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I’ve Spent Years Honing My Coping Mechanisms for Anxiety and Now They’re Gone When I Need Them Most

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Sarah FieldingMay 29, 2020

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the three and a half years since I was diagnosed with a panic disorder it’s this: coping mechanisms are everything. As I’ve grown to understand the sources of my panic and taken anti-anxiety medicine every day, experimenting with coping mechanisms has been integral to feeling like I can function as a whole, healthy person.

Sure, that’s not to say that I used them every single day, but the reassurance that those known techniques were available when I needed them meant I’d already won half the battle. When I moved back to my parent’s house to quarantine together, I was suddenly far away from the life I’d built in which anxiety played the smallest part it ever had. In a shock to no one, I felt—well—anxious. If I couldn’t go read in the park, take a long walk to some shops, meet up with friends, or do the other myriad of things that calmed my panic disorder, how would I manage? Would the walls close in around me as time went on stuck inside as panic attacks returned to being the norm?

I refused to let that be the case and I knew I needed to reevaluate the way I coped with my panic disorder. “In the midst of the pandemic, many people found that they have had to develop a self-care plan B,” says Joy Lere, PsyD, a psychologist, researcher, and life coach. “It is important not to allow the constraints of quarantine and circumstances of the pandemic to become a pass for slipping into maladaptive ways of managing stress—consuming too much alcohol for example. Instead, it is more useful to reframe current circumstances as an opportunity to strengthen our capacity to adapt and change. By thinking creatively about how we can continue to care well for ourselves, we are bolstering resilience.”

Over two months into quarantine, I’m realizing that copying the coping mechanism itself isn’t as important as what I get out of it. “Think about the coping skills you used in your life before,” says Aimee Daramus, a licensed psychologist. “What was a specific coping skill doing for you? You’ll need a new way of coping that satisfies that specific need. You don’t want to use a distraction skill when you need emotional expression, for example.”

Over two months into quarantine, I’m realizing that copying the coping mechanism itself isn’t as important as what I get out of it.

Say you went to the gym as a form of self care, Daramus encourages you to ask why it helped. “What was it doing for you emotionally? Was that your escape? Your way of using exercise to distract from problems? Did you connect with other people at the gym? You’ll need to do more than just get a new way of working out, you’ll need a new way of satisfying the emotional piece,” she says. Instead of the usual breaks I would take walking through parks or other crowded areas, thanks to a borrowed bike, I’ve found a new and safer way to get fresh air and move after a day of sitting at my desk. It’s an activity that honestly used to terrify me and now I’ve found so much enjoyment from it I ordered a bike of my own.

While concerts have been cancelled for the time being, music is still available to lift your spirits—something it’s, in fact, proven to do. A 2013 study found that participants who actively tried to boost their mood while listening to music reported higher levels of happiness than those who didn’t make the attempt. “You can try to empty your mind of stress by sitting down and focusing mindfully on the music. For an even more intense focus, try to follow only a single instrument, maybe just the violin or just the drums,” says Daramus. “If you need a mental break you can dance to get yourself out of your mind and into your body. You’re likely to listen differently depending on what you need that song to do for you.” With artists like Dua Lipa and Hayley Williams releasing music during the pandemic, you can listen to something new or play your long-time favorites, whatever you enjoy at that moment.

Undoubtedly, the biggest change we’re all experiencing, and the one most pressing on my anxiety, is not being able to see anyone outside of people we live with.

Undoubtedly, the biggest change we’re all experiencing, and the one most pressing on my anxiety, is not being able to see anyone outside of people we live with. As someone who works alone, spending time with friends in the evening or on weekends provided me with a feeling of connection, keeping loneliness at bay. Now, though this critical method of coping isn’t allowed, I’ve found that I’m talking to my friends more than ever. Without normal distractions in the way and no need to commute to each other’s homes, it’s become easier to keep weekly get togethers and talk for hours on the phone or Zoom.

Sometimes it’s to play a game and be distracted, while other times it’s a need to vent and share our mutual stresses about the world. Being honest with each other about what we need on a given day is critical as the lack of direct interaction can make it harder to ascertain what the other is feeling. “If you’re connecting with other people, is it for fun, to check up on them, or to be able to talk about something? If you need to talk, say so,” says Daramus. “You don’t want to plan a fun movie night when what you really need is to talk.” Being able to communicate with my friends as we check in on the other’s mental health reminds me that I’m far from alone in this and still receiving support regardless of distance.

Having things to look forward to like weekly Zoom gatherings, as well as a known schedule, provides me with space to continue checking in with my mental health. “I encourage developing a regular gratitude practice and implementing mindfulness strategies,” says Dr. Lere. “Being intentional about making healthy choices each day about sleep, nutrition, and physical movement can prove to be very powerful in helping to reduce difficulties regulating our emotions.”

Dr. Lere emphasizes how important honesty with yourself is right now. This isn’t easy for anyone, and if you do find yourself, as mentioned earlier, slipping into negative coping mechanisms like substance abuse or over spending, recognizing this bad pattern can stop it from spiraling. In this case, or for anyone looking for extra help right now, most therapists are available to conduct sessions over the phone or video.

This may feel overwhelming, with or without help, but, like most good things, it will make a difference to explore. “I encourage the people in my life to make choices that their future self will thank them for. Ask: how will this action leave me feeling in 10 minutes, 10 hours, or 10 months? The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic can leave some people psychologically spinning with a sense that ‘this will never end.’ It is critical to remind yourself, particularly in times of heightened emotion, that not every day will feel like today,” says Dr. Lere. There will be trial and error, but, even if it seems impossible now, there will also be success and happiness.

I now know that it’s not about reinventing the wheel I’ve carefully built for myself over the past few years, but realizing that it’s not the only mode of transportation to reach my desired destination: a (relatively) peaceful mind. I’m not starting from scratch. I already have the tools, I know what the journey looks like, and what feelings can and can not bring me there. It’s just about taking that know-how and discovering what techniques best bring me there right now.

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