The Symbolic Healing Power of Traditional Coping Strategies By Matthew Martin, LPC on 8/10/23 - 12:13 PM

Why do coping strategies help to resolve psychological symptoms? I once assumed that this question had a simple answer, but I have found over the years that the answer is much more complicated. There is a hidden depth to this question that is both mysterious and life-altering.

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As a therapist, I regularly offer an assortment of coping strategies to help my clients cultivate symptom reduction. The empirically grounded strategies that I most commonly provide include breathing exercises, grounding techniques, mindfulness practices, and/or distress tolerance skills. My clients typically report these techniques to be effective physically and psychologically. Despite their positive impact, I often wonder how exactly these coping strategies work — beyond the obvious, that is!

How Coping Strategies Work

The apparent reason for the success or failure of any coping strategy is its potential to effect visible or discernable change in behavior, thought, and/or feeling. However, I have often found both in my personal life and clinical work, that there is a deeper symbolic process contributing to these outcomes.

For example, I love to run simply because it makes me feel better. While the science suggests that running promotes neural growth, creates a reduction in inflammation, stimulates new activity patterns in the brain, and releases endorphins which help to regulate mood, sleep and energy levels, these are not the reason why I run.

I run because it “carries me to a new place,” beyond the literal, that is. Symbolically, this seemingly simple, mechanical activity “opens me” to new paths and possibilities within my own internal experience. It reorients and centers those parts of myself that have gone astray. I return to who I truly am when I’m running, and I am never the same once finished. If, once I begin running, I’m angry, my feet can stomp out my frustration. If I’m anxious, my body can unwind, working through its tension. Beyond the positive, physical outcome, these symbolic gains are what keep me going, so to speak.

Along similar symbolic lines, I often de-clutter my home when my thoughts feel cluttered or chaotic. Sometimes, however, I forget to attend to this symbolic process, getting lost in the physicality of de-cluttering. In those moments when I should be focused on the symbolic, I feel too distracted by the misguided pressure of the physical act. In instances like this, and in retrospect, I often wonder how much more benefit I would gain if I were to better recognize and then enter more intentionally into these symbolic processes.

Transforming Act into Symbol

In a similar way, I often wonder if my clients are missing out on the full benefits of their coping strategies by not paying attention to their symbolic healing potential. For example, one of my client’s daily practice of journaling became much more effective when he began to intentionally symbolize the words he wrote as thoughts that were finally “leaving his mind.”

This particular client initially presented with “stress” related primarily to his inability to let go of the future-oriented worries that regularly “pulled at” his attention. These thoughts typically intensified in the quiet of the night as he obsessed over the demands and possibilities of the next day. These thoughts made it impossible for him to fall asleep, which left him fatigued and even more worried the next day. Over time, this cycle solidified into a holding pattern that dominated his life, making it impossible to freely move forward.

I asked him to write down his worrisome thoughts before bedtime to externalize them. Initially, he found it difficult to banish these thoughts to paper, so he stopped trying. The action didn’t seem powerful enough to help. The full benefits of writing down his worries made sense only when he intentionally embraced the symbolic process by truly experiencing his worries leaving him through the embodied process of writing.

He also expressed the need to add a symbolic ending to the process by crumbling and tossing away the worry-laden paper into a small trash can that he set up in his nearby hallway. While he considered other symbolic acts including storing the paper in a designated box, shredding it, or setting it on fire, the act of tossing it away made the most sense to him. Over time, the journaling practice extended beyond the original act and into his everyday activities so he could experience a more complete sense of separation from the worries that had previously dominated his life.

Bridging the Gap Between the Physical and Symbolic

My clients and I find that the physical and symbolic need to be explicitly paired in order for the coping strategy to work most effectively. For example, I had another client who was struggling to experience the full advantages of diaphragmatic breathing. Despite the research suggesting the many neurophysiological benefits of this activity, she wasn’t experiencing them.

As it turns out, this client had struggled with anxiety for most of her life, incessantly shopping for and trying on coping strategies in search of “the one” that would finally “fit” and bring her relief — hobbies, relationships, etc. Over time, we realized together that the “real” cause of her unrelenting distress was the fear that she would not be able to endure “standing still” and being in the moment. Searching for, trying on, and then discarding technique after technique was an illusory quest, denying her peace in the moment.

Together, we discussed this disconnect, and I suggested that she take a small step towards stillness by intentionally pairing a pleasant feeling (one she wanted to bring into herself) with every inbreath, and an unpleasant feeling (one she wanted to release from herself) with every outbreath. She chose to breathe in peace and breathe out anxiety. She came to the following appointment excitedly celebrating the positive effects of this modification to her breathing practice. The simplicity of the assignment, and her willingness to literally and symbolically “breath into it,” helped to override her deeper fears of being fully present, reduced her anxiety, and freed her to more fully and deeply engage with life.

Both clients provide striking examples of the transformative power of symbolic acts for enhancing the efficacy of otherwise traditional and mechanical coping strategies. One of the major benefits of the symbolic process is how easily accessible it can be for clients. The benefits await clients willing to engage with the limitless possibilities that symbolism provides.

For example, taking a shower may help me to wash away the shame that is held in the body. Pulling weeds can help to eradicate negative thoughts that keep “popping up.” Simply locking the front door to one’s house is a symbolic gesture that offers a sense of safety. Every moment, every act, every thought contains the possibility of actualization. The quest for symbolism, whether in or outside of clinical space, is an endless call to adventure.

This call is also a call to more fully enter into the mystery of this human experience, and to participate in the world with a fuller sense of awareness and being. Personally, these symbolic processes enrich and transform me on my own personal journey to feeling fully human. They help me to not only cope with my own day-to-day challenges, but more importantly, they pull me into a much deeper participation of healing that continually restores my own love and appreciation for life.

Professionally, I remain eager to deepen my engagement with the symbolic so that I can help guide my clients toward transformative experiences, regardless of the troubles they present. Whether they “write out” their distressing thoughts or “breath away” their anxiety, I admire their willingness to entertain and benefit from venturing into the symbolic with me. I am also amazed by and find beauty in their commitment to do so. I am fully committed to offering all my clients these symbolic pathways they can use in and outside of my office and consider this a fundamental aspect of the therapeutic process.

Questions for Thought and Discussion

What are your reactions to the author’s premise of the importance of symbolism in healing?

How have you used this process with your own clients?

Which clients with whom you currently work might benefit from this strategy?

How have, or might you use this symbolic process in your own personal life?  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections