How do you cope?
Posted by lizzie.coopersmith
13th Apr 2014

If you Google search Ďself help tips for (insert mental illness here), youíll find pages and pages of advice. But the thing about mental illness is that no two people will ever have exactly the same experience of the same mental illness, which means that no two people will have exactly the same coping methods. Itís for this reason that I thought I would share what I think are some of my most useful coping strategies, which, although I personally suffer from anxiety and depression, could be applied to a much wider range of mental illnesses.

1. Do things the easy way

This advice was given to me by my mum, and itís proved to be one of the most useful pieces of advice Iíve ever received. At first, I thought doing things the easy way was cowardly; Iíve always been someone who insists on doing things the Ďproperí way Ė even if thatís very challenging Ė so initially I was reluctant to take this advice. However, doing things the easy way is not the same as Ďchickening outí.

In my example, I was making life extremely difficult for myself by staying at university, an environment that I hadnít settled into well, whilst I was at a particularly low point. Of course, I didnít have to stay at university. Itís not like there was anyone checking up on me every night to make sure I was in my flat, nor was there ever any kind of register taken at lectures. But I had set myself a goal to remain at university, without going home for a break, for the entirety of the first semester (late September to mid-December), and to me, this goal became more of a binding contract than merely a personal challenge. I only live an hour (or less) away from university, so it would have been very simple for me to come home for a weekend, or even a couple of days during the week, as my lecture schedule was very sparse.

On one of my particularly bad days, I was on the phone to my mum, and she said to me ĎWhy are you making life so difficult yourself? Just come home for a while; thereís no reason for you to be at university now. Do things the easy wayí. I took some convincing, because in my eyes going home mid-semester represented failure, but eventually I saw that I was only harming myself by staying in an environment I was clearly uncomfortable in. From then on, I made several trips home during the semester, and whilst I did miss out on some social activities and lectures, I realised that I wasnít in the right state for them anyway, and coming home Ė the easy option Ė gave me the comfort and rest I needed in order to recuperate.

2. Prioritise

When suffering from a mental illness, and I think particularly depression and/or anxiety, you can often feel completely overwhelmed; like youíve got far too much on your plate and have absolutely no idea how to handle everything. In this situation, itís very important to have time to yourself; more time than people who donít suffer from mental illness, and in order to have this time, you need space on your plate.

The way to achieve this space is by prioritising. Whilst it helps a lot of people to be busy, and itís positive to engage yourself in lots of activities, there is no point in exhausting yourself by spreading yourself too thin, and becoming unnecessarily stressed because you donít know where to start focusing your energy. Start by defining whatís most important to you, whether this is a particular activity or perhaps your mental wellbeing itself, and then work down the priority list from there. Alternatively, work backwards and cut out the things that arenít so important, until youíve got more room on your plate.

Iím not saying that prioritising is easy. If youíre someone who likes to Ďdoí and be busy all the time like me, then prioritising is very difficult. When I got to a particularly bad place, I had to prioritise my mental health, and then work around that. Unfortunately for me, this meant I had to give up on a lot of things I enjoyed, like dance and daily exercise. In the long term, however, it was necessary for me to prioritise my mental health, because if I hadnít given up on other things, I wouldnít have been able to devote enough time to recovery. Now, because I prioritised and cut certain things out of my life for a while, Iíve been able to re-introduce those things, as Iím now able to handle a fuller plate. So, whilst prioritising may be difficult initially, it will be beneficial in the long run.

3. Lower your expectations

By this, I donít at all mean Ďbe pessimisticí. Lowering your expectations and being pessimistic are not the same thing. In fact, itís great to be able to be optimistic, and think, ĎIím going to be at this point in X months/days/weeks, and by that point, Iíll be a lot betterí. Goal setting is excellent, and very positive.

What I mean by saying Ďlower your expectationsí, then, is that expecting to suddenly make a miraculous recovery, or expecting your life to dramatically turn around in a certain period of time thatís fixed in your mind (whether this is a week, a month, a year, or whatever), is not helpful. If you donít get to the point where you expected yourself to be, youíll feel unnecessarily disappointed with yourself. Instead, try to take things one day at a time, and set yourself small, maneagable goals. If you have a larger goal in mind, thatís great, but putting a time limit on it isnít necessarily going to help Ė all that does put extra pressure on your shoulders, which isnít what you need. Try breaking your larger, longer-term goal down into chunks, so it seems less threatening and more achievable. That way, youíll also be able to reward yourself more often, which in itself will boost your morale.

4. Make allowances for yourself

You canít Ďseeí mental illness. Your friends and family canít see it, strangers on the street canít see it, and you yourself canít see it. But although mental illness is invisible, it doesnít mean that your condition is imaginary. You are not well.

I really donít mean to be negative by drawing attention to this fact, and I donít mean that you should look at yourself in the mirror every day and repeat to your reflection, ĎI have a mental illness, I have mental illnessÖí That isnít necessary or helpful. But, consider this: if you had a broken arm, you would accept that you need someone else to carry your bags for you. Likewise, you need to accept that there are certain things that you wonít be able to do. And that is perfectly fine.

For example, maybe, for whatever reason, youíll suddenly start to feel uncomfortable in a particular situation, and have the overwhelming urge to remove yourself from it. Irrational? No. Not at all. You are allowed to have your Ďmomentsí, just like someone with a physical illness might suddenly cry out in pain or develop a new symptom. My advice if something like this occurs? Do what makes you feel comfortable. If thatís walking away from the situation, then do it. It doesnít matter why. You donít have to explain yourself. Remember that it is not a sign of weakness, it is simply something that you need to do. And you should never feel guilty about that.

5. Help someone

Out of all the advice Iíve given, this is the one thing that I have found to be the most beneficial. Sometimes, you wake up one day, and just feel that there is absolutely nothing you can do to make yourself feel better Ė there is nothing you can do to help yourself. In this situation, I resolve to help someone else, or maybe even multiple people, that day.

It can be something as small as doing the washing up, or giving a lost person directions. On the other hand, you might decide to involve yourself in a longer-term project, whereby you give up your time to help people on a regular basis; maybe doing volunteer work, or offering to tutor someone in a subject youíre more confident in than they are. It sounds strange, that helping someone else can be beneficial to you, but I honestly think itís one of the best things you can do for yourself. It just makes you feel like youíve achieved something, that youíre a valuable person, and that you do have a purpose in the world. On top of that, youíve no doubt brightened someone elseís day. Just that has to make you smile, even just a little.

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