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I’ve always found a twisted enjoyment in the phrasing of depressive periods as “episodes”. The term helps me to depersonalize my experiences by imagining my mind stuck on a streaming service that plays only Big Bang Theory, forever torturing me with “Next episode starting in…” with the remote just out of reach. When that remote is out of reach, you and I have two choices: passively continue watching that dumpster fire that somehow keeps getting renewed for more seasons and spin-offs, or make use of the secret weapon that therapy hands us: coping strategies.
In my own personal definition, I differentiate “coping strategies” from “self-care” by thinking of coping strategies as being very intentional and precise, targeting specific thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, while thinking of self-care as general daily preventative maintenance. For example, you may enjoy cooking, and consider it to be self-care, but you probably won’t be able to cook yourself a meal if you’re having an onslaught of depressive or anxious thoughts at work.
That’s where coping strategies come in. There is very little to be done to make a depressive episode “go away”, but we can still fight back and keep it from consuming us. Coping strategies are also universal, because adverse life events are universal; no diagnosis is required! In no particular order, here are five strategies that I have found useful in my personal experiences:
I once wrote in my journal, “It’s a bit scary not even being able to trust yourself”. Deep down, I would know that depressive and anxious thoughts were lies, but I would begrudgingly accept them as truth. Believing the lies leads to worse feelings, worse feelings lead to believing more lies, and down the rabbit hole I’d go. Remember what the dormouse said.
Mindfulness exercises are diverse in their execution, but mostly focus on helping one to be present in the moment. That presence includes separating fact from fiction when it comes to the thoughts and feelings that a particular illness may bring with it. In the case of anxiety, the body’s fight-or-flight response gets activated but, since the danger isn’t truly present, you neither fight nor run, leaving heart rate, adrenaline, and other systems elevated. Using a mindfulness technique such as square breathing, one can focus on regaining control of these systems, reducing the anxious feeling.
Meditations, prayer, and other exercises also fall under the umbrella of mindfulness. Guided meditations that focus on muscle relaxation, or intentional prayer for what you’re going through, help to re-center our focus on what’s happening in the moment, rather than feelings of depression or anxiety about the past and future.
Evidence for, evidence against
One of the greatest things my therapist ever taught me was that feelings don’t lie, our interpretations do. Our bodies send out signals for emotion before the brain processes the information, leading to some pretty interesting (if flawed) studies on how easily tricked we truly are.
Falsely attributing our emotions is one of the hardest things to overcome in the throes of depression. Your mood is already lowered, you receive a short response from your friend via text, and you think, “They don’t want to talk to me, let alone spend any time with me”. You feel rejected, so you’re less inclined to reach out, further adding to the feelings of loneliness and isolation that so often accompany a depressive episode. This is where an exercise referred to as “evidence for, evidence against” comes in handy!
Also known as “putting thoughts on trial“, the goal is to look at your situation as objectively as possible, helping to show the reality of the situation instead of what depression, anxiety, or other conditions are causing you to see. Take the above scenario with the friend whose text message seemed short. The evidence for their lack of enthusiasm to speak to or spend time with you is fairly thin, consisting only of one message. The evidence against, however, could be any number of things: recalling previous conversations or quality time that was enjoyed by all, not knowing if they were working when they saw your message, and so on. Similar to mindfulness, this exercise helps to put the tangible facts front-and-center, helping talk back to your illness.
Weighing the pros and cons
Surely there’s a more elegant name out there for this exercise, but I can’t remember it for the life of me.
Edit: My therapist reminded me that it’s referred to as a cost/ benefit analysis, or decisional balance. Thank you!
It sounds almost deceptively simple, but this is a highly effective method for making tough decisions. My therapist and I worked through this method when I was trying to determine whether to go to graduate school full time, or to remain full time at my job. Both options had their pros and cons, and that’s the goal – looking at the good and bad aspects of both decisions, and coming to a well-informed decision based on which set of consequences are preferable. Worksheets are available online, but as an example, mine looked something like this:
Pro – Full time work
More moneyWon’t have to wait for part time spot to openEase myself back into school instead
Con – Full time work
Longer time before graduationUnsure of rules pertaining to number of hours vs. scholarship awards
Pro – Full time class
Graduate soonerJump back in to school (focus more attention on it)
Con – Full time class
Less moneyCould be overwhelming to go back to full time class after 4 years awayHave to wait for part time spot to open at work before I can lower hours
In my case, the set of consequences surrounding working full time were much more preferable to those surrounding a larger class load, which truly helped me come to an informed and comfortable decision.
Keeping a fairly consistent record of your daily activities, feelings, and thoughts can be an amazing tool when it comes to mental health. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a daily occurrence, but journaling is useful in helping you to recognize patterns in your behavior, as well as noticing circumstances that can exacerbate the negativity associated with your mental illness. For example, you may notice more positive journal entries on days when you go jogging or spend time with friends.
Within cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), forms of journaling such as thought tracking are used frequently in order to see the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By putting into words the things that happen, how you felt, what you thought, and how you reacted, you’ll be able to notice and eventually adjust possibly maladaptive aspects of your routine, replacing them with more positive things!
This one probably sounds like a no-brainer, but books, television, movies, and video games can be incredible tools of coping, or they can drag you further down. It’s all about balance!
That balance is something that I’ve had a lot of trouble finding. Watching an episode of Parks and Recreation because you enjoy it and it makes you laugh is a great release from depression. Watching five episodes in a row because your depression is making you lethargic, ignoring more productive and necessary activities because of it, can become a problem. The same can be said for video games, where the inherent escapism can be helpful in giving you something enjoyable to do in your day, while running the risk of being the only thing you do during the day.
In my experience, regardless of which form of media you enjoy, I’ve found it helpful to set reminders or alarms. This is absolutely one of the realms where coping strategies overlaps with self-care; media gives us a chance to relax and recharge, while also helping give us comfort when we need it most, as long as it’s used in the right amounts. Giving yourself an hour to enjoy a good book before starting on homework is a great way to recharge, and setting a reminder will help give you a tangible “push” to get important work done.
These are only a few coping strategies that are out there. Many websites are out there that contain resources, suggestions, worksheets, and more pertaining to coping and self-care. Additionally, hundreds of apps, such as Pacifica, are available for free, and contain many of the same coping strategies mentioned here. No matter what your preferences, finding strategies that work for your needs will go a long way in helping you keep up the fight! If you have any further thoughts or suggestions, let me know in the comments!