Over the last couple of years, I've been thinking a lot about coping and how to cope better. We are all going to have difficult times in our lives, but how we cope has a huge impact on the quality of our lives.
I used to have bit of a problem with the concept that we can choose to be happy. I believed it, to an extent, but I've had some depressing moments in my life, and I wasn't sure I bought the idea that we could just choose to be happy and we would be. Whenever I heard the phrase "Choose to be happy," I pictured it like turning on a light by flipping a switch. You make the decision, and voila! You're happy!
Through experience and observation, I came to the conclusion that "light-switch" happiness is more like faking happiness. It's like that adage, "Fake it till you make it!" And while I think that can help on some level to some extent, I feel like that perspective is more like putting on a mask of happiness rather than being genuinely happy. It's like burying your other emotions and problems by slapping on a false smile. Not only can it be unhealthy, but it doesn't solve the source of your unhappiness.
I have since learned that the phrase "Choose to be happy," isn't actually anything like flipping a light switch. Choosing to be happy means choosing how to react. Really, it's about choosing how to cope. We can choose to cope in constructive ways or destructive ways.
There have been times where I have chosen to cope with things in destructive ways. Sometimes my decision to not cope has been my mode of self-destruction. And then, it's like I start this journey where I start sliding into this dark vortex of misery and endless woe, which often involved me wanting others to "save" me, and me taking no action to cope constructively. It often led me to being self-centered, focusing only on my problems and difficulties. Today, I try to always choose constructive ways to cope.
Over the last couple of years, I've been focusing on how to cope constructively. Difficult times can either make us or break us. (Though sometimes they break us to make us.) And so, like I said earlier, how we cope with them can have a huge impact on our quality of life.
First, before I go any further, I'd like to say that I'm not a doctor or therapist or anything. These are just my thoughts and my experiences and what I've learned from listening to other people and religious sources. These are what work for me, and I thought I'd pass them along. If you need professional help, I hope you will seek out professional help.
With that out of the way, I'm going to talk about some of the ways I try to cope constructively. Please note that a lot of these methods came from a therapist that a family member of mine went to when struggling with feelings of depression, and these are my interpretations of them.
Proper Food and Sleep (Not the Same as Bingeing)When I was teenager, whenever I had a breakdown and I called my dad on the phone, his first questions were almost always, "When did you last eat? What did you eat? How much sleep did you get last night?" Back then it used to kind of irk me, because I felt like it belittled my emotions and the trials I was dealing with. As an adult, I've learned that, yes, what we eat and how much sleep we get has a great impact on our abilities to cope. A part of me still hates that it's true. But it is. Our physical health has an impact on our mental health. So now those are often the first questions I ask myself. The other week I was working and feeling irritable and depressed, I quickly realized I hadn't ate properly the day before. Once I got some good food in my system, my ability to cope when up 100%--it's super-effective!
Express your FeelingsIt's okay to give yourself time to feel whatever you are feeling. It's okay to feel that way, and you are probably justified to feel that way. For years it has bothered me that crying is looked down on. Crying is just an expression of emotion! That's it. It's only a problem if you cry and do nothing, if you cry and don't try to move forward. If you need it, give yourself some me-time. Rest up. Think through what's going on in your life--but don't dwell on it. There's a difference between acknowledging and feeling, and dwelling. Dwelling happens when you spend too much time fixating on the problem. You become stagnant when it's now time for you to move forward.
There are plenty of ways to express yourself. One of the obvious ones is to tell someone how you are feeling and what you are dealing with. Another is to write about it in a journal. When I was frustrated or stressed about college, I'd go express those feelings by playing Super Smash Brothers and direct those emotions into a good brawl. It definitely helped. Just don't get expressing your emotions mixed up with taking it out on someone. That can be destructive.
Do Something ProductiveAfter or alongside your me-time, do something productive, probably creative, that you enjoy. Once you get a good cry out and everything, be productive. Now this isn't like being "busy." It might actually be destructive if you try to make yourself too busy. You can be productive without running around like a headless chicken. Doing something productive that we enjoy obviously makes us feel happier, but it does more than that. As we work on whatever we are working on, we see a form of progression. We are making something better, or we are making something that wasn't there before. It gives us a sense of self-worth, but also helps put life into perspective. There is more to life and us than whatever we are dealing with. We are more than, we are bigger than the problem. We can also try expressing our feelings through our work.
