Cope Ahead DBT Skill

Coping ahead is important when you have emotional dysregulation problems. Emotions are natural and if you have an underlying issue that makes them more painful, flare ups are to be expected. This is why you use cope ahead strategies. They are crucial to avoid embarrassing moments or even relationship breakdowns.

How do you Define Coping Ahead?

Coping ahead is a technique in DBT where you use tricks to balance your emotions regularly so you don't get to the stage where distress tolerance techniques are necessary. It is also figuring out which situations are likely to cause you trouble, and then not only planning ahead how to cope but also imagining being in the situation and coping effectively. Distress tolerance skills are great, love them, but the idea is not to get yourself worked up to that situation. Distress tolerance skills are best used as little as possible. They are also more effective that way. Using ice at the nape of your neck, for instance, should be used in emergency situations when all else fails, as your body can start to get used to the trick, fading the potency of the distract/calming effect.

Forms of coping skills:

  1. Preparing snacks for a long day away from home so you don't get cranky because you are hungry.

  2. Bringing headphones to listen to noise-canceling audio so you won't feel too overwhelmed when you go out to a crowded place.

  3. Wearing a weighted vest or belt before going out into a crowded area so you feel more grounded and less stressed.

  4. Telling your date early that you struggle from anxiety or any other form of illness (use your discretion) so you can work out a date that is comfortable for both.

  5. Bringing crisis and helpline numbers with you on long journeys or to events that may trigger you.

  6. Taking any medications as prescribed.

  7. Eating a healthy balanced diet.

Why Use Cope Ahead?

Coping ahead keeps your emotions down to a tolerable level. When you are less stressed you are able to maintain relationships and be more productive in your life. Also, an emotional meltdown may have a domino effect on your entire day, week, month or even year. The less frequent you have them, the more you'll find balance and happiness in life. Daily meditation can fall into the cope ahead category as you are practicing being calm and non-judgmental. In the event that you are very stressed or in an uncomfortable situation you can always pull from the practices and bring down your emotions. Exercising regularly can also be a coping ahead strategy. Studies have shown that frequent if not daily exercising can lower stress and boost your dopamine. It also is a natural pain killer so your body will feel less sluggish, tense, and you won't get those creaky tin man-like muscle pains.

Imagining an activity activates many of the same parts of the brain as actually doing the activity. Coping ahead involves imagining the triggering event and us coping. With enough practice you could automatically respond with the skill to manage an overwhelming situation effectively. I like to rehearse while relaxing/meditating to relate the feeling of being relaxed with a feared situation.

Self-operated Exposure Therapy And Coping Ahead

Sometimes the biggest enemy of our emotional well-being is anxiety and being the target of hurtful words and behavior. For people with an EDD (emotion dysregulation disorder) everyday life can become unbearable. This is when safe exposure therapy can be useful. You can build up resistance to triggering stimuli by practicing keeping calm when faced with the issue. Some people might get offended easily or triggered when a certain social situation plays out. For others, they hate the idea of being watched or maybe they can't eat in public. Whatever it is for you you first should know that it is valid and it does not make you stupid or a bad person. Everyone is different and for some reason, that situation has affected you negatively. On the bright side, exposure therapy can be done by yourself or with a therapist. Self-operated exposure is best as you can practice it daily but if you need someone for moral support or in an event that you are really out of your comfort zone, then you can ask a therapist, life coach, or a family member or friend that you trust.

Self-operated exposure therapy can be done in two ways. In vitro or in vivo. With in vitro, the person imagines exposure to the phobic stimulus. (Shelby has a fear of talking to new people so she visualizes herself surrounded by strangers and having to make conversation). With in vivo, the person is actually exposed to the phobic stimulus. (Shelby starts small facing her fear of talking to strangers by regularly stopping to ask people directions to the bathroom). Research has found that in vivo techniques are more successful than in vitro.

Exposure therapy can be used as a coping ahead strategy because sometimes we need to get something done but our fears can get in the way or a big incident of discomfort can turn our entire day sour. It's best to face your fears regularly and continuously. To learn more about exposure click here.

Hypothetical Case Study

Clarissa suffers from seasonal affective disorder where the temperatures and sun levels can dramatically affect her mood. But she has a lot of work to do like blogging and babysitting for her friend Tanya. She can't let low energy and mood determine her performance. The last thing she wants is to give up her dream of being a writer or wig out at the innocent children in her care. With winter fast approaching she knows she needs to act fast to prevent the changing weather from affecting her.

Swiftly, she enrolls in a Zumba class to keep a positive upbeat outlook on working out since her outside walks will most likely decrease due to the cold where she can be around other adults and meet new people. There, she can still get her dopamine boost in a fun way. But she needs to make sure she will always have the money to pay for the classes. She starts to save any extra cash now even though winter is a few weeks away. She also invests in a tanning treatment and light that mimics the sun, vitamin d products, and she plans to treat herself to spa days when she can. She buys warm clothes and cute tea mugs so she can keep comfy even when the cold creeps in. She realizes that most of her time will be spent on her own during the winter holidays and that with the darkness and cold might make her feel extra lonely. So she starts to engage in her favorite online communities now.

She also goes online to find the funniest heart-warming movies so she can keep laughing throughout the snowiest days. Finally, she collects recipes from online blogs so that she can have fun baking and nurturing herself instead of dwelling on the winter blues. Winter eventually arrives. It's scary at first and Clarissa spends a night in her room worried that she won't be able to last the full 3 months of the season. But she commits to her coping strategies.

All these basic self-care additions eventually help Clarissa get through the winter. She learns new cookie recipes and bakes fun treats for Tanya's children. When she is feeling lonely she pops on a funny comedy that brings her bursting out with laughter. The little intermediary to her isolation that Zumba classes provide also always boosts her mood if only temporarily.

Though she wasn't always feeling her best, she had the energy to blog and babysit when she planned to. The progress on her blog makes her feel proud now. Her being responsible and getting further in her goals boosts her mood. She is so glad she figured out ways to get through her seasonal affective disorder and is happy she committed to them. Whether you realize it or not, little steps and the slightest addition in your life can make a dramatic difference in your life.


Can you think of any upcoming challenges in your life and ways you could help yourself as a supportive friend to get through them? Use your imagination! Get a pen and paper and brainstorm! You can use the following format as guidance. Make it fun. Practice visualizing the event and the feelings and how you will cope. Make it a challenge and rule that every time the event and/or feeling crops up you are going to use the planned coping method. If you keep refocusing on the feeling just go back to training all attention on the coping method. I like to use this technique when I suddenly have intrusive thoughts about a person who mistreated me. My coping method, in this case, is mindful meditation. Every time I think of said person I will literally snap my fingers and refocus on what's in front of me, my breathing, body, and what I am doing.


1) Describe the situation that is likely to prompt the behavior you want to avoid.

  • Check the facts

  • Name the emotions and actions that might interfere

2) Decide what coping or problem-solving skills you want to use.

  • Write about how you will cope with your emotions and actions

3) Imagine the situation - as vividly as possible.

  • Imagine yourself being successful !!

4) Rehearse in your mind coping effectively

  • Rehearse in your mind what you can DO

  • Rehearse your ACTIONS, THOUGHTS, and WORDS

  • Rehearse coping effectively with your most feared catastrophe

5) Practice relaxation after rehearsing!!!