that? Because I get it's a tough conversation but have it. Have a tough conversation.

Nikki: Well I think bringing it back to coping here. If we can reframe coping, not as something that's about white knuckling through an experience, or trying to make an uncomfortable experience, good or positive. Because again, I think that's how it's talked about more generally. Like, “how do I cope with this hard thing? To make it better, to make it good?” What if we were instead, to approach this as coping really means welcoming in these hard conversations, these hard experiences in the service of evolving, of growing? I never really framed it that way before in my mind, I I'm having a moment here, I’m having a moment. Yeah.

Pete: I think you’re having an ‘aha’, people calls that an ‘aha’. Well I also wonder, I was having compassion for you in that ‘aha’ moment. I wonder how you find compassion as a part of coping. But that would be like a cute little bumper…

Nikki: That would. Yes.

Pete: Probably they’re in LA.

Nikki: Yeah, because we all have bumper stickers, I’ve seen my fair share of them. And again, if we redefine coping, as navigating discomfort as opposed to dealing with it.

Pete: Eliminating it.

Nikki: Eliminating it, compassion is going to be a big part of it, right? Because it's going to be about welcoming in in a kind way what we don't want in the service of growth and the service of evolution.

Pete: Well this is so hard, though. I do this, and it does make sense that as I sit here, I'll still wish I didn't feel the anxiety I felt on a plane. Right? How do we truly navigate this discomfort? And I think it is something that we are used to. So I'll just say it’s like a high performer, former athlete, we do white knuckle. We're conditioned that way. If we think about conditioning and learning theory I've cried in my goggles during training, because it hurts so much. And it was just like, “suck it up and keep going”.

Nikki: Yeah. Well, that's often how coping is talked about. We're like, “cope with it, deal with it”. And in academics, we're also taught to white knuckle, unfortunately.

Pete: To get it in.

Nikki: Yeah, get it in. You've got 55 responsibilities as a graduate student, too bad. That's grad school.

Pete: And I wish I had you as a supervisor during grad school.

Nikki: Oh, I wish I had you as a supervisor.

Pete: We say that to everybody.

Nikki: No, I mean it.

Pete: No, we don’t.

Nikki: We really don't. I think that this concept of coping, we need to shift how we're thinking about it, frankly. I think that's what you and I are teasing out right now. That coping maybe could be thought of instead as a tool in our toolbox, in the process of growth here. As opposed to a means to an end. Like, “get through this one thing”. I don't know. Does that make sense?

Pete: 100%. And I think that that's that Eastern principle. My mom used to say, “Life sucks, and then you die.” My mom's a very positive person. But that's that radical acceptance. So it is an Eastern science to say, “We do suffer”. What I find is that a lot of people that I work with, thankfully, are relatively healthy, and they're looking for improvement. That's the part that I really love about my life. I've trained with really sick people, and I think that that's also rewarding in a different kind of way. But in order to have three full time jobs, I couldn't work with really sick people. I think it's about improving, so I like that people that I work with, oftentimes, I'm just helping them in this in between being born and dying. We all have that, but we can navigate what that's like, in between. I think that's how you and I are framing what coping is. It’s navigating the in between life and death.

Nikki: I love it. That could go to bumper sticker.

Pete: That’s deep.

Nikki: You want to get some very perplex looks from fellow motorists.

Pete: They would be like “What the hell?”

Nikki: I do think that this idea of coping, obviously, it's a podcast about the blend of Eastern and Western psychological practices. Obviously, the eastern perspective here is coming from spiritual traditions. But I would argue that very psychological in nature. I think our field has some kind of responsibility, dare I say fault, in putting out in the world that coping means this ‘getting through it’. Especially, Pete and I practice in this behavioural wing of psychology, and we've put out there a lot of ‘let's get symptoms down’. That was a historical thing that we've been criticized for. I think rightfully so in some ways, because the focus became on ‘just feel better’, and I want to be clear, I want people to feel better, and there is a time to reduce symptoms, and that's an incredibly important part of our work. That’s not in the time between birth and death; symptoms aren't the only experience that humans have. We need to make room to cope with. Cope, meaning as we're now defining it, navigate other uncomfortable experiences that aren't just about getting rid of something.

