Now more than ever, people are struggling with mental health and are desperate for new coping strategies. The social isolation and dramatic changes in our routines have made depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other psychological issues skyrocket all over the world. Although people have difficulties every once in a while, during times of stress, these difficulties can become serious illnesses when they start to interfere with your normal life. For example, many people can feel nervous sometimes, but if you feel so anxious that it’s hard to take care of things at work or at home or connect to people in your life, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder.
If you are struggling with mental health, know that you are not alone. We both were inspired to become clinical psychologists from our own struggles with depression and anxiety and started our podcast “A Little Help For Our Friends” to share insights, stories and tips to those struggling with mental health issues and their loved ones. Through this podcast, we have learned a lot about coping strategies that can be helpful to many people. Here a just a few we can share:
Validate your own feelings
On “A Little Help For Our Friends,” we sound like a broken record when we always give the advice to validate your own feelings and experiences. When we say validate, we mean treat your emotions as real, valid, and understandable. Emotions are natural signals of our own needs, so it’s important to listen to them and take them seriously. Even if they are intense or overwhelming, validating your feelings will help you calm down and tune into what you need in the moment.
Feeling ashamed, ignoring your feelings, or calling yourself “crazy” will only make the problem worse, so try accepting and validating your feelings to ease your suffering. Remember, though, that validating your feelings does not mean validating your thoughts. You might find yourself worrying about the worst-case scenario or telling yourself that you are worthless or stupid. Validating your feelings does not mean that these thoughts are valid- but the feelings of anxiety, shame, or sadness underneath them are.
Find a therapist trained in empirically-supported treatments
The other coping strategy we always recommend is to find a therapist who knows how to deliver mental health treatments that are supported by research. Psychotherapy can be incredibly effective in targeting and improving all types of mental health problems and help people get back to living a valued and fulfilling life. There are a lot of different types of therapists out there, but only some treatments are scientifically proven to be effective. For example, cognitive behavior therapies can treat anxiety or depression in a matter of weeks. Do your research about a therapist’s training and background and ask them questions about their training in empirically-supported treatments. Adding medications (e.g., antidepressants) with the supervision of a licensed psychiatric provider can also be immensely helpful.
Ask your loved ones for support
Struggling with mental health issues can be incredibly isolating if you feel alone in your experience or find it hard to talk to other people about them. However, some of the most powerful moments of connection come from opening up about what you have been dealing with to people you love and trust. Explain your experience to a loved one and tell them what they can do to help.
Sometimes your family, friends or romantic partners don’t know the best way to support you or what they can do to help. In those situations, telling them directly what you need will be useful for everyone and can bring you closer. For example, tell them you just need someone to listen and understand what you’re going through, or ask them to help you find treatment. If you don’t have anyone in your life that can help, find a local or online support group or group therapy. Groups can connect you to other people who understand what you’re going through and often teach you valuable coping skills.
Engage in meaningful activities
A recipe for unhappiness is not living in line with your values. When we don’t engage with activities or people we find meaningful or rewarding, it is much harder for us to recover from mental health issues. For this reason, almost all effective mental health treatments help people reconnect to things they care about in life, whether it’s a hobby, physical activity, quality time with loved ones, or a professional pursuit.
These activities don’t necessarily have to be fun or pleasant, as sometimes living in line with your values can be hard. Think about what activities or routines you had when you were feeling more like yourself and add some of those back into your daily life. It’s ok if you only add them back in a little bit at a time, like a ten-minute walk to your favorite coffee shop or one phone call with a good friend. At first it may feel like a struggle to make those changes (sometimes even for the first few weeks of trying), but over time it will boost your mood and motivation.
Sometimes our anxiety or depression is exacerbated because we are taking on too much burden. It can be difficult to say no at work or to our loved ones, but if it is leading to burn out or unmanageable anxiety, it may be in everyone’s best interests to set limits. After all, if taking on too much means you will start struggling at work or avoiding your loved one, nobody wins.
Setting boundaries is a great coping strategy. To set boundaries effectively, start by objectively describing the situation (avoid giving your own interpretation of the situation or passing judgment; instead of “I know you don’t care about me because you never make dinner,” say, “I typically make dinner 5 nights a week.”). Move into how the situation makes you feel, using “I” statements and sticking to your own experience of what is happening (“Sometimes I feel uncared for and overwhelmed because I have to take on this responsibility alone). Be assertive and confident- you can fake it if you need to- and make sure to keep the conversation on track and contained to the request.
Finally, making the request attractive to the other person by showing them how it benefits them is a powerful tactic, as well as being open to negotiation (“If you made dinner three nights a week, I will be a happier, loving partner to you because I’ll be in a much better mood. And I’ll promise to make your favorite meal once a week!”). Ultimately, setting boundaries is essential for strong mental health. Sometimes you really do need to put on your oxygen mask before helping others!
These are only a few coping strategies that can be useful no matter what you’re struggling with. In “A Little Help For Our Friends” podcast, we discuss these strategies in depth and how they can help people who have different kinds of psychological disorders. There are so many ways we can learn about and cope with mental health challenges, so remember that there is light at the end of this tunnel.