Writing a post on coping strategies does strike me as coming full circle. I started my mental health journey relying very much on distractions and healthy coping methods, such as studying, running, and prayer. While they were crucial to my remaining functional at home and school for a long, long time (no complaints there!), I continued to struggle badly with disconcerting mood swings in private. Eventually, as is prone to happen to even the most stoic of us (much less me), I exhausted my inner resources and turned to not-so-healthy ways of coping.
At this point, I’d also begun seeking help from various mental health professionals, but was told repeatedly to keep up with the running (think mindful working of the muscles, deep breaths, and healthy lifestyle in a very non-yoga-relaxed way). I’ve come to understand where they’d been coming from, but being told to run till I dropped wasn’t particularly comforting then, nor do I suspect it will ever be in my context. Nowadays I’m starting to reckon that, for me at least, coping works way better when I’m able to engage in distracting activities whilst honestly confronting my emotions, and am willing to ebb and flow together with them.
So I decided to try out coping mediums that would be a better reflection of how I am feeling at any given moment. And that’s how art and animals came in! Whilst providing healthy distractions, they were also patient enough holding spaces to leave me (relatively) unscathed while discharging the explosive, pent up emotions. Of course, there are also days when I desperately want a distraction that doesn’t involve facing up to my feelings. Or times when I am so out of touch that I simply cannot concentrate and tune into myself. That’s where avenue like school, friends, and church still come in handy.
I guess at the end of the day, the concept of coping is also tied up with balance. I don’t want to strive and struggle to the extent of always anxiously overexerting control in compensation for an ‘abnormal’ or ‘depressed’ mind. But neither do I want to wallow too deeply in the doom and gloom that may come with painting my tenth consecutive morbid, morose and monochromatic art-piece. Safer, less extreme, coping strategies for me usually involve talking through my artwork with someone safe or petting the stray cats I’ve befriended from around my old neighborhood. I guess that’s my journey and I am still trying to stay on the center path in the midst of this ongoing battle.
What I’ve sort of learned (and forgotten and tried to relearn) is that focusing on a negative emotional response, such as grief, does reveal positive stuff, like how precious life is, too – what matters deeply, what you love and simply cannot live without. Negative emotions serve a function in our lives and can be our friends if we let them. I say this not to undermine the seriousness of mood disorders such as depression and mania, but because I’ve experienced how destructive numbing myself to these genuine emotions can be to my self-concept and sense of worth. So for now, I try to consciously use my coping methods to remain connected to people and things (just to share: pets, random insects kids parade to me, lots of books, potted plants!), rather than to distract and disconnect from myself indefinitely. Knowing that I don’t have to constantly ‘force’ myself to remain distracted from all my painful emotions/moods comes as a huge weight off my shoulders. It sounds pretty counterintuitive, but regardless of past negative experiences, I’ve actually begun to appreciate my new working relationship with Mr. Coping.
Feel free to share whatever you understand of ‘coping’ as well, and a note on how it works (or does not work) for you, be it in struggling with mental disorders, traumatic experiences or just plain old nasty ‘bad days’! Everyone has a different way of coping both valued and unique to him or her as a person, and that’s perfectly alright (attractive even: think cool surfer dude or boho florist lady). I think that’s what makes the idea of coping such a special and universal topic for us all.
Disclaimer: The perspective of coping presented here is colored by my ongoing struggles with mood dysregulation. As such, the above should not be taken as representative of the community’s experiences and working knowledge of all coping techniques and strategies.