One of the greatest things about the human mind is that it automatically knows how to cope. The defense mechanisms you use to temper your anxiety today developed unconsciously because your mind knew they were the best option for decreasing suffering at least at one point in time.
When our defenses become more habitual and inflexible over time, they might not always serve us in our best interest. This is precisely why so many people say we are our own worst enemy. If you’re reading this, you’re probably smart enough to already know this. But even smart people do not-so-smart things.
In this post, I detail several coping skills for the anxious soul. Let’s start with what might potentially be the most difficult one…
GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO FEEL YOUR EMOTIONS
The natural human tendency is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. While it is important to find ways to maximize happiness in life, acknowledging when you feel bored, angry or sad is just as important.
It is common when we don’t feel well that we try to resist our feelings. Some people may resist feeling their feelings by distracting themselves with substances, technology, and reckless behaviors. Unfortunately, these are short-term strategies that only prolongs the process of coming to terms with how we feel about ourselves and our situation.
When strategies for dealing with stress become inflexible, we may develop personality patterns that are difficult to undo. One example of this would be an obsessive-compulsive character who cannot help but clean items to an excessive degree based on irrational fears of dirtiness.
Basically, when we put off feeling our feelings, we deny ourselves the potential for self-acceptance, learning and growth. Give yourself permission to feel as you do and accept that what you are experiencing is real, which brings me to the next point.
PRACTICE MEDITATION, MINDFULNESS, AND ACCEPTANCE
Get in the habit of practicing how to be present with yourself in the moment. The benefits of regular meditation practice might exceed the benefits of anything else I’ve ever heard of.
Do a quick google search now on the scientific benefits of meditation and prepare to be floored. Meditation alters brain activity, strengthens the immune system, decreases feelings of depression and anxiety, improves emotional regulation, focus ability, productivity, creativity, and even slows down the aging process. Unfortunately though, you will never levitate off of the floor.
There are some misconceptions about meditation – that it is for spiritual gurus, for example. More everyday people are practicing meditation because meditation promotes living life mindfully and accepting the moment as it is. If you can sit, breathe, and continue directing your attention to each present moment when your mind starts chit-chatting (which it never really stops doing), then this is meditation.
Start out by practicing for 10 minutes a day, then increase the time as you continue your practice. Ditch the guided meditation videos on YouTube since those can be a distraction from experiencing yourself as you are already. Instead, opt for sitting in complete silence. This is much harder since it requires more tolerance of discomfort, but if your goal in meditation is to ultimately live more authentically with less discomfort, then this may be the more direct (albeit difficult) process to undertake.
ENGAGE IN REGULAR EXERCISE
One way to change how you feel while promoting your health at the same time is to get physical. It may feel impossible to motivate yourself to move if you’re particularly depressed or don’t work out currently. However, just like deep breathing, the longer and more frequently you can do it, the more you get into the flow of it.
When exercising, the central nervous system and pituitary gland releases neurotransmitters called endorphins. Endorphins are feel-good brain chemicals, and there are over 20 of them in humans. If you go to the gym already, increase the intensity and duration of your workouts. Put in an extra set for each exercise or increase the weights you are using. If you run, challenge your body by increasing your speed or extending your run. Practice yoga. Take up social dancing, such as swing, tango, salsa or bachata.
Not only does stimulating the release of endorphins through physical exercise improve your mood, but with regular exercise you gain additional confidence from looking healthier. If exercising regularly doesn’t make you feel better about yourself, it will at least prevent you from feeling worse. You literally have nothing to lose.
EAT A HEALTHY DIET
Have you ever seen the 2004 documentary Super Size Me? The director and star of the film, Morgan Spurlock, decided to document himself eating nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. His physical, psychological and even sexual functioning deteriorated during the film. His illustration of a poor diet is rather extreme compared to what is probably the average Western diet, but it’s a solid lesson that we often are what we eat.
If you’re feeling depressed, you may be putting your health at risk if you regularly consume foods that are processed, high in sugar (soda and candy are the big ones), contain artificial ingredients, and offer little to no nutritional value.
Especially in Western culture, our food choices may be determined more by what feels pleasurable now than what gives us health and vitality long-term. Try including a variety of fresh and colorful vegetables in your diet, complex carbohydrates (quinoa, oatmeal), legumes, nuts, and lots of water. Limit your consumption of dairy and red meat, and eliminate soda and candy altogether. Moderate your portion sizes.
If you practice a healthy diet regularly, you will notice that the energy and clarity you experience throughout the day is far greater than the immediate gratification received from eating unhealthy but tasty foods.
TIDY UP YOUR HOME
I have rarely encountered someone whose living space looked disorganized that didn’t feel disorganized on the inside. There is something to be said for the psychological effects of our environment. This is exactly why many of your high school teachers or college professors suggested that you study in a clean and organized room.
One short-term strategy then for rearranging your internal discomfort is by rearranging your external comforts. Wash all the dishes in your sink (by hand), vacuum your living room, dust off surfaces, let in some sunlight, adjust the books in your library and make your bed. Sometimes rearranging furniture and adding a few inexpensive additions (such as a plant, some tea candles or a rice lamp light) can create a sense of relaxation and newness.
A common suggestion is for coping is journaling. However, this can sometimes leave people feeling worse than before if they only use their writing to ruminate on negative thought patterns. It’s important that you feel you are able to fully express yourself through journaling, but be careful if you notice that all of your entries are just your mind pressing more firmly into self-destructive thinking patterns.
Take some time to write freely for 10-20 minutes regularly. Look for common themes that keep reemerging. What are they? Think about the memories that are linked to some of these patterns. Are you able to make connections between how your past experiences are influencing the present? What feels unresolved?
think about what you want your journal entries to realistically look like in a few months as well as in a few years. This will give you a sense of direction for establishing both short-term and long-term goals. Set your goals and be as concrete and realistic as possible about what you can achieve and by when. Track your progress over time.
MONITOR INSTANT GRATIFICATION TENDENCIES
One of things that almost always gets in the way of long-term happiness are decisions that are aimed at creating short-term happiness; an instant ‘high’ gratification. This includes strategies such as substance abuse, sexual acting out, high use of social media and phone apps to feel wanted, overeating, overspending, etc…
As I mentioned at the start of this article, people by design seek pleasure and avoid pain. The problem though is that short-term happiness, no matter how many instant gratifications, are never enough to sustain long-term happiness. You will always be chasing the next high, and in the process, developing a pattern of avoiding your human experience. And the longer these patterns persist the harder they are to reconstruct.
No matter how good it feels right now, instant gratifications are a lot like fast food – something that satisfies you right now but isn’t healthy for you over time.
I like to think of coping skills like tools. You keep a few of them handy in case something needs repairing, but sometimes the repairs require outside assistance. I suspect that if there were no-fail coping strategies for eliminating human suffering from the planet, we would all know about them by now and therapists wouldn’t be needed.
Therapists are needed because the way to make sense out of human suffering is often through the same setting that suffering gets created, and that is in the context of a relationship. As much as we would like to believe we are self-directed and always in control (and this may especially be true of individualistic and Western cultures), we are inherently relational beings that need each other.
In any case, whatever your strategy for handling the human experience of discomfort, never sacrifice long-term happiness for short-term happiness.