To say it’s been a stressful year is an understatement. We’ve found ways to spark joy — baking bread, hosting Zoom happy hours, playing Animal Crossing with friends — but let’s be real: it’s getting harder to cope.
As the pandemic keeps slogging on and winter weather starts setting in, it makes sense that a lot of our mental reserves are drying up. Some of us are turning to things like drinking lots of quarantinis.
It’s understandable and totally normal if you sometimes slip into coping strategies that aren’t super healthy. But it’s also important to recognize that finding ways to cope that benefit your body and mind long-term will help you find resilience during stressful times.
“Resilience doesn’t mean you cope perfectly all the time — it means you try out coping strategies until you find things that work, and then change those strategies over time as needed,” says Emily Dworkin, acting assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the UW School of Medicine who studies and specializes in trauma recovery.
Coping is different for everyone, and what works for someone else may not work as well for you. With that in mind, here are some healthy coping strategies Dworkin recommends you try — and some less-healthy ones she recommends avoiding.
Instead of: Slacking on daily tasks
Try: Prioritizing your basic needs
During times of high stress, it’s easy to neglect basic self-care that doesn’t seem super important at the time, like skipping breakfast or staying up too late.
But if you don’t have a healthy foundation from which to draw strength when you need it, you’re more likely to feel stress more severely.
Each day, make your basic needs a top priority, even if you don’t feel like it. Make sure you’re eating regularly (healthy food you enjoy is best), staying hydrated, keeping your sleep schedule the same, taking any prescribed medications and doing other basic self-care tasks.
Instead of: Withdrawing from society
Try: Reaching out to loved ones
Many of us naturally self-isolate when we aren’t feeling our best. While everyone needs alone time sometimes, withdrawing from friends and family when you’re down isn’t going to help your mental health long-term.
Instead, try reaching out to someone you trust. Offer your support to them and, if you want to, confide in them about what’s going on with you. If you don’t feel like talking about serious things, you could instead arrange a video chat or virtual movie night where you can do something fun together.
You may not feel like it in the moment, but after talking with your loved one you’ll likely start feeling a little better, or at least reassured.
Instead of: Suppressing negative feelings
Try: Expressing your feelings
No one wants to focus on feelings like sadness or worry, but pushing them away or pretending they don’t exist won’t get rid of them — it will only make them grow until they get too big to ignore.
Try to find ways to express your feelings — including the negative ones. You can start a journal and write down how you feel and what you’re upset about, find a therapist to talk with, confide in a trusted friend or even do something as simple as letting yourself cry it out.
It’s important to handle your negative emotions in a productive way, rather than ruminating about them or dwelling on them. If you find it difficult to move past negative feelings after engaging with them, that might be something to bring up to a mental health specialist.
Sometimes it’s necessary to put your feelings aside in the moment to deal with them later. But make sure you do actually deal with them later.
Instead of: Stopping all or most activities
Try: Doing daily activities you enjoy
Depression and sadness can make you lose interest in things you normally enjoy doing, whether that’s cooking, reading, drawing or exercising.
In this kind of situation, it’s often best just to do the activity anyway, even if you don’t feel like it. If you know it’s something you enjoy, put it in your schedule, make it a priority and commit to it. Just the act of doing something is often enough to help you start to feel better.
If some of your favorite things to do aren’t possible right now because of the pandemic, acknowledge that loss but try not to dwell on it.
Instead, try to think of ways you can substitute those activities for ones that are more feasible now and incorporate them into your daily routine. So, if you normally loved going to concerts, look instead for online shows you can stream. Or if you always enjoyed going to happy hour with friends, try scheduling a weekly Zoom happy hour where you all can catch up.
Instead of: Working nonstop
Try: Maintaining a normal routine
It’s easy nowadays to work extra hours, especially if you’re working from home. This may help you feel productive, but unless you absolutely must work late to finish a specific project, try not to overwork yourself. Doing so on a regular basis can lead to burnout.
Pre-pandemic, you probably had a schedule you followed on at least some days. Try to stick to that same schedule now, or, if you find it’s not working for you, make a new one. As part of that schedule, make sure you’re allowing enough time for getting daily tasks done and for self-care and relaxation.
Sticking to a routine can help if you’re having trouble getting much done, too.
Instead of: Talking down to yourself
Try: Using compassionate self-talk
If you’re someone who is very critical of yourself, you’re definitely not alone. It’s easy to fall into the trap of getting down on yourself for every little mistake. While it’s good to be self-aware and admit mistakes or slip-ups, constantly chiding yourself isn’t going to solve any problems — or make you feel particularly good.
Think of it this way: If you’re saying things to yourself that you would never say to someone you care about, maybe it’s time to tone your negativity down a bit.
Focus instead on being kind to yourself even when it may be difficult to do so. Think about what you would say to a friend in the same situation. We’re all facing difficulties this year, so recognize that and cut yourself some slack. If you’re finding this hard to do, try instead writing down three things you did well that day every night before bed.
Instead of: Ruminating on bad news
Try: Focusing on what you can control
There seems to be more bad news in 2020 than in the past few years combined. And while there’s no doubt it’s been a difficult year, focusing on that alone isn’t going to help you cope.
There’s always bad news to read, but that doesn’t mean you have to read it constantly. Instead of focusing on things you can’t control or hypothetical situations that worry you, try to return your focus to the present moment.
If you’re having a hard time with that, set aside 15 minutes of dedicated “worry time” every day, and save your rumination for that time.
At the end of the day, there are always some things you can control, even if they’re small. You can also control how you react to bad things — and if you do that, they may not be as bad.
Recognizing that you can control your response to even high-stress situations can help you feel more empowered. So when things seem overwhelming, remind yourself that you’ve got this.