9 Everyday Mental Health Strategies: How I Cope with Depression and Anxiety
Bell Let’s Talk Day is a tough one. It is hard for me because it is a day of constant reminders; a day of reflection on my lowest moments.
My depression and anxiety first manifested when I was about 16 and has stayed with me - ebbing and flowing - throughout the years.
My depression and anxiety is as inherent as my brown eyes. In my twenties, it was initially crushing when a doctor wrote on an assessment something along the lines of: “Stephanie is part of a subpopulation of individuals with depression that has a multifactorial cause (both genetics as well as environmental)… and will always require medication”.
I wasn’t going to ‘get better’.
I cannot cure my depression. There is no fix. But I have come to realize that coping is just as good as curing.
I don’t often talk about my struggle. This is a personal decision. But when I do talk about mental health, I share my self-care process. So in honour of #BellLetsTalk, I’m sharing some of my coping strategies in hopes that they might help others.
Depression and anxiety can build over time, almost silently and without warning, until one day it feels completely unmanageable. It’s my opinion that if we can get better at helping ourselves and others during this time of “building”, and not just in crisis, we will all be better off.
I know that these strategies won’t be the right fit for many, but perhaps they will encourage you to make mental note of your own or talk with others about theirs.
1. Daily medication
I’ve had three major mental health crises in my life. In all cases, medication has been my lifeline to get me back into reality. I currently take sertraline, but I’ve been on many different versions of anti-depressants over the years. For a long time it very much bothered me that I needed drugs on a daily basis, but I now realize that these tiny pills are what make my life enjoyable. Without them, food tastes lackluster, my focus and joy is almost non-existent, and my body feels weighed down.
My medication keeps my head above water, so I can focus on swimming rather than struggling. Talking to your doctor about how medication might help elevate your quality of life is a must in my opinion.
2. Five minutes of meditation
Meditation and mindfulness have given me the ability to note when my body is showing the signs of anxiety. Before I started meditating, I would watch myself helplessly as I became an emotional wreck. After a year of meditation practice, I have a stronger ability to realize the warning signs my body expresses prior to having an anxiety attack. I use meditation on a semi-regular basis as a mental health reset when I feel the signs arise. Sometimes my practice is 5 minutes, sometimes it’s 20. (I also attribute meditation to teaching me the practice of self-compassion, which helps me remember that any length of time is okay.)
Tip: I know meditation might sound hokey, but it’s truly worth trying. There’s a lot of scientific evidence backing up meditation’s positive effects. I felt HeadSpace and this book by Dan Harris provided me a great introduction to the concepts.
3. See a therapist during difficult times
I see my therapist when I am so far into my own head that my irrational thoughts become reality. In my opinion, a good therapist will help you identify the lies you are telling yourself and encourage strategies for self-care. But everyone needs something a bit different.
During my divorce I saw three different therapists before finding the right fit. I know therapists are expensive, take effort and are hard to find in rural areas. But like finding the right medication, it is worth the effort. You are worth the effort.
Tip: It can be daunting to find a therapist, so start by asking people you trust and respect to see if they know of someone.
4. Write down my thoughts
Depression and anxiety often come with a brain full of negative and complicated thoughts. Writing down my feelings or experiences helps my brain process what’s going on. The exercise helps me “unload” the weight of my negative feelings, similar to talking to a therapist. It’s almost as though I can disassociate with the ideas or acknowledge their inconsistencies once they are written down in front of me. Here’s a review article from “Clinical Psychology Review” that summarizes a bunch of research on this strategy.
Tip: I have a favourite notebook and a nice pen that I reserve for these occasions. It helps me mentally separate the activity from work or writing a to-do list. It also somehow makes it feel more like a treat than a painful exercise.
5. Make a meal for myself (focusing on vegetables)
My therapist once gave me homework: make a meal for myself. “But why would I make a meal just for me? A meal is only worth making if it is for someone else.” As soon as I said it, I realized the issue. I am worth the time and effort of making a nice meal that only I will enjoy. Whenever I am struggling, I make a thoughtful meal for myself, and I make a conscious effort to focus on vegetables. When I am struggling, I tend to focus on comfort foods like bread and pasta and skip out on nutritious vegetables. I personally feel a noticeable difference the day following a dinner of veggies.
Tip: I usually focus on a tried and true recipe (like a Buddha Bowl or a stir-fry) and add new elements. When I am feeling down, I don’t want to fail in the kitchen so I stick with a faithful recipe but change up a few components. That way I know I am more apt to succeed and feel a small sense of accomplishment.
6. Spend time with animals
For people working in agriculture this might seem like a given, or perhaps a chore, but the key here is to spend time with an animal beyond caring for it. Time spent with my parents’ dog or even watching cattle on my parents’ farm resets my mental headspace. Doing chores or taking a dog on a mandatory walk is a different sort of activity that comes with pressure. Making time in my schedule to spend play time with an animal levels up my endorphins and dopamine. It also reminds me of the simple pleasures in life. Here’s a review in “BMC Psychiatry” that shows how animals support people living with mental health problems.
7. Spend time with people I trust
Spending time with my most trusted loved ones is positive for my mood. In my lowest moments I lean on the people I trust the most. It’s a different set of people from the larger group that I consider my friends. When I am feeling my most low, there are only a few people I feel comfortable being vulnerable with. This small group is one that I know is positive, loving, honest and gentle. Being with them reminds me of their appreciation of who I am. I work at trying to see myself through their eyes, which helps to remind me I am loved just as I am.
8. Go for an ugly run (or wear powerful shoes)
Over the last two years I’ve developed an impulse to literally run away from situations that I think will emotionally hurt me. I fought this impulse for months initially, until my therapist said, “Why don’t you just run?”. I didn’t like the idea of becoming a runner. “No," she said. "Ugly run entirely for the purposes of getting out that impulse”. So that’s what I did. Turns out that an ugly run, just to physically disperse my anxious energy really works. It gives me a sense of control too.
After a hard day of work, or a stressful interaction I go for an ugly run. I throw on running shoes and run like a wild woman for 15 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes. I let my mood and energy dictate. Here’s a review paper from “Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews” that summarizes the effects of exercise on major depressive disorder.
Tip: There are lots of stressful situations that I can’t just ugly run away from in the moment, especially at work. Instead, I cope by wearing “powerful” shoes. Shoes that I feel strong in. I admit it sounds weird, but it makes me feel like I have more control. So, no kitten heels for me!
9. Put my phone away
Mostly, this means that I stop checking my social media. I specifically don’t have Twitter because I know it isn’t good for my mental health. Social media has a lot of power. We each use it differently, but I know that when I am low, I can’t be trusted to use this power for good. I always end up searching subconsciously for negative reinforcement. I know this about myself and avoid it. Here’s some research published in “Computers in Human Behavior” that shows it’s not just me that struggles with this.
Tip: I put the Facebook app on my farthest phone screen, so I have to consciously scroll to it. I can’t just lick the icon without really thinking about it. It’s a way to give myself the time to ask, “Is this a good idea?”, and then make the choice from there.
Logic dictates that I should have a 10th strategy, but I don’t. So, I’m going to leave it at that. Perhaps you as the reader can chime in and share your strategies to help me round out the post? Please comment below ☺
Stephanie Craig is communications manager for the Ontario Agricultural College of the University of Guelph. She’s also an occasional sessional lecturer for the U of G Agricultural Communications class and is a past contributor to the AWN blog. Depression and anxiety also happen to be a part of her daily life.