“Coping Mechanisms”

September 12, 2018

I am not an expert in mental health. Honestly, I’m about as far from that as somebody can get. All I am is a person, who’s getting through life as best they can, one day at a time.

I make mistakes. I do unhealthy things in hopes they’ll help. I do healthy things in hopes they’ll help.

In my years of experience, setting new personal records for most days lived, using my energy to focus on getting by, I’ve realized some of my habits aren’t…great…and I’ve done my best to come up with ways to combat that.

I’ll share three below, in hopes that my journey can help you on yours.

What I Do: Embrace Numbness

My way of coping when something goes wrong is to shut down. To shut out the racing thoughts, my mind goes blank. To hide the tears, my face gets stony. To hide my struggle, my voice becomes someone else’s, doling out ‘I’m fine’s and ‘No worries’s. I’ve spoken with people who’ve seen it happen –the way they described it is as if a wall comes down, my eyes go dead, I go on autopilot.

You don’t have to be a trained therapist to know that’s not great.

The important thing to note about this is magnitude: the occasion I mentioned before, the autopilot incident, happened after something very bad. It was caused by a sense of guilt and remorse that, upon reflection, I’ve somewhat come to terms with. That’s an extreme. But the same response can be provoked by something small –maybe I broke a pen, my plans fell through, I made a mistake on something I only noticed after it’s been sent or published.

An incident doesn’t necessarily have to be traumatic to cause this. That being said, I know, rationally, it’s not the right response. Bottling things up only makes them worse later on. I know this, but that hasn’t stopped me from doing it. And, if I’m being honest, I doubt I’ll stop anytime soon.

It’s something I need to work on as a person, I need to adapt how I respond to stressful situations.

What I Can Do Instead: Find Feeling (but Not Too Much)

I struggle with that numbness, because it oftentimes seems to permeate my being. Sometimes it feels nice to not feel anything; for me, it usually doesn’t. I struggle to feel anything but numb. Occasionally that drives the urge to do drastic things, like forms of self-harm. I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with that. I know a lot of people have.

People who haven’t felt that urge have a hard time understanding it, and on one hand I get that. But a lot of times, at least how I experience it, it comes down to forcing yourself to feel something.

I’ve read of apps that can help control the urge, or alternative, less harmful methods (like holding an ice cube). But those don’t work for everyone. And they don’t work in every situation.

So I’ll offer what helps me: my Calm Song.

Trying to force myself to be happy, to feel grateful for who I am and where I am, just makes me feel guilty and makes that lack of feeling infinitely worse. So, as I often do, I turn to music.

This may not work for you. I understand this. But it works for me, and all I can do is offer it, in hopes that it may help you, too.

The Calm Song is simple: pick a song you love, one that slows your breathing, one that sends you into a trance, one that raises goosebumps on your arms. One that you remember, even when the thoughts are racing and the world is screaming around you.

Memorize that song. Know it inside and out. When you feel that panic coming on, or that numbness, fill your mind with that song. Feel it in your chest, in your hands, in your core.

And just breathe.

What I Do: Take Failure Personally

Failure happens to everyone. It’s very rare someone masters something on their first try. Or goes a day without stumbling over their words. Or manages to not feel embarrassed by something they’ve said or done.

Failure is universal, and comes in different forms to different people.

For me, it manifests as a lack of control. If I say something wrong, I take it as failure. If I don’t nail something on the first try, I take it as failure. If I get something I see as a less-than-satisfactory grade or review, I take it as failure.

We all handle failure differently –some can take it as motivation, and use it to drive their actions. And good on them, I guess, but I’m not that person. I take it way too personally. A small failure can be crushing for me.

To be clear, most of my failures are existential, letting-down-everyone sort of deals. I tend to focus more big-picture, and that causes a lot of my stress. Your perceived failures are likely different than mine, because we’re different people. We see success and failure differently. (That’s important to remember, just in daily life.)

What I Can Do Instead: Focus on Small Victories

Something I’ve found that helps is shifting focus to small victories. You’re going to make mistakes, you’re human. We all make mistakes. Accepting that is difficult.

I find comfort in things I do throughout the day that I can view as small victories. For example, I can’t leave the house without making my bed. It’s just something I have to do, every morning, to feel made up. No one is going to see it, it really doesn’t matter –but it matters to me.

Not everyone wants to, or can, make their bed. That’s fine. Find your own small victory, something that gets you out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, or evening, or whenever). I can’t make the bed while I’m still in it, so I have to get up to make it. I know that sounds kind of foolish, but it works for me.

Something else I do is finding comfort in hygiene: I’m a full-time student working a part-time job. That means I’m away from my apartment all day, every day, so if I’m having a bad day, I don’t have the option to return to my safe haven, to shower, to put pajamas on, whatever –I have to make my own haven, wherever I am.

So I carry a dry pair of socks with me wherever I go. If it’s raining, I change socks and let my shoes dry –boom, I took control of that situation. If it’s hot, I try to remember to carry a clean shirt and deodorant with me. If I get sweaty and uncomfortable, I change shirts –I took control of that situation. Small victory over the elements.

It’s incredibly small and may seem insignificant, but it really helps me. If it can help you, too, cool. If not, that’s okay, too. Find your own way to take control of a situation, to focus your attention on small things you can control, rather than failures you can’t.

What I Do: Fear the Future

Change can be terrifying.

It usually is, especially when you reach the point in life when everyone expects you to be ready for it, and have your shit mapped out. I do not have my shit mapped out.

And that absolutely terrifies me. I’m the type of person who loves a plan. If you want to do anything with me, I need to know several business days in advance. Spontaneous springing of situations has the tendency to send me into a panic.

That’s something I’m working on, but it’s hard. Once you get into a set of mind like I have, especially when you’re used to being alone and setting your own schedule –I’m an only child. I’m usually alone. I enjoy being alone, for the most part. I’m used to it, or I think I am.

So trying to change my mindset to accept my schedule depends on someone else, not just me, is very difficult.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an agreeable person. I’m going to do my best to accommodate someone’s spontaneous plans. And I’m going to hide the fact I’m struggling to keep it together.

Something I’ve learned is that life is often spontaneous. Adapting to that when you’re not spontaneous like me can be difficult. So I ease myself into it.

What I Can Do Instead: Small Changes

My version of small changes include things in my daily life. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, like I’m stuck in a rut, I take a different route to work. I listen to an album I haven’t heard in a few years. If I happen to splurge and buy a cup of coffee, I go to a different café than normal.

It really helps me to see different surroundings –a lot of my anxiety comes from being stuck in one place, feeling like I’m not making any progress, like I’m not moving.

If I walk past different buildings, see a different part of the sky, change up my routine just a little bit, it really helps. Especially as I’m not in a position at the moment to make a significant life change, I have to do what I can where I am.

Don’t feel like you have to force yourself into change. Life sometimes forces change onto you, and these small steps are a way (for me, at least) to prepare myself to it.

Maybe it’s eating something different. Maybe you put your left shoe on before your right. Maybe you start going for a walk in the morning or the evening.

Taking small steps are more manageable than jumping right into the marathon.

I don’t really know how to end this post, because it would be very hypocritical of me to say I’ve started doing all of these. To be honest, I haven’t. I still struggle daily.

But, like I’ve said, it’s a journey. Nothing is going to happen immediately –in my experience, rushing into things never ends well.

So I’ll carry on with my small-step-a-day process, and hope that it helps. And I hope that it might help you, too.