Coping mechanisms are dime-a-dozen on the internet, but there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the mystery of the brain. I don’t know what underlying processes are tripping me up, and I know that I still need better techniques and more direction in managing myself.
That said, I’ve collected a toolbox of strategies and work-arounds that get me through most days. They don’t work all the time every time, but I’ve found that regardless of actual progress, the feeling of attempting to combat something (taking it into my own control) gives me a much more stable feeling than surrender.
In short, I’d rather fight than be a victim of my own mind. These are my weapons.
- Toilet time
This came from a psychologist who pointed out that ‘no one actually knows what you’re doing in the bathroom’. Once we established that the bathroom could be used for more than human necessities, she opened my eyes to the concept of a ‘five minute break room’ where I could unwind and gather my thoughts.
I was working in a hectic retail environment at the time, somewhere very difficult to find any semblance of quiet. Ducking to the loo was something I could do when I felt that I was getting edgy or anxious, a place where I could refocus and stabilise myself before going back to work.
And funnily enough, once I accepted it as an option and knew I could do that–the less I actually needed to.
- Let it happen
When you’re beginning to spiral into a full-blown panic attack (especially the ones that don’t seem to be triggered by anything, they just hit like a truck on the freeway), ‘letting it happen’ seems like the stupidest idea in the world.
You feel like if you let it have its way, the panic attack will leave you broken and battered and you won’t recover. It’s not hyperbole to say you think you might die–because sometimes you find yourself very concerned that if you don’t force yourself under control you literally won’t survive.
Counter-intuitive as it is, accepting the panic attack and letting it happen without a fight actually helps to restore calm. Panic attacks feed on fear. Your fear of the panic attack causing harm to you is what makes it last longer. Your fear of the horrible heart-racing, mind-dizzying, body-shaking, nausea-inducing symptoms–and your subsequent fight to stop it all from happening–is you engaging with the panic and making it stronger.
Don’t let me kid you, it’s hard. The first few times it feels impossible. And yes, I still fail at this frequently–but where you can, take one deep breath. Accept that you’re having a panic attack, and you’re going to let it do whatever it has to.
Then, without trying to fight or stop what’s happening in your body, observe how you feel. Gosh–that’s a fast heart rate. Ah, I’m sweating in a cold environment.
If you feel dizzy, lie down and do the same. After a few incidents, you’ll learn by experience that the symptoms won’t cause lasting harm. You’ll become more comfortable with the way your body responds, and you’ll have a lot less fear feeding the panic attack. And if you’re not feeding the panic attack, guess what?
It doesn’t last anywhere near as long.
- Vitamin D
This comes with the standard disclaimer: before taking on supplements of any kind, consult with your doctor and/or therapist. I am not a doctor. I don’t pretend to be a doctor. However, I was advised by a doctor that my Vitamin D levels were low and that this could be making depressive episodes even worse.
Vitamin D is the one you can get naturally by soaking up the sun, so it’s no surprise that I was deficient. Once your levels are low to the point mine was, it’s hard to boost them back up without some significant help. A few hours outside wasn’t going to cut it, so I began taking supplements.
The difference was more drastic than I could have imagined, and it’s now part of my daily routine (when I remember. I suck at routines). If you think this may help you, speak with a health professional.
- Silly Tap Games
When I’m feeling edgy or scattered, I find I can bring myself in line a little by forcing myself to focus on a single thing. In school it was drawing or writing stories that had zero to do with classwork, but as an adult I don’t always have pen and paper handy. Even if I did, it’s not always convenient to whip out a notepad in the middle of a supermarket.
This is where touch-screen smartphones came to my rescue: a narrow point of focus that I can hone in on and tune everything out while I put myself back together. Games like Candy Crush Saga, 2048 and even Pokemon GO have minimal real-world value, but for me they provided the perfect two-minute reset I need to keep moving forward.
- Keeping it simple
There is absolutely no reason you should make life hard for yourself, even if you don’t have a rebellious mind. But if you do, it becomes doubly important to think about the way you do things and whether you can do them when you’re at your lowest.
Could you cook a full meal in your worst state? No? Keep a stash of microwave-ready meals.
Could you complete a full wash-tone-cleanse beauty routine? No? Get the all-in-one wipes off the supermarket shelf.
Could you shampoo and condition your hair? There’s no shame in having a children’s 2-in-1 on your shower rack for those days. Or weeks. Or months.
Other strategies include wearing dresses to avoid the choice-burden of selecting a shirt and trousers (it sounds dumb but it’s a thing. Dresses + black tights provide an instant outfit with minimal thought), finding a hairstyle that doesn’t require precise preening (the messy bun is a blessing); and hanging your shirts and other hanging items on a hanger as they come out of the wash (I often peg these hangers to the line… or hang them on the curtain rail) will take the pegs on/pegs off element out of laundry and as a bonus… you can carry it straight to the wardrobe for hanging!
I’d love to hear other strategies to simplify tasks that feel overwhelming on a bad day!
- Don’t assume. Ask.
If you’re like me, you spend way too much time wondering what someone really meant when they said something. Did that half-sideways look mean they are upset with me? Were they joking with that insult, or sincere? Did I say something offensive and not know it?
Those thoughts are toxic and they get really ugly really quickly.
So I try not to engage them. In fact, I openly challenge them. Nothing defeats a malicious lie your head tells you like the honest truth.
More than a few of my friends have been confronted with my ‘I’m not sure if this is a thing, but I think you might be upset with me and I just wanted to make sure that I hadn’t done anything wrong because I want you to like me and if I did something dumb please tell me’ conversation. Almost every time, it’s my head lying.