Rely on GodIf you are religious or spiritual, lean on God. I'm Mormon, and I've come to the realization that much of the teachings of the gospel gives us tools and guidelines that help us cope constructively. It doesn't make the problem go away, but it helps us deal with it. God has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us, to comfort us. Jesus Christ fulfilled the atonement, which not only covers our sins, but any kind of infliction or trial we experience. So He understands us when no one else does. We can put our burdens on the Lord. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I can seek out a Priesthood blessing to help me cope. We can also read the scriptures. "Pray as if everything depends on God and works as if everything depends on you." After we do our best, God can make up the rest.
Do Something Nice for SomeoneService can help us cope. When we serve others, we take the focus off ourselves and our problems and instead try to help someone else. We feel good when we serve. It also helps us realize that again, life is bigger than our problem. Life is bigger than ourselves. And of course, we get to help someone on the process.
Have Something to Look Forward to Every DayYes, find at least one thing to look forward to every day. Give that to yourself. It helps fend off depression. It might be something simple, like getting to read a chapter out of your favorite book that night. But have something. Maybe it's that you give yourself 20 minutes of free time. Give yourself that.
This should really be something that you have control over. For example, if I'm looking forward to playing tennis with my best friend, and my best friend cancels, then that can be a disappointment. It was what I was looking forward to all day. And it fell through. But if I decide that I'm looking forward to working on my artwork--well, that's something I can do by myself. I have more control over it. So try to pick something that you have most, if not all, control over.
Be Socially EngagedA lot of people recede into themselves when going through hardships. Pulling back into yourself can be completely appropriate in at times. Maybe you need to be alone to get that good cry out. Maybe you need to be alone to rest up and think things through, but don't cut off all social engagement for very long. Being socially engaged doesn't mean you have to go out and party with friends. It can mean just talking with someone--someone you know who won't make you feel worse. Don't be socially engaged with the wrong kind of people. But stay socially engaged on some level, even if it's just having a light conversation with a roommate.
ExerciseExercise releases endorphins, which literally makes you feel better. Get that body moving and it will help you cope better.
Be GratefulTake time to think about what you are grateful for. Make a list or count off things in your head. Gratitude helps us remember the good things in life. Life really isn't that bad.
Acknowledge that Some Stuff is Out of Your ControlI never realized how much of a control freak I was until I got done with college. The thing is, I don't try to control people. I try to have full control over situations. While it's great to try to have control, I had to learn and accept that there will always be things out of my control. I have to be okay with that. Since I started doing that, stress I didn't even know I had, melted away. Honestly, it's made me so much happier accepting that it's okay that things go wrong despite my best efforts.
ClosingSo those are the main ways I strive to cope constructively. There is one more that works for me, but I didn't list it because I don't think it will work for a lot of people. But for me, I've learned that stability is key. I cope better when I at least try to keep up my regular lifestyle. I'll usually pull back a bit, to rest up, but I'll still try to do what I normally do. I'm not forcing myself into an ordinary day. I'm just doing what I can.
By contrast, here are some ways to cope destructively: drugs, isolation, aggression, laziness, hurting others, tearing down others, doing nothing, waiting to be saved. Again, this is just my thoughts about coping in general. I know there are certain drugs that people need to take to help them cope. This isn't the sort I'm talking about.
Since I have made a goal to consistently cope constructively, my life has been hugely blessed. I feel more capable than ever to deal with whatever life throws at me. It doesn't mean life won't be hard. It just means that I know how to handle it. I will never get washed away into the dark vortex of misery and endless woe again, because I can choose a happier life by choosing to cope constructively.
Everything in this post, paired with another post I'm doing on having a solid foundation for your identity, has made life so much more enjoyable and awesome for me. The crazy part is, I had no idea I even needed these things. I had no idea that my life could be even more awesome than it already was.
So, if you stick around, in several weeks, I'll be doing a post about identity and how, even though I feel like I've always had a stable identity, I realized that I had junk in the foundation of it, muffling up the good stuff. And I had to let that stuff go.