Coping Skills

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Helpful vs Harmful: Ways to Manage Emotions

Negative emotions like fear, sadness, and anger are a basic part of life and sometimes we struggle with how to deal with them effectively. It can be tempting to act on what you’re feeling right away, but that often doesn’t fix the situation that caused the emotions. In fact, it may lead to more problems to deal with down the road.

Some of the harmful ways that people deal with negative emotions:


Denial is when a person refuses to accept that anything is wrong or that help may be needed. When people deny that they are having problematic feelings, those feelings can bottle-up to a point that a person ends up “exploding” or acting out in a harmful way.


Withdrawal is when a person doesn’t want to be around, or participate in activities with other people. This is different than wanting to be alone from time to time, and can be a warning sign of depression. Some people may withdraw because being around others takes too much energy, or they feel overwhelmed. Others may withdraw because they don’t think other people like them or want them to be around. In some cases, people who have behaviors that they are ashamed of may withdraw so other people don’t find out about what they are doing. But withdrawal brings its own problems: extreme loneliness, misunderstanding, anger, and distorted thinking. We need to interact with other people to keep us balanced.


Bullying is when a person uses force, threats, or ridicule to show power over others. People typically take part in bullying behavior because they don’t feel good about themselves and making someone else feel bad makes them feel better about themselves or feel less alone. It is harmful to both the bully and the person being bullied and does not address underlying issues.


Self-harm can take many forms including: cutting, starving one’s self, binging and purging, or participating in dangerous behavior. Many people self-harm because they feel like it gives them control over emotional pain. While self-harming may bring temporary relief, these behaviors can become addictive and can lead people to be more out of control and in greater pain than ever.

Substance use

Substance use is the use of alcohol and other drugs to make a person feel better or numb about painful situations. Alcohol and drug use can damage the brain, making it need higher amounts of substances to get the same effect. This can make difficult feelings even worse and in some cases, leads to suicidal thoughts or addiction. If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s use of drugs or alcohol, talk to a responsible adult right away to get help.

The good news is that with practice, everyone can do a better job of dealing with their negative emotions in healthy ways. One way to deal with uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions is to remember the word PATH. PATH stands for:

Pause          Acknowledge          Think          Help

Step 1: Pause.

This step is important because instead of acting on feelings right away, you stop yourself and think things through. Count to 100 or say the alphabet backwards.

Step 2: Acknowledge what you’re feeling.

For example, are you mad at someone, or are you sad because your feelings were hurt by what they did? Whatever it is that you are feeling, it is ok to feel that way.

Step 3: Think.

Now that you have taken a few moments to figure out what exactly it is that you are feeling, think about how you can make yourself feel better.

Step 4: Help.

Take an action to help yourself based upon what you came up with in the “Think” step.

If you are having trouble thinking of ways to help yourself, try one (or a few) from this list:

Mood Boosters

  • Read the story of someone you admire

  • Watch a funny YouTube video

  • Play with an animal

  • Watch a movie you loved when you were younger

  • Reorganize your room

  • Make a list of places you want to travel

Address Your Basic Needs

  • Eat a healthy snack.

  • Drink a glass of water.

  • Take a shower or bath.

  • Take a nap.

Process Feelings

  • Draw how you’re feeling.

  • Make a gratitude list.

  • Punch a pillow.

  • Scream.

  • Let yourself cry.

  • Rip paper into small pieces.

  • Vent. Venting is not the same as asking for help, it's taking an opportunity to share your feelings out loud. We do this naturally when we talk with someone we can trust about whatever is upsetting us. You can also vent by writing a letter to the person who upset you. Keep the letter a couple of days and then tear it up. Stick to pen and paper—using social media when you are highly emotional can be tempting, but you might say something you regret.

Problem Solving

  • Make a list of solutions to problems – it can help to brainstorm with a friend of family member.

  • Make a list of your strengths. There are plenty of things about you that are awesome, no matter how down you are feeling at the moment.

  • If a person has upset you, talk with them directly. Fill in the blanks to this sentence – “I feel ______ when (this happens) because ______. Next time, could you please ________.” Example: “I feel left out when there is no room at the lunch table, because then I don’t have friends to talk to. Next time can you please