Yes, there’s the fear of having that horrible whisper in your head confirmed as truth. But I no longer have time for these sorts of misunderstandings. If someone doesn’t like me or want me around, I’d rather hear it from them–however hurtful it is–than wonder about it indefinitely. It’s the uncertainty that makes it harder.
Once you know something, and it becomes real, you’re in a position to make a new plan and move forward. You can’t do that while you’re unsure. So ask.
- Do what you can, when you can
Sounds like advice so simple it’s obvious, and yet it’s not. It took a counsellor to point out that I was expecting myself to retain eight hours of constant focus when my body was not wired to work that way.
I was getting unreasonably frustrated, constantly throwing myself into tasks when I didn’t have the mental resources to complete them, and beating myself up every time I failed. Now, I have the capability to get a lot of work done in a very short time–providing I don’t spiral into bleak and paralysing self-loathing.
There are times where, yes, I have to fight it and force myself to be productive when I honestly and truly have very little left. And I never, ever bank on having a ‘productivity boost’ to get something done. But being productive is more than just getting the task done.
Consider this scenario where you have an essay to write:
Low energy and just want to be in bed? Switch Netflix for a documentary or youtube lecture on the subject.
Can’t focus fully? Scribble out any thoughts pertaining to the essay topic as they come. However messy and unformed.
Visual stimuli (screens, books etc) causing issues? Find a podcast related to the topic, or use your time in a dark room to meditate on what points you may cover.
When you do feel productive, capitalise on those times. Have a list of things you want to accomplish, know what you want to achieve when you have the resources–and leave yourself enough time to still get things done if you have to fight through it.
Don’t expect miracles of yourself. Work with your mind, rather than against it.
- Know what you need to be comfortable
I get laughed at sometimes for the heavy bag I lug around with me, even if I’m only going somewhere for a few hours. But that bag contains everything I need to be comfortable if plans change. Chief among them, a spare set of clothes and my laptop.
I always worry that I’m going to be ‘caught out’ somewhere. I want to be flexible enough to go with the flow. As someone who doesn’t drive, being prepared to stay somewhere I didn’t expect to stay is important. I can’t always be mentally prepared for changing plans, but I can make an effort to have things on hand that will make it easier.
There’s a lot of ‘in case I’ scenarios and items that fill my bag that I may never bring out. I have my Nintendo DS in there in case I want to play a proper video game. I have a sketch pad and full set of mechanical pencils, in case I feel the overwhelming desire to draw.
Mostly I just need spare clothes (logical) and my laptop, which allows me the comfort of being able to do what I usually do at home. Check Facebook, skim my emails, research whatever weird thing has popped into my head today. Some times I need it more, other days I don’t even get it out. But like the pencils and the Snickers bar hidden at the bottom of the bag for emergencies, I know it’s there.
Nothing upsets me more than something not being an option. My bag of options allows me to be flexible in ways that my mind often doesn’t.
- Know what soothes you
For me, it’s water. Showers and baths especially, which has the bonus effect of being personal care as well as self care. It’s more than just getting physically clean for me. It’s like the water can soak out all the shakes and regulate the storm inside my head. I lose time in the shower as a result, and what feels like only a few minutes can end up being hours and a lot of angry knocks on the door.
Still, I know that most of the time it works. And if there’s something non-harmful that soothes you, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about indulging in it.
Accept it, and turn it into a defense against bad days. Only when the frequency of your soothing methods disrupts your ability to function is it ever a problem.
- I’m armed with alarms
I forget really, really dumb things. I also lose time very easily. I’m the classic ‘opened Google to look up something and suddenly it was 3am’, ‘one more chapter’, and the TV binger that Netflix was made for. Mostly it’s fine. When I stay up late, I cop the tiredness the next day–but it was worth it.
What isn’t worth it? Forgetting to eat.
For whatever reason, my body just doesn’t poke me and say HEY. HEY YOU. WE NEED FOOD. So it’s not uncommon for me to get to some post-9pm hour and realise that I should probably deal with that. I am similarly bad with medication, or basically anything that involves a routine.
Solution? My phone is full of alarms. Now that I’m in a more regular 8-5 job I don’t need them as much, but working supermarket shifts across the schedule I used them to remind me of basic things that would otherwise slip my mind. I still have one that prompts me to take my medication.
Although I no longer have cats of my own, I enjoy the presence of my housemate’s cats. I had three before I moved interstate, which was probably too many if we’re perfectly honest, but the rewards far outweighed the responsibility.
Animals can provide an amazing source of company that doesn’t demand resources you don’t have. I miss quietly sitting with my boys curled up on my lap, watching trashy TV. I didn’t feel alone.
It can be extremely isolating when you feel like interacting with another human being is going to take the last of your resources away, like you’re going to snap if you are forced to make conversation one more time. I feel like that a lot after work, and the quiet snuggly company of a cat allows me the breathing space I need to recharge and calm down without feeling entirely disconnected from the rest of the world.
But–cats, and other animals of course, are not just for therapy. They are beings with their own needs and wants, and they will be dependent on you as a human to help meet those needs. If you’re considering animal company, ask yourself what you’d be capable of on your worst day.
Don’t get a dog you won’t be able to walk. Don’t get a cat if tending a litter tray will be a struggle. Don’t get a bird if noise makes you uncomfortable.
It might be that you have to accept some hard truths about yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to go without, though.
Find a shelter that wants volunteers to play with their occupants. Walk their dogs on a good day, or have coffee with a friend to snuggle their cat. There are ways and means for the people who look for them. Me? I have housemates with two gorgeous cats.
There’s no shame in using strategies like these to make your life easier. I like to prepare for myself as I am on a bad day, which allows me the freedom of seriously easy-breezy good days to make up for the struggle.
Whether they were advised by doctors and therapists, or things we discovered in ourselves, we all have our own coping strategies. I’d love to hear yours!