Pete:  I think the spirituality piece, that's something we could dive into a little bit about coping, because I do think the West has screwed us up a bit, in terms of trying to apply medicine to the human condition, or navigation between life and death. I think even as we first started, we would have thought that ‘oh my God, you're so dark’, you have navigate between life and death. That's actually like a radical acceptance of what this life is. I don't know what happens after, and that's where we all rely on some spirituality, or atheist. Whatever we have, there's something that we then do to reconcile what it means after death.

Nikki: To the point about atheism, not to alienate our atheist listeners as well, that, what hopefully most people can agree on is we don't have access to any experience outside of what's happening right now. The between birth and death, that's the time limited period we have to work within, that's the framework. Spirituality can be a really important part of it, and I think part of our job as psychologists has been, to the way that you and I practice, to really make room for that as an important component, if that's meaningful to somebody, right?

Pete: I think, even for atheism, we've all known somebody or work with somebody. A tree could be part of your spirituality. That's why I like that term. I think some religious folk don't like that term. But for me, I find it to be a really all-encompassing term, spirituality.

Nikki: Yes, same, I've definitely had conversations before where people will say, “I'm not spiritual”, well that's fine. We don't have to use that word, or you can. I've had those same people then say something along the lines of, “I feel deeply connected to my family” or “deeply connected to nature” and I'll say “I think that's really what we're getting at”.

Pete: There it is, exactly. People have said to me, “Oh, are you Buddhist?” No, I don't even know what that means. I think that's part of my Buddhist practices, a part of my spirituality is that I'm actually nothing, we're a bunch of protons and neutrons and electrons, and that's another bumper sticker that people would roll their eyes at. But it is part of the interpretation of what suffering actually is, we realize that a lot of it's created. I like when I can help people realize that in a way that they can embrace that they have a role in it. I had a good friend who was talking about two previous employment positions, he's like, “all these managers sucked”. They maybe were not great, and you were the common denominator. You have a role in it in some way, whether it's allowing someone to talk to you in a certain way, so maybe you could have worked on being more assertive. There are all things about interpretation, and that's the art of what I love that we do, it's an art. It's a science, and it's an art.

Nikki:  It's both, as is everything in my, in my humble opinion. Before we wrap up here in mode, Pete, any last thoughts on how we're redefining coping, and what that might mean, in terms of practicing [18:05], in addition to meditation and exercise and all that good stuff?

Pete: I think we need to copyright that it's the navigation between life and death. It’s just the capitalist in me. No, I’m just kidding. Frankly, I think what we're trying to do is just educate, and if it helps somebody, great. If not, maybe enjoyed listening to us chat about this. I'll tell you a little quick story that way, as you're studying this stuff, and even my grad students, they’d be like, “Oh, I don't know if I should tell people I'm a psychologist”, because they're afraid of how people, and I have that sometimes where you have like a work word coming.

Nikki: Pete's famous for that. Also, someone asked me what I did, and I said, I work in academics. I'm like, “Oh, I'm a terrible liar, so I am a psychologist.”

Pete: I don't usually tell people I’m a psychologist, I reason because it thinks people just feel. I have this one worker who comes down, who is wonderful. Sometimes he just wants to always like, “I had a fight with my wife last week”, or just share some stuff. It’s a very interesting thing. I like sharing with him what coping could be, and maybe having some challenging conversations with his wife and just little ‘tid-bits’ of what it means to be human. I think that's the art of what we do. The things we're not talking about, because it would be illegal, is the science about some of what we do with individual clients. The truth is the art is what we're sharing with little sprinkling of the science.

Nikki: Yeah, and I think we'll bring in more science, I think we're allowed to talk about the science. We’re not allowed to be therapist to our listeners. Sorry, guys. But we’re going to sprinkle a little science.
Pete: We’re not your therapist, but we’re going to talk about what the science is, what the art is and how potentially we do it for ourselves, as well as with our students and people that we work with.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: Well, this was cool. Hopefully, coping, there it is, navigating between life and death.

Nikki: And navigating discomfort; the discomfort that shows up between life and death. Let's, even operationalize it further, let's get in there.

Pete: Thanks for holding me to it.

Nikki: Of course. Thanks for chatting, talk to you guys next time.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Peter Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been when East meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nicky Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.