A few months ago, I picked up Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. The book is a vulnerable account of his struggle with anxiety, depression, and persuasive thoughts of suicide. It is written as a testimony to the fact that in the end the anxiety and depression did not overwhelm and take his life. Two changes he credits to overcoming such darkness were an ability to accept his symptoms and an ability to learn what worked best for him and his recurring symptoms (yoga, exercise, being with those who loved and accepted him as he was).
Last week, while finishing up a group I run, I was asked to bring for next time a list of coping skills for symptoms of anxiety and depression. As I began to type out a list, I thought about the idea of coping with something vs. making friends with it.
Years ago, while studying mindfulness, Thich Nhat Han, in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, introduced to me the concept of making friends with your anger or your fear. He explained that by making friends with something painful and challenging, we can lessen its stronghold over us. It becomes familiar and less threatening. I started to think about what it means to make friends with mental health symptoms.
What if, instead of doing battle with symptoms, we can make peace with them. Coping skills (or as I like to say, “Acceptance skills”) are skills that teach us how to be fluid with our symptoms, how to move and shift with them rather than stamp them out, since they so often come back in some form, no matter how hard we stamp and stomp. We can get to know our symptoms as something that will be with us, maybe quiet in the background some years and loud and demanding in the foreground other years.
We can, as Matt Haig talks about, get to know their nature-what they feel like, smell like, say and do to our mind and body- and what they respond to. It is my belief that we are the expert on ourselves. Sometimes we need help building that expertise. Therapy is one tool for us to become more acquainted with who we are and what we need. By listening to ourselves closely and carefully, we can hear and feel which combination of skills (therapy, diet, laughter, medication, meditation, breathing techniques, exercise, writing, singing) best tempers our own symptoms.