Coping Mechanisms: My way or the highway?

I’ve been listening to the audiobook Insomnia by Stephen King (1994). About three hours and forty minutes in, the main character receives a letter from a friend. At the time the friend wrote the letter, she was staying in a home for women who had experienced domestic violence. In the letter, she says: “I’m finding more women who know what I’ve been through than I ever would have believed. I mean, you see the TV shows – Oprah talks with women who love men who use them for punching bags. But when it happens to you, you can’t help feeling that it’s happening in a way it’s never happened to anyone else…in a way that’s brand new to the world. The relief of knowing that’s not true is the best thing that’s happened to me in a long, long time” (King, 1994). This really speaks to me because it reinforces the idea that there is this collective human struggle with abuse, depression, anxiety, etc.. We feel completely alone until something happens that opens our eyes to the fact that we aren’t the only ones. There are others who experience what we experience.

I felt this was a great way to introduce a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while now: coping mechanisms. The reason it seems appropriate is because there are a million different coping mechanisms, thousands of self-help books, and just as many different therapists and gurus. How does this relate to the quote from the Stephen King book? I firmly believe that, although we all need to recognize that we are not alone in our struggles, we must respect the fact that we are all unique individuals with unique experiences. As soon as we get stuck in the rut of thinking our own coping mechanisms are the best, that is when we instantly reduce our ability to reach out to those around us.

I see this bumper sticker in my apartment complex on a daily basis. The well-meaning individual lives a couple buildings over from me. I say the individual is well-meaning because, at first glance, the bumper sticker may seem like a positive thing – it is encouraging people to not put chemicals into their bodies. However, as someone who takes medication daily for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, it comes across as a touch narrow minded.

bumper sticker

Let me explain. I personally have tried many different things to help me “fix” my issues – counseling, meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing, medication, physical exercise, staying busy, diet, chiropractic care, crafting, socializing, alcohol (not healthy, I know), and some other things I’m sure I am forgetting. People recommend various coping mechanisms to me all the time – they’ve tried this or that and feel it is the best possible option. I’m happy for anyone who has found a coping mechanism that works best for them, but unfortunately, that does not mean it will work best for everyone else. Because my life experiences, support network, brain chemistry, personality, and any number of variables differ from you, it may or may not work for me. Therein lies my issue with that bumper sticker – don’t assume that meditation will work for everyone and that medication should not be a valid option. In her 2015 book Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson makes this incredibly powerful statement regarding those who live with mental illness: “I can’t think of another type of illness where the sufferer is made to feel guilty and question their self-care when their medications need to be changed.” If medication helps someone get up and face another day – helps someone survive – who is anyone else to make them feel guilty for that? For me personally, I can say with confidence that medication saved my life. What good does meditation do me if I’m not alive to meditate? Nothing about life is black and white, so we should not expect coping mechanisms to be the same.

To show how vastly different coping mechanisms can be, I thought I would share a few of my own. Based on what I shared above, I am not intending to offer a panacea or must-try coping mechanism. I simply want to show you that it’s never just one thing. My interests are different from your interests, which means my conglomeration of coping mechanisms will likely not reflect yours. I do think it is important, though, to recognize that our interests and strengths should be utilized when trying to identify the best way to get through an anxiety attack or decompress after a difficult day. If something I share speaks to you, give it a try! If not, DON’T give it a try. Always keep an open mind when talking to others about coping mechanisms. Try not to belittle something that works for them – it may be the only thing preventing them from jumping off the ledge!

  1. Medication

My number one coping mechanism is medication. I have been off and on various anti-anxiety and anti-depressants for my entire adult life. I have been with the same psychiatrist for about a year and a half now and we finally are figuring a good medication combination. As anyone with mental health issues will tell you, it’s difficult to find that “sweet spot” as far as medication is concerned. There are countless types of medication, and each individual responds differently to any one of them. My strongest recommendation with this coping mechanism is to have patience: sometimes it takes a while, but it’s possible to find the right dosage or combination to help you function on a daily basis. It doesn’t “fix” anything, but it helps you manage your symptoms in a way that allows you to live as normally as possible. For all the medication nay-sayers out there: please remember that we are all unique and that being alive is better than being off medication.

