Your therapist is a crucial part of your treatment, but they can’t always be with you. It’s important to find ways to get through tough moments on your own and to believe you can do it, too.
Getting a therapist is an essential step in recovery from depression. You can go to their office every so often to vent about a toxic work situation or difficult relationships and get their feedback on coping with stuff. But you can’t live with your therapist or call them outside of therapy (unless, of course, it’s an emergency like you are feeling unsafe).
This means that it’s vitally important to develop coping skills to get through the hard moments, those times when everything seems to be breaking down around you, and you don’t know how you will make it from minute to minute.
Depression typically comes with a lot of negative thoughts and feelings: I can’t do this, I’m so sad that I won’t be able to make it through a moment more of this. In my opinion, the best thing your therapist can do is teach you how to get through these tough times without them. An important goal of my therapy experience has been empowerment and independence.
I’ve found it impactful when my therapist lets me vent for part of the session but also teaches me the skills I need to survive when they are not there. For example, how do I self-soothe when I’m nearly passed out on the couch, crying my eyes out, and having a panic attack?
There are so many ways to get through the hard times, and different things work for different people. When working with a therapist, welcome suggestions about coping skills that might be optimal for you.
For example, if you like to express yourself in writing, you might try keeping a journal. When you are depressed, it can help to write it all out, to put it on a page in front of you instead of simmering in your head and bringing you down. If you like to exercise, there are multiple options there. You might try taking a walk around the block or going to the gym.
I wasn’t always good at coping, and some of my early psychiatrists would probably even say that I had atrocious coping skills. But through therapy, I learned how to use distress tolerance skills to bring down my anxiety level. Sometimes, it feels like getting through a single moment of depression and anxiety is like doing warfare. But I can also say that when I am successful in making it through, I feel fantastic. My self-esteem increases, and I see that I can handle some pretty tough feelings and emotions.
I think that maintaining the mindset that you will get through this is the most important thing when your therapist is not around. First, it’s all about survival. If you are like me, you may have cognitive distortions: these are inaccurate ways of thinking that make you feel bad about yourself.
In therapy, I have analyzed these thoughts and how they tend to lead to negative and self-destructive behaviors. But then, I pay my copay and am on my own again. I can’t call my therapist every time I am feeling panicky, anxious, or having thoughts of self-doubt.
So, I have learned how to be my own therapist for those times.
After you discover what works for you, consistency is the name of the game. I like to listen to music when I’m feeling anxious. So, now, every time I start feeling that unsettling feeling and obsess about something, I pull out my phone and turn to a playlist on Pandora. I have to do this every time I feel anxious, or it won’t work when I need it the most.
I’m also learning mindfulness techniques and deep breathing. It helps to try to clear my head of all the worry and focus on each breath. This can be hard as hell, but once you master this technique, you will be one step closer to mental health.
I also like to spend time with my dog when I am stressed. She’s a great therapist wrapped in a ball of fur. There’s something so therapeutic about sitting on the couch with a dog or cat or going for a walk. Anything that will distract you or take your mind off the anxiety or depression is the way to go.
Another go-to coping skill for me is watching a movie, usually something funny if I am depressed. I am not ashamed to admit that I still binge-watch old 90s TV shows. But this really seems to work for me, so I keep doing it.
When I was working a really stressful job, I would reward myself at the end of the day with a good meal. In fact, rewarding yourself for getting through something difficult or painful can be a great motivator. I often use this technique by saying that when a day is especially stressful, I will allow myself time to just rest on my couch and watch something funny. I have earned this time to myself to just “veg out” and do what works for my mental health.
And, of course, everyone is different. While I have a list of coping skills to distract myself from the pain of depression and anxiety, yours may be different. You won’t learn how to cope with these distressing feelings overnight. Depression and anxiety are often chronic illnesses, and therapy doesn’t last forever. There