Coping with depression is not easy. It can be helpful to have a few skills to use when things get tough.
It’s important to note that these skills won’t be a cure. Plus, if you’re suffering from clinical major depression, the kind that majorly gets in the way of regular activities such as going to work, then a few skills for coping with depression probably won’t be enough and I’d suggest seeking out therapy to sort that out with someone who knows what they’re doing.
Coping skills are not the final treatment for anything. They’re what we pull out when we’re having a really bad day. When we find ourselves in a funk—maybe we know why or maybe we don’t—but we need a way to get through the tough times and coping skills are great for that.
Still, don’t think that I’m consider skills for coping with depression “band-aids” because that’s dismissive of how helpful and effective they can be. And I love coping skills.
We need them. Even if we conquer what ever we are going to treatment for, it’s good to have some coping skills for depression in our back pocket for any time it decides to rear its ugly head.
First off, it’s important to know that depression in men doesn’t always look like the images of depression we see on TV. Some common forms of male depression are
- avoidant behaviors such as porn, alcohol, pot, gambling, etc.
I write more about this in another post where I describe what makes the depressed man different, but the most important part is that you know yourself well enough to sense when you’re entering a dark place.
Maybe someone you care about senses this before you do. If you trust them, ask that they let you know when those signals so you can get used to noticing the early stages.
For example, your partner may notice you’re going into a funk when you start giving one-word answers or not wanting to go out a few nights in a row. Soon you’ll be able to notice that without having it pointed out, but early on, it could be helpful—if you’re able to hear it without getting defensive.
You may even be able to redirect those energies after a while and avoid the dark place altogether. In the meantime, focus on knowing yourself well enough to recognize the signs that you’re going to need to use some of the upcoming skills.
Let it Out
Once you are aware of your irritation, anger, needing to avoid—whatever your version of stress or depression is—the next step is to let it out. The earlier you sense this and the earlier you let it out, the better.
Many people feel that depression is rage turned inward. I use this because it makes depression more active than we usually think of it. Instead of the guy who can’t get out of bed it’s the pissed off guy punching out someone in a bar—except he’s often doing it to himself.
The idea now, though, is to let that rage out—but in a healthy way.
Anger is not bad. It’s the way we’re feeling. It’s gotten a bad reputation because it can be destructive and can cause a lot of hurt and pain toward others—and often toward the people we’re not really really angry at. How often do we displace our anger by deferring to our belittling boss, but come home and kick the dog? Over-drinking, gambling away your kids’ tuition, cheating on your partner—these are all ways of letting out that rage in ways that hurt other people and, eventually, hurts you.
5 Ways of Coping with Depression
So our 5 ways of coping with depression could also be called 5-ways-of-letting-out-what’s-inside-in-the-healthiest-way-possible.
- Get Physical: Let’s start with the easiest one. I say that because everyone from your cardiologist to magazine headlines probably has been telling you to do since forever. Let out that energy through your body. Yes, you can do this by picking a fight on the subway, but that could also get you killed or jailed. Better solutions: You can go to the gym. You can run around Prospect Park or Central Park. You can sign up for martial arts classes. You can go to that boxing gym in DUMBO. Get some friends together, or join a MeetUp, for a local sport. Or just do the 7 Minute Workout in your apartment. Yoga, Zumba, fencing, curling, working out…the possibilities are endless. Do something with your physical body. It releases endorphins and it gets you in touch with those feelings that would come out somewhere else anyway. Worried you’re going to still kick the aforementioned dog? Play tug-of-war with Fido and feel what comes up. Do it until you’re exhausted–you don’t want this to just rev you up to do something unhealthy!
- Mindfulness: Does this sound like the opposite end from getting physical? Maybe. Mindfulness is all the rage now (pun intended). The classic way to do this is to find a quiet space, sit crosslegged, and follow your breath. It’s awesome. The idea is simple, but it can be incredibly difficult to do! You can get really into this and in Brooklyn and Manhattan there are many groups (often called sanghas) you could join to get support, but there are a tremendous amount of podcasts, websites, and books that can assist you if you’d like to learn more about this. Thich Nhat Hanh is a great resource. A basic practice that you can do on the subway is just to sit silently, eyes closed if you’re ok with that, and do a body scan. Don’t try to change anything, just start with the top of your head and say, “Breathing in, I am aware of the top of my head. Breathing out, I relax the top of my head.” Go down your body. You can do this in five minutes or take thirty minutes. Try it for ten and see how you feel. Check in with your feelings before and after. Give it a number. Starting the body scan, rate your stress/anger/sadness/etc. from 0 (horrible) to 10 (awesome). Do the same when you’re done.
- Talk it Out: I know, I know. What else is a counselor going to recommend? I think pretty highly of my field and I’m all for you getting professional support, but here I’m talking about identifying and connecting with people in your life that are non-judgmental and that you trust to tell how you feel. Maybe that’s your wife or partner, maybe it’s your friend. It could be your older brother, your dad–it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you trust them and that they won’t judge you. Let them know you don’t want them to fix the problem. You don’t want suggestions. You don’t want them to take over the conversation by telling you to look on the bright side or how much worse someone else has it. You just want someone else to hear this and just listen. And not fix. Do you know someone who can do that? It’s best to reach out to this person when you’re in a good place. Let them know that you may call on them and what you want from them during a darker time.
- Writing: Did you hate having to write “compositions” in school? I did too. But this is different. This is basically vomiting on paper. Can’t sleep? Free write for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes. Don’t judge it, use your worst handwriting, never read it again. Just write. For some typing is just as good, but I need to put it on actual paper with a pen. It’s just great to write out how you’re feeling. Journaling (I’ve just discovered the Bullet Journal by the way) sounds high falutin’ but it’s not meant to be read, it’s not meant to make sense. It’s meant to get “it” out of your brain and body. Are you more artistic than I? Does sketching or drawing do the same thing? Go for it. We’re using the theme of letting it out and the written word is one more way to do that.
- Cry: Listen, I know. Not socially acceptable. Not considered manly or masculine. I’m not saying go into the middle of Flatbush Ave and rent your garments and pull out your beard like Lear. In a perfect situation, you would feel comfortable and safe crying. You’d be in your partner’s arms and not feel judged or ashamed. This isn’t the reality for all of us. I know men who’ve only cried at the end of Rudy. Still, I include it here because for whatever reason tears are a powerful way of getting out emotions. You can do this in the shower. You can do it when you’re home alone. Maybe you can’t do it–maybe you got the message long ago that this wasn’t an emotional release acceptable to you. Ok. It’s not mandated. I’m just saying that the release of tears is visceral, it’s scary, and it’s just real. It’s not easy. Michael Landon famously said he had to pluck out his nose hairs in order to cry when filming Little House on the Prairie. But, hey, if Rosy Grier says it’s ok (“It’s Alright to Cry”) then you can give it a whirl.
These 5 skills for coping with depression can be done at the first sign of feeling down, and are probably easiest to do and most effective at that time. It’s hard to get in gear to do anything constructive when those feelings grab hold of you.
Let me know if they work and add your own in the comments below.
As always, if you’d like to talk more please don’t hesitate to get in contact with me for a free 15 minutes phone consultation.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He is a Brooklyn therapist (as well as also seeing clients online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.