Understanding Coping Mechanisms - The Importance of Self-Care
What is it to cope with something? What do we do when our lives become crazy and complicated and we need to deal with it somehow? We utilize the method of coping, which Sarah Mae Sincero defines in this article as "an activity we do to seek and apply solutions to stressful situations or problems that emerge because of our stressors." And the presence of stressors in our lives is inevitable - it's part of the human experience. Getting laid off, dealing with presidential elections and worrying about their consequences, anxiety about illness in friends and family or maybe ourselves, planning stressful moves across the ocean, cleaning up cat pee on your bed for the fifth time this week, opening a paycheck that just isn't enough to fill the fridge or maybe doesn't exist at all, feeling isolated from your peers or your family because of your sexual orientation...everyone's struggles are different, and everyone's struggles are valid, no matter what it looks like to anyone on the outside. Like I said, it's part of the human experience, and we have a right to feel. There are some things (a lot of things, actually) we just can't control. But it's how we cope with these stressors that ultimately leads to our mental and emotional health and reflects our internal strength.
There is an endless rainbow of coping strategies out there. One psychology textbook by Weiten narrows the classification of coping strategies down to three categories: appraisal-focused (involve changes in mindset or a revision of thoughts, such as denial), problem-focused (those that modify behavior), and emotion-focused (alteration of a person's emotions to deal with or eliminate the stress, like distraction and meditation). I'd like to focus on the emotion-focused coping mechanisms, because distraction is a very common coping strategy that I, and many others, utilize. I often turn to fitness to quiet and distract my mind, because it's something that I feel I can control - when other parts of my life are spiraling out of control, at least I have exercise. If I can't take care of my body now, what can I hope to accomplish years down the road in failing health? How we treat ourselves is a direct reflection of our self-respect and personal motivation.
Usually, but not always, coping mechanisms are things we enjoy, because we want to escape our misery for some sort of pleasure. Running is one of my most consistent coping strategies. I love that this activity is always an option, whether I'm in the brightest, most inspired mood and my run is essentially a form of skipping, or if I'm in one of those states where it takes me four hours to motivate myself to lace up my shoes and slink out the door. The beauty is that you can run pretty much anywhere with minimal equipment and no expense. I've already written about why it's the traveller's perfect form of exercise. If you want to completely erase your mind and focus on physical instead of mental pain, you can pound the pavement and sprint to your heart's content (or your heart's demise, your choice), or if you simply want to settle into a nice recovery pace, you can do just that and watch the world spin on around you. You can blast your favorite "Fuck this!" jams through your headphones, or go sans music and enjoy the sounds of bird, traffic, other people, whatever might be filling the airwaves around you. It's pure therapy, and it's incredibly good for you.
Others turn to different modes of distraction: reading...television...artisanal baking...taxodermy...hiking...cooking...coffee dates with friends...fishing...crafts...photography...blogging...schoolwork...dancing...building...yardwork...home improvement...burying ourselves at work...really the list is infinite. That's the beautiful thing, because it shows how unique we all are and how varied the human mind is - we all handle our stress differently.
See, I love running. I turn to it in good and bad times. I'd say we have a pretty solid relationship. And that's the beauty of these positive coping mechanisms. They're comforting. They're most of the times familiar. They help bring us back to a state of being our best self. Once we've retreated away from whatever is difficult in our life and distracted ourselves for a bit, we emerge rejuvenated, with a fresh affirmation of our values and the things that make us joyful, the things that give us zest and drive.
There is no shame in the "retreat." In backing down, for just a little bit. In distracting your mind from the negative and temporarily filling it with something that gives you pleasure. Sure, there is something to be said for standing tall and facing your problems/issues/concerns head on - but there is no rule that says you can't take a timeout for yourself. The older I become, the more I grasp the concept of self-care and its importance (I wish I'd had a better grasp of this in college). There's plenty of research out there that shows how performance levels can increase with successful stress management. It's the truth - there's an optimal level of stress we can have in our life that leaves us neither bored (too little stress) or overwhelmed and burnt out (too much stress). And it's our coping strategies that can get us to this happy medium.
My point? I'm curious. I want to know how you deal with your stress. I love that we can turn to these activities that give us joy to help us remember who we are, what we stand for, and give us renewed energy to face the stressors in our world. There is pleasure. There is joy. There is never just stress, never just negativity.
So I hope you look for the positive, and that you can find it in your coping strategies. I hope you focus on yourself, and remember that if you don't practice self-care, you really can't expect to be a positive force for those around you. I hope that you allow yourself to truly feel all of the emotions, negative and positive. And then I hope you step back and cope, in a healthy way, so that you can share your best self with the world.
So what are you waiting for? There's a lot of life to live. It's not always going to be pretty. But it sure is going to be interesting, and there are a whole lot of mistakes out there to go make. :)