I am looking for coping skills…
This is something that I have heard quite often in my work with people when they tell me they are experiencing either symptoms of anxiety or depression. Truth is, there are almost as many ways to cope with these negative feelings as there are reasons that we experience them in the first place.
Anxiety and depression are similar to that annoying couple that wear the same track suit, where we find one, the other is not often far behind. That is the bad news. The good news, however, is that what we do for anxiety can help with depression and vice versa. This is because they act very similarly.
Anxiety is future based and takes our brain on a runaway train of ‘what-ifs?’ Such as, ‘what if I leave the house and a piano falls on my head, and what if I am late for work and then what if I get fired, and then what if I can’t pay my rent…’ It can be EXHAUSTING.
Depressive thoughts act similarly but are based in the past. When we can not get past a persistent thought about something that has already happened and we are stuck; this is also known as rumination. For example, ‘my goldfish died 6 months ago and I am such a terrible goldfish owner and I can not be trusted to look after anything, I am completely irresponsible, nobody should ever trust me…’ again, EXHAUSTING.
So what do anxiety and depression do to our body? Well, when we are faced with a stress response in our life, our body releases two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. Neither of which are healthy long term. This is also part of the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. This is something that was very helpful as cavemen, but not so helpful in modern society. Here is why, when we were cavemen and roaming the earth and came across a sabre tooth tiger, our instinct to fight or flee kept us alive. However, we have this same stress response to a myriad of other stimuli in modern society, our phone won’t turn on, my car won’t start, I am going to be late for work, etc. Society has shifted and there are more invitations for stress while our bodies have not evolved at the same pace.
We have a finite amount of room for stress in our lives. Imagine your stress ‘reservoir’ like a large barrel. Every time we experience something stressful, we fill the barrel a little bit more. But once we get to the top, it can take something very small for the barrel to overflow. When this happens, we may have a response that does not match the stimulus. We may stub our toe and we yell at the dog, or throw the remote control for example, or we may even take it out on loved ones. In the aftermath, we may start to think that we are ‘crazy’ because our response seemed so out of line. You are not crazy, this is normal to have such a reaction when we are highly stressed. However, we are always responsible for our actions and our behaviours, so we need to take accountability for them, even in this state.
So what do we do to cope?
Finding the root cause of your stress, anxiety, or depressive symptoms is ideally where you want to get to by working on this yourself, or with a trained professional that can help you navigate this. However, to manage the feelings and symptoms, we can start to incorporate coping skills.
One of my favourite coping mechanisms is called ‘Progressive Muscle Relaxation.’ We sf begin by slowing down our breathing. When we breathe in, we are engaging our sympathetic nervous system, which prepares us to ‘fight’ and so our heart rate increases, blood pressure, breath, etc. When we breathe out, our parasympathetic nervous system engages and the opposite effect occurs, slowing everything down and relaxing us. By exhaling longer than we inhale, we automatically slow these systems down in our bodies, allowing us to experience relief.
So, step one is to slow down our breathing by breathing in for 4-5 seconds and breathing out for 5-6 seconds, completely filling and emptying our lungs as much as we can. After 4-5 deep breaths, then we are going to focus on the rest of our body and take your attention down to your feet. While you breathe in, flex and tighten all the muscles in your feet for the entire inhale, and relax completely on the exhale. Do this once and then take a full inhale and exhale without flexing anything and then repeat a second time.
Repeat the above steps for your lower legs, then your upper legs, then your torso, then your fists and forearms, then shrug your shoulders to touch your ears, and then finally scrunch up your face. Do all of these the same way – flexing on the inhale and relaxing on the exhale. You can play with how many times you do this, if you want to start at the face and work down to your feet, if you wish to go through it repeatedly, etc. There is no wrong way to do so.
Before you try the above, rate yourself 1-10 for level of stress feelings and then do so again afterwards and see what you experience and notice.
The reason that the above works is twofold. First, it is impossible to have 2 thoughts at the exact same time, and so by focusing on our breathing and bringing our attention into our body, we are helping to interrupt the runaway trains of anxious and depressive thoughts and giving our body a break from the adrenaline and cortisol. When we are in this ‘mindful’ place, then our body is releasing a different chemical named DHEA. This works to counteract the cortisol in our body. By practicing coping skills and mindful activities, we are creating a new baseline for our stress response, essentially emptying the barrel that was mentioned above.
Here is a link to more coping skills that will also help with the interruption of the stress response.The title states that it is for students, but they are techniques I have employed with clients of every age. The best strategy, is the strategy that you will do. So take a look through and try a couple and see how your body responds. Give them a try consistently over a week or two, daily, and then check in by asking yourself the 1-10 question again. This is a great website that has a great amount of content on it.
If you have coping skills and are working effectively with your mood and want to work on finding the root cause and addressing that, then contact me and we can set up a free consultation to look at what is going on and come up with a preliminary treatment plan of things that I believe will help you see relief and results in your life. You may find that your anxiety symptoms are even too high to engage in the coping skills, too. If that is the case, then we can also start there and get the skills in place before deciding what the next steps are together. Either way, you are not alone and there are people that can assist you to manage these heavy feelings and thoughts.