If you're reading this, chances are that you are a person. And, if you are a person, chances are that you have some habits or behaviors that you would like to change. It's just part of being human. And, if you have a bad habit or maladaptive behavior chances are that changing it is proving to be somewhat difficult, because there are so many factors that went into your forming this habit in the first place. If any of this is resonating with you, read on to learn about a four step skill straight from the DBT skills manual that you can use to orchestrate positive change in your life. It's called Cope Ahead.
Step 1: Describe a Problem Situation: This step, while seemingly obvious, is still very important, and is often not done entirely correctly. When describing the problem situation many people do not take the time to be as specific as possible. They might define the problem vaguely as “I need to be more active” or “I have an anger problem”. In order to cope ahead properly, you'll need to have a much more clear picture of the problem situation. Try thinking about a specific instance regarding the thing you wanted to change and note the details carefully. First be sure to check the facts well, try your best to look at the situation as objectively as possible. Take note of the specific thoughts you were thinking at the time and name the emotions and actions that may have interfered. Be aware of any vulnerability factors that may have affected the situation as well. It may help to analyze a few separate occasions of your problem behavior and find some common threads. The point is to make sure you can very clearly and accurately describe the chain of events that led to the problem behavior.
Step 2: Decide how you want to IDEALLY handle this situation, in your dream world, where you have perfect self-control, how would you want yourself to handle this? What coping or problem-solving skills might you want to use in the situation? Using the knowledge from Step 1, describe in detail how you will ideally handle the challenge. Make sure to know exactly which emotions, thoughts or action urges you are targeting and have a clear plan for when and how you will target them. Simply deciding to “take some deep breaths when I’m feeling angry” is unlikely to hold up when faced with a live action situation. But having a specific breathing pattern, which you will do for a specific amount of time or repetitions, as a reaction to a specific bodily sensation or situation is more likely to succeed, alongside what you might say or think to yourself. You'll also likely want to have a plan of what to say to others or what actions to take throughout the challenge, from start to finish. Whatever the case is, be sure to be as detailed as possible in describing both the coping skill and the intervention.
Step 3: Imagine the situation in your mind as vividly as possible: Now, this is where things get interesting. After coming up with a clearly defined plan, it is time to put the plan into action…in your mind. Do your best to visualize a situation where you are likely to be faced with your problem behavior, and imagine yourself implementing your ideal plan. There are two keys here that will make this step successful. Firstly, imagine doing it in FIRST person, not THIRD person. Be careful not to watch yourself implementing your strategies as if you were watching a movie, be in the moment as if you were really there. Secondly, try to imagine yourself carrying out the intervention in real time. In other words, your visualization should take the same amount of time that it would actually take to carry out the skill.
Step 4: Rehearse in your mind coping effectively as often as you can. One session of coping ahead in your mind is going to be helpful but it might not translate so smoothly into real life. The more you rehearse it in your head though, the more ready you will be when faced with the real thing. It's like exercising at the gym: the more repetitions you do, the stronger you are for real life. Same with your imagination replay: the more you mentally rehearse your ideal response, the stronger that neural connection becomes, and the more likely you are to actually respond that way in real life. You can play out in your mind exactly what you can do to cope effectively, what you will do and say, and how you will say it. Set times for when you will cope ahead in your mind and put in the reps! The more you rehearse the more ready you will be when the moment arrives.