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Let’s get one thing straight: when it comes to coping strategies (or, really, anything at all), I am only ever speaking from my experience. I do have a degree (in English Literature and Italian) and a Master’s (in International Journalism) but, when it comes to matters of mental illness, anything I write is informed not only by my own decade of struggling with depression, but also with my experience in therapy and on medication.
If you suspect you are suffering with mental illness, or finding it hard to cope, please consider talking to your GP; or calling somewhere like Aware, where there are people who are trained with giving the best advice for your specific situation.
That all being said (or, rather, written), I have been thinking a lot about the coping strategies I engage when – like now – I have had a pretty long period of feeling incredibly low. For a little back story, I did a YouTube video detailing my history with depression and the steps I take to manage my illness – including therapy, medication, exercise and (sometimes) healthy eating.
Sometimes the best coping strategies start with acceptance
One of the main things I’ve learned from more than two years of weekly therapy sessions is that there is nothing wrong with feeling low. There is no rule that states that we have to be happy, all of the time; there is nothing that states that we’re not allowed to wake up feeling sad, or to go to sleep feeling sad, or to cry for no reason whatsoever other than we just feel rubbish.
At times, when I’m feeling incredibly low, I give in to it. I take a lot of baths. I spend a lot of time in bed, or on the couch, or at my kitchen table, reading, or watching YouTube videos, or simply writing about how I’ve been feeling (you can read some of that over on my Patreon account, if you pledge to pay $1 a month for my work). I don’t force myself to exercise. I don’t force myself to eat healthy food. I cancel plans to socialise with friends and I tell them that I simply don’t feel up to it. I hope they understand. I prioritise myself and my mental health and I try to be really careful not to force myself to “put on a brave face” or “just get on with things”.
In a way, I’m lucky, in that I’m a pretty high functioning depressive. I get up and I go to work. I have only ever called in sick to a job once because of my mental health. I don’t go in with a massive smile on my face, but I get up and I put on my clothes and I go to work and later, I come home and I breathe a deep sigh of relief. I take my medication. I go to therapy. I guess I do kind of get on with things, but only as much as I can bear.
I eat what I want to
I know, logically, that my body will feel better if I nourish it with good foods. My IBS flares up if I eat too many tomatoes; I get irritable if my diet is too high in sugar. But, when I’m feeling really low, I don’t want to eat vegetables. I want to eat Indian takeaway from Bombay Pantry and drink lots of coffee and eat cake after almost every meal. And, at those times, I don’t beat myself up about it.
For me, that’s really important. My depression comes along with certain feelings of guilt, as it is. I feel bad that I – a middle-class, straight, white gal with an average-sized, able body and a family of healthy, well, people, and a good relationship and incredible friends – have the gall to be depressed. Sure, what have I got to be depressed about?
It has taken a lot of time in therapy and a lot of deep breathing (probably another of my coping strategies!) to get away from this mind frame and, even now, it rears its head more than is ideal. So for me, there is nothing to be gained in piling guilt upon guilt – if I eat something that I “shouldn’t eat” (who even decided that?), I try really hard not to assign any judgment or moral value to that meal. I am not any less (or any more) valuable due to the food I choose to consume.
I give myself the gift of time
For me, it is really important, during times when I am feeling low, not to over schedule myself. I think my time working as a freelance journalist made me really accustomed to spending time alone, and to having the luxury of that time to spend alone. In the past year, I went from spending eight hours, every day, on my own, to spending maybe two – and, often, none.
I’m not suggesting that I hate spending time with other people, but I do miss my “me” time. And, lest you get carried away, this isn’t time that I spend doing anything fancy or impressive – these are hours spent watching Suits on Netflix at my kitchen table, or folding clothes from the drying rack, or dropping bits off to the charity shop. There is nothing that calms me more than pottering around, doing menial tasks (genuinely).
With that in mind, when I’m in need of coping strategies for my depression, I will often try to give myself the gift of some time off. I’ll refuse to make plans for a Sunday, for example, simply because I want to know that I can have a lie in and watch TV if I want to or go for coffee if I want to but that I don’t need to do any of that, if I don’t feel like it. That can feel incredibly soothing to me. (I think they call this kind of shit “self care” nowadays – doing things that make you feel good and calm and in control, and like maybe you love yourself, deep down.)
And, once those coping strategies have done their jobs…
That’s when I start doing all the things that “they” tell you to do when you’re depressed. I go for walks. I exercise. I start eating more healthily and drinking more water and I call my Mum and make a plan to have lunch with her. I open myself up a little bit more to the world and I start to emerge from my little hermit cave, a bit at a time.
The thing that people who have never understood about mental illness is that, when you’re in the depths of depression, you can’t go for a f*cking run. You can’t get out of bed and cook yourself a nutritious meal, or go out on a nice long walk in the countryside. All of those things feel, for me at least, too difficult and too taxing and, in a way, a bit pointless.
It’s only once I’ve started to recover, slightly – when the fog has cleared and I’m feeling a little less sad every morning – that I can start to think about what I could do to make my body feel better, now that my mind is on the way back up.
I guess, each time this happens, it’s a lesson to me not to take my mental health for granted. As someone who suffers from depression, it can be so wonderful when you have an extended grace period – a few weeks or months when you’re feeling okay, even happy sometimes – that you forget all of the coping strategies you have to employ just to stay on that even keel.
For me, this manifested in my relaxing a bit on my exercise and my food. It was glorious, for a while; I felt like a regular person, who can go out and drink a bottle of wine with dinner and go to work the next day. But I forgot that, for me, that kind of lifestyle is simply untenable. I need to be the person who drinks one glass of wine and then stops. I need to be the person who gets up at 6am to train. I need to have a structure and a rhythm to how I manage my illness, otherwise it ends up controlling me, rather than the other way around.
I guess it’s true what they say; every day we’re learning.
Main pic credit: Matthew Henry via StockSnap