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Coping Skills Training: The Social Worker's Top Secret

 by Lee Coyne M.S.W.


Self-esteem is everybody's need, bar none. With it, we stay afloat; without it, we begin to sink. America's social workers often shoulder the challenge of trying to keep us from becoming a community of social Titanics. With March being National Social Work Month, let's probe their "top secret."

Depression and anxiety are the twin icebergs out there. Their causes may well differ from person to person, but the result is similar:  feeling stuck. Just telling someone to "snap out of it" usually does not work. It merely emphasizes the feeling of helplessness. The person has already tried and gotten nowhere.

I happen to believe in the Social Role Theory - that our degree of "success" in the many hats we wear has a positive effect on how we feel. If we feel competent as parents, students, and especially in the work force, we begin to blossom within. If teh opposite happens, we start to wither.

This is where the social worker enters (as a guide rather than a god). Step No. 1 is building trust by careful listening and absorbing. Without that basic trust, the flow of communication becomes a sham. Whether therapist or counselor or intake worker for a benefits program, no plan can take place if communications are fatally flawed. Hence, the social worker must listen no judgmentally, to hear the pain and distress. Failure to listen makes for failure to the client.

Step No. 2 is to assess, another word for evaluate. Take care here that the issues are seen and appreciated from the client's viewpoint. Perception of the problem is equal to reality for most folks. Context is primary. If teh client's low self-esteem comes from experiencing loss and setback, my preference is to look for options to the status quo. That means a different, more supportive setting to move ahead.

That leads to Step No. 3, testing out outreach. usually the client needs something to improve his coping. Developing that client into an effective self-advocate emerges as the "top secret" strategy. The social worker preps the client to specify his needs and then places the call. At times, being a role model of "how to" is demonstrated, afterward, the client follows up within his own budding coping skills.

At times, linkage as a volunteer becomes a stepping-stone. Roswell has many such offerings, from being a nursing home visitor to those without families nearby, to aiding in surplus food hand-outs at St. Peter's church, to making scenery or costumes for plays put on by the Roswell Community Little Theatre. Whenever a human being feels accepted by peers, self-esteem expands. Everybody benefits.

Fighting Back Fear

While yours truly has some extrovert traits, many others are more guarded and even fearful to tell their real needs. Perhaps a track record of prior rejections is the reason they hold back. Anxiety - another word for stress - makes some into what we call "uptight" in telling it like it is.

It would be wonderful if we could magically invent a "confidence transplant," but unfortunately that's highly unlikely. so we need to focus on reducing that stress. Therapists and counselors have an emotional tool kit to accomplish this feat.

There are special breathing techniques, as well as using the powers of imagery and imagination. Yoga and meditation and tai chi can induce relaxation. In fact, any physical activity that gets the circulation going and eases up the mental muscles is useful. The very act of being in motion helps us curtail our inner commotion.

All of this is based on the notion that anxiety poses a barrier to self-esteem.

Finally, how do we measure progress? Ordinarily, the experienced social worker asks a series of questions to register movement. There are professional checklist inventories, from the Beck Depression Test tot eh Burns Anxiety Inventory, that reflect symptoms and how intense they are.

I sometimes take a sheet I term a Feeling feedback chart. it contains some 50 cartoon faces covering almost every human mood reaction. In asking the client to check off their recent feelings, I am able to follow up in learning what the trigger-points had been. Yes, it is almost as though we were taking their "mental pulse."

Rarely do we find progress immediate. just like an infant learning to walk, all of us falter and fall. But we don't simply quit; we try again, encouraged by others that we shall eventually make it, step to step. The social worker is our sideline coach to mastering this coping.

hoping is not enough. we must reach out to others beyond friends and family for that extra boost. Together let's melt those icebergs!

Editor's note:  Lee Coyne would like to thank both Richard Housner and Ann Anderson for being valuable mentors in enhancing his social work/therapy skills.

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