Often when life feels overwhelming and when depression feels quite heavy to bear, people tend to turn to certain habits in order to cope with anxiety and depression. Some choose to sleep, some meditate, and some isolate themselves from the world for hours and even days. These are all coping mechanisms. 

It is important to seek professional help when dealing with mental health issues, but how do you cope, when you can't get in touch with a therapist? We spoke to psychologist, Sian Green about how the right coping mechanisms can help you. 

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According to Sian, "coping mechanisms or techniques are ways or strategies people use to manage stress, stressful situations, trauma or another form of psychological distress. Often these are to cope with the overwhelming emotions such as anxiety, low mood, rejection, self-esteem, paranoia and so forth. Coping mechanisms are behaviours or thoughts that aim to provide relief from the distress."

While there are a number of ways to deal with anxiety and depression, the coping mechanisms we choose aren't always helpful or beneficial in the long run. 

Sian explains that harmful coping strategies involve using a behaviour or thought to avoid your emotions. "Generally, the relief is only temporary and thus the distress or issue left unresolved - these are short term relief," she says. Examples of unhelpful coping strategies include avoiding the problem entirely, smoking, binge eating or drinking, compulsive spending, sleeping all day, and withdrawing and isolating oneself. 

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This is much like merely covering a wound instead of cleaning it first - the relief is temporary but not effective. "Less helpful or harmful techniques bring immediate relief but simultaneously exacerbate problems in the longer term," Sian says. 

On the other hand, the coping techniques that allow you to understand what you are going through and to deal with it without avoiding what you're feeling are the ones that are most beneficial to your mental health. The healthiest and most effective coping techniques, as Sian explains, require you to be vulnerable and courageous in finding more effective ways to resolve the difficulty.

Sian suggests these few techniques you can use to cope with mental health issues:

  • Relaxation exercises such as breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery are helpful for coping with anxiety. 
  • Exercising can help lighten up your mood, in addition to the other benefits of it.
  • Practicing self-care when you're feeling low ensures that you are not worsening the problem by neglecting your well-being. Exercising, doing what you love, and making your well-being a priority are all ways that you can practice self-care. Read more about it here
  • Talking about the distress within a safe space or non-judgemental relationship allows you to express what you feel instead of ignoring or suppressing it.
  • Learning the art of saying "no" and of identifying and expressing your needs is helpful, especially when your anxiety stems from your taking on more than you can handle. 

Seeking professional help should always be a priority when trying to resolve mental health issues, and speaking to a therapist may help you find more effective ways to cope with anxiety and depression in your every day life. 

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A few people share their coping techniques with us:

For anxiety attacks, I try to lie on my back and take deep breaths and use soothing words. With general anxiety, I really don't know how to deal besides occupying my mind with something other than what's making me anxious. I find that scheduling all the things I need to do and people I need to see eases my anxiety because I can prepare myself for being around people. When I feel depressed, I try to just be in the moment. If I feel like being in the dark and crying then I let myself be. Otherwise, I just keep busy or keep being around people.
Kopano
How I usually cope with anxiety is by doing physical exercise; talking to people about what I'm going through and asking for advice. Praying helps because praying is a form of meditation. You end up saying your anxiety out loud and then it helps you to actually put it into focus. I also journal a lot. I write what I'm going through, either on a piece of paper or in my journal. I'm fortunate to have people around me who have gone through similar experiences so I do ask advice very, very often.
Jay
When things get hectic at night then I call the depression and anxiety helpline my psychologist gave me. But most of the time when I can manage, I do ten minutes of silent meditation in the mornings where I just sit and take deep breaths. I also exercise, mostly cardio.
Nicole
When I need to cry, I cry. When I need to shout, I shout. When I can't do these two things and I'm really stressed out, I sleep. I can sleep for 10 hours when I'm really stressed out. If I'm not in the space that enables me to sleep, I walk a really long distance. Somehow, the tiredness from walking brings relief. All through this, I'll be praying. I've never thought of contacting a psychologist. I don't think I have had to deal with that much in life that I would need a professional.
Thembi

Watch: Things to remember when your life is falling apart

If you feel overwhelmed by depression or anxiety, contact the South African Depression and Anxiety group on 0800 12 13 14.

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