  1. Blogging/Writing

I have been shocked by how cathartic blogging can be. I have always been one to keep a journal, but this is taking written thoughts to a whole new level. I like to describe journaling as verbal vomit – it doesn’t matter how or what I say because I don’t intend for anyone else to ever see what I write. Usually, this translates to me writing down a bunch of emotional nonsense that I never read again. The blog, on the other hand, forces me to read what I write and think extra hard about it, as I know at least a few other people will be reading it. Because my goal is to reach as many people as possible, I obviously want my thoughts to be well-written and coherent enough for people to keep coming back for more. A surprising byproduct of this is that I am processing more of my emotions and experiences than ever before. Instead of angrily or emotionally “vomiting” on a page, I am wading through my feelings in a way that forces me to confront the demons within. According to Paulo Coelho (2011), “Words are tears that have been written down. Tears are words that need to be shed. Without them, joy loses all its brilliance and sadness has no end.” This is beautiful to me because it captures how powerful the written word is when processing complex emotions. In a way, this blog has set me free.

  1. Arts & Crafts

I enjoy learning new things and perfecting existing skills. These days I apply most of that passion to the realm of arts and crafts. Whether it’s teaching myself how to crochet, knit, cross stitch, paint, or draw, I find great emotional release in taking a ball of yarn, blank page, or any other form of “nothing,” and creating something beautiful. Not only does it occupy my hands, it reminds me that goodness and beauty can come as a direct result of my own hard work. It also provides me the chance to accept that I am not perfect, as very few projects actually end up looking as perfect as I would like.

“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something” (Vonnegut, n.d.).

  1. Reading/Audiobooks

Books offer such a wonderful escape from reality. There are times when I just want to jump into the life of another – to experience someone else’s joy, someone else’s heartache, or someone else’s drama. The words on a page give me something to focus on when everything in my own life feels out of focus. I have also discovered a great love for audiobooks, which allow me to either rest my eyes or work on crafts while still keeping my mind busy. If my mind is not busy with something already, I will find situations to be anxious about or to worry about. There is certainly something to be said for distractions!

  1. Sleeping

Iris Murdoch states that “there is a gulf fixed between those who can sleep and those who cannot. It is one of the great divisions of the human race” (n.d.). How true! I would love to sleep for a solid 8 hours. I can’t even manage that with sleeping medication! My psychiatrist reminds me time and time again that lack of sleep lowers my threshold for both anxiety and depression. With this in mind, I take my medication religiously and do my best to clear my mind before I drift off to sleep. I never take any amount of sleep for granted, as that may be what determines whether or not I’ll be pushed over the edge on any given day.

  1. Quality time with animals

I started this blog a few days before I was gifted my puppy, so it’s really up in the air what/who has had more influence on my sanity. Maybe it’s 50/50. A friend of mine was looking for a new home for her pup, so I jumped at the chance to have a companion again. There is definitely something to be said for companionship – having another living thing that relies on me gives me incentive to make sure I am here to feed, water, and love him. He does an excellent job reminding me that I am here for a reason, that I am worthy of unconditional love, and that I can do good in someone/something else’s life.

  1. Positive friends & family

I can’t forget all the amazing people who hold me up when I have no strength left. I will never forget the time a coworker pulled me aside and asked if I was okay…she had noticed I didn’t seem myself. Little things like that can sometimes make all the difference. That coworker showed me that people do notice. Thank you to everyone in my life who continues to push me toward bigger and better things. Thank you to everyone who reminds me that life really is worth living. Thank you to everyone who tells me what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear. Thank you to everyone who loves me exactly the way I am. You mean the world to me and I wouldn’t be here without you.

 

 

References

 

Coelho, Paulo. (2011). 1 Min Reading: tears are words that need to be written. Retrieved from http://paulocoelhoblog.com/2011/08/02/tears/

King, Stephen. (1994). Insomnia [audiobook version]. Simon & Schuster Audio.

Lawson, Jenny. (2015). Furiously happy: A funny book about horrible things (First edition.). New York: Flatiron Books.

Murdoch, Iris. (n.d.). Iris Murdoch Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/453940-there-is-a-gulf-fixed-between-those-who-can-sleep

Vonnegut, Kurt. (n.d.). Kurt Vonnegut Quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/529521-practicing-an-art-no-matter-how-well-or-badly-is

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