If you’re feeling overwhelmed and guilty because everyone in Twitter is suggesting books to read and ways to make this “the best time of you life” but you can barely get out of bed in the morning, please know: this is what depression feels like.— Marli Mesibov (@marsinthestars) March 22, 2020
Lately I’ve had trouble coping. At first I thought I was sinking into a depression. But unlike most of my depressive episodes, this one seemed to come and go day by day. Then I thought maybe my brain was feeling depressed because I was staying in bed too much. Maybe my brain thought I was supposed to be depressed.
Finally I realized: I feel depressed because this situation – a pandemic – is depressing. People are dying. We can’t go to work and school and events. I’ve canceled all my races and fun travel plans, and I’m worried about friends and family working in hospitals.
It’s depressing and anxiety-producing, and much like when dealing with depression and anxiety we need coping skills.
What are Coping Skills?
A coping skill is a way to handle difficult emotions without letting them take over your world. For those of us with clinical depression or anxiety, we use coping skills frequently. They can help depression and anxiety in many ways, whether immediately, or helping retrain your brain over time.
Coping skills aren’t only for therapists and extreme situations. Everyone has coping skills they use. Maybe you take a deep breath before calling certain friends, or you enjoy an extra cup of coffee on hard days. But maybe that’s not doing quite enough today. If you need some new coping skills, here are a few ideas.
Please know – if you are feeling suicidal or unable to cope, there are many therapists who are doing telehealth. You can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
I offer these as coping skills that I use. I am not a therapist or mental health professional, just a person with clinical depression.
How to Cope with Coronoavirus
Here are a few things that are helping me to cope. Some are distractions, and others help me process. Coping mechanisms will ideally do a little bit of both.
The 10 Things List
The 10 things list originated from a therapist who suggested a literal list of 10 things that generally happen on “good” days. Here are the rules:
- Each item must take less than 15min to do (e.g. “read”, not “read a book” or “read a chapter”)
- Each item should be fairly broad/hard to “fail” at (e.g. “practice something” or “cook something” instead of “make a perfect pie crust”)
- Each item must by something you can do on your own (“call a friend” vs “talk to a friend”)
- Nothing is too small (“shower” or “step out onto the porch” are perfectly acceptable)
I’ve had a 10 things list for over a decade now. It’s changed over time, but it serves two purposes. First, if I’m feeling anxious or want something to do, it provides 10 options. Second, if I can’t make myself get out of bed, there’s usually something on the list that feels small enough to get me started.
I don’t aim for all 10 each day. But most days I manage 5-6, and that’s enough to keep the weight off my chest.
A coping box is a box. It is filled with things you like to do. Or rather, it’s filled with slips of paper, each of which has an activity to do on it. Activities could be things like “sketching” or “baking” or “journaling”, or simpler things like “look at photos of puppies” or “watch an episode of The Office.”
You can add slips of paper any time you’re inspired. Then when you’re having a rough time you reach in and do the thing the paper says.
Reframing is a longer term coping skill. You may not feel an immediate change, because reframing takes practice. When you reframe, you take a negative thought or idea and write it down. Then you write a version of it that is more positive.
- Original thought: everyone is dying and I’m terrified.
- Reframe: I’m terrified because I don’t know what’s coming and I can’t control it. But I’m lucky that the people I care about are alive right now, and I can reach out to them.
This is particularly useful if you find that you’re blaming yourself for things outside of your control. Another example:
- Original thought: I suck. I didn’t get out of bed until 11am.
- Reframe: I’m having a hard time. But I did get out of bed today. That’s something.
Over time you’ll find that reframing comes more naturally, and you feel less negative in general.
Gratitude lists take a lot of forms, and are another long-term coping skill. They take practice to take affect. But the idea is simple: once a day sit down and write down anywhere from 3-10 things that you are grateful for.
By writing it down (not just thinking about it) you give small things more weight. You’ll start to notice the little things that brighten your day. And over time you’ll notice things in the moment, rather than just when you stop to write them down.
Where Else to Find Coping Skills
One thing to note is that many people are suggesting things to “do” right now. Only you can tell what suggestions are helpful and which ones are overwhelming. Perhaps a 10 Things List gives you a sense of control – or maybe it just feels like one more list of things you can’t handle right now. It it’s the latter, ignore it! What works for one person will not necessarily work for the next.
If you’re looking for things to do, there are plenty of suggestions. Scott Kelly, NASA astronaut, wrote a NY Times article on how to deal with isolation. In addition, everyone from The Guardian to Refinery99 seems to have advice ideas for how to “fill the time.”
But for those of us who are just trying to get out of bed? Be good to yourself.
I’m already seen a lot of friends be really hard on themselves.— Sara Wachter-Boettcher (@sara_ann_marie) March 17, 2020
“I’m not being very productive.”
“I should get more done around the house.”
“I’m eating too much.”
Give yourself a break! You’re not a machine. Things are weird and hard. You’re not bad or lazy for being human.