How to Improve Mental Health – Stop Coping!
[Published in Natural Awakening’s magazine, September 2018 edition.]
Yes, you read the title of this article correctly – a therapist just told you to stop coping in order to improve your mental health. Let me explain what I mean.
Coping is helpful. It can be necessary. It can sometimes be a matter of life or death. But, when coping becomes a way of life; when we are distracted by what is present in our lives simply because we are coping with it, we fail to look into the face of our challenges and be present and learn to accept them. And, we cannot heal without being present. We cannot accept if we cannot look directly at something.
Coping as a Distraction
I have been in the field of mental health for many years. However, when I work with a new client who comes in with years of therapy under their belt, I am always shocked by how the focus of their life can be coping, as opposed to just living.
“How do you manage your anxiety?” I might ask. The response is often something like, “I go for a walk”, “I journal”, or “I watch T.V.”. Such things are not bad and, as I mention, they may be necessary. But, what happens when our attempts to cope using distractions causes our coping to actually become the distraction?
You have heard it before – “everything in moderation”. I think this is one of the best phrases we can live by for mental health as it requires self-awareness, passion, but also self-restraint.
The Downfall of Coping
Here is where I see coping go awry. When we have an intense emotion or situation arise (e.g. anxiety, chronic pain, family issues), we quickly hurry to figure out how to cope with such a situation. However, what are we doing by coping, exactly? We are working to escape the situation. We are distracting. We are making the emotion or situation bigger by working hard to avoid feeling any more of it than we possibly can.
This, I argue, is the downfall of coping. When we fear a panic attack, we do all in our power to “be okay” and not let a situation trigger such intense emotions and sensations. But, the more we work to avoid something by coping with it, the bigger it becomes. Then, sooner or later, our emotions or uncomfortable experiences become an ever-growing Godzilla, taking over the landscape of our inner world!
An Alternative to Coping
It is my personal belief that mindfulness (defined as the non-judgmental observation of the present experience) is essential to be able to live a healthy life. I cannot guarantee you that there will not be stress and intense emotions and experiences in your life. But, when we have the ability to look directly at those experiences and not freak out or work to escape them, we can take our own life and our own power back.
Do not get me wrong, our tendency will always be to want to escape. After all, the experience will still be uncomfortable, no matter now we look at it, right? Being mindful is not easy. Yet, when we have the ability to look directly at our experience and feel what we are feeling, even if it is hard, we no longer have to play the cat and mouse game with coping. It is then that we do not blow up the uncomfortable experience (e.g. depression, divorce) to a Godzilla-sized issue. Instead, we can be present with our emotions and view them as they truly are; acting neither out of fear nor out of the desire to make feeling good last forever.
Wrapping your Mind around it
This may be a strange concept to you. Certainly it does require us to look at our mental health and coping in a different way. But, I would encourage you to experiment with it. Talk about this article with your therapist. Go to a meditation class. Read a book about mindfulness to learn more about this concept.
Ironically, mindfulness is the simplest but also the most difficult thing to do. In the context of mental health, it requires us to not run away and to really look at what we are facing. I have seen mindfulness change people’s lives. But, there are certain situations – like addiction, suicidal thoughts, depression – where we sometimes have to cope to get by.
We may not always be strong enough to look our challenges directly in the eye. That is okay. As a reminder – do what you need to do for you. When you can look at your experience, look. When you cannot look and need to cope, notice that, too. Whatever gets you through the moment, do it. But, maybe consider practicing looking at your experience the next time you reach for your phone because you are bored or the next time you turn on your radio when you are driving in the car.
If you are not exactly sure how to do this or feel it is safest to practice this in conjunction with a professional, consider contacting a therapist to help you figure out what is best for you. And, practice, practice, practice. Being mindful will not necessarily allow you to achieve nirvana. But, it may allow you to stop running from your life and to simply to be. And, who does not want that!?
~Ashley Carter Youngblood, LMSW, LMFT, CADC, ADS
Ashley Carter Youngblood is both a fully-licensed Clinical Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist who has been in the field since 2007. She offers counseling at her woman-owned business, Inner Peace Counseling, PLC, for those in Kalamazoo, Portage, Mattawan, Battle Creek, Paw Paw, and the surrounding areas of Southwest Michigan. She is passionate about her work with clients, whether it’s providing individual counseling, couples counseling, family therapy, or life coaching. Her specialties include holistic healing/mindfulness, counseling for women, anxiety, couples counseling, and addictions/substance abuse.
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Thanks for reading.