mental health

Coping Mechanisms. Or Lack Thereof.

I’m a picker.

Even when I’m not stressed but especially when I’m stressed, I pick at everything. Acne on my face, hangnails on my fingers, hairs on my chin, the goop in the corner of my cat’s eye, the tiny spot of adhesive left after you peel a sticker, the lint off of your shoulder, the last bit of polish on my toes. I also crack every joint that is capable of it, though I’ve been cutting back on cracking my hands. A go-to activity when I need to relieve some tension is to pluck my eyebrows.

Pursuit of happiness? More like pursuit of dopamine.

Every endorphin-encouraging activity I can do, I will do. When I was a kid, I’d read or play video games and immerse myself in a different world as a way of forgetting about the nightmare that was my reality. Hiding in cardboard boxes or closets made it easy to forget where I was. But as I grew older and my brain’s chemistry became more volatile, it became obvious I didn’t learn any real coping mechanisms. As a teenager, when writing failed to be a strong enough outlet, I decided to start cutting myself. This was a habit of mine for about a decade and only a few days ago did I have what should have been an obvious revelation.

I didn’t want to cut myself. I wanted to feel better.

When you say it out loud or read it written down, it seems so absurdly common sense, right? But this was something I never was able to articulate quite so concisely. Of course I knew the goal of self harm was to feel better than I did before I started it but it took me a long time to realize that there really were other options for me to get from point A (misery), to point B (acceptance).

Truth be told, my coping skills are still pretty lackluster. While self injury petered out, I instead leaned on drugs and alcohol. I never really learned how to productively deal with my feelings from my parents because, well, that’s what they did. My father drank, my mother chain smoked. I even remember her and I arguing about my cutting with me bringing that up – at least cutting doesn’t cause cancer! Were you to ask me today which I thought was the lesser of two evils, it would be very hard for me to choose. Because, it’s true, self inflicted violence doesn’t cause cancer. But smoking can’t accidentally kill you with one mistake, either. And the longer you cut, the higher the inevitability of you encountering what we in the SIV gang call a “whoops cut”, where you fuck up and go too deep and probably just ruin a towel but maybe have to call 9-1-1.

Good times.

Just kidding.

I don’t miss cutting at all. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the calm, detached high of endorphins afterwards, though. Truly, the closest thing I can compare to it is post-nut clarity. That beautiful quiet that settles through your mind and body after coitus or good ol’ fashioned masturbation? Very similar. Which, makes sense, they both give you a pretty great chemical rush. It can be a little difficult to want to jerk off when you’re insanely depressed or seething with rage or any other almost-out-of-control emotion. So I pluck my eyebrows, instead.

When it comes down to it, though, coping mechanisms are really about two things: fixing your chemistry (physical) and reacting to the actual problem (mental). Here’s an example.

Your cat falls very ill suddenly. You take him to the vet and they keep him overnight. You have to go home but you feel absolutely terrible, sick with worry.

We are going to assume in this situation that you can afford to pay the vet bills, it is only the health of your animal that is a stressor. I know this is really reaching fantasy levels for most of us here but bear with me. What do you do to feel better?

You have to address both your increased cortisol, probably depleted adrenaline, and waning happy-go-lucky juices (dopamine, serotonin, etc), and your actual thoughts. Cutting was super effective at restoring some kind of chemical equilibrium but I never felt better long term because I hadn’t done anything to either distract or solve the problem. Because, truth is, those are really our only two options with issues.

In the case of our sick cat, there’s really no solving it. We’ve done all that we can do for him by taking him to the vet. So distraction becomes the name of the game. Finding an activity that bundles treating both your mental state and chemical state at the same time is ideal. If you know me at all, you probably have a guess of my personal favorite: going for a walk.

It’s pretty obnoxious how simple going for a walk is, really. It’s the kind of shit you read on some Top Five Ways I Stay Happy All The Time!!!! website. Is this what I’ve become? Regardless, it works. It really does. If you want the Chemical Upgrade of Going For A Walk, I recommend going to a mall or store. You don’t have to buy anything. Window shopping releases endorphins and people watching is generally pretty engrossing. Especially with the 5 p.m. darkness beginning, I know I’ll be heading to Meijer whenever I need a quick pick-me-up and my at home distractions won’t suffice.

All this said, maybe the hardest choice with coping mechanisms isn’t necessary which one to use but to actually do it. Speaking from personal experience, I know that sometimes all I want to do is mope. Just lay in bed and feel sorry for myself and change nothing. Everything starts with making the conscious choice that you want to feel better.

So why not start right now?

What are your go to coping mechanisms? Let’s talk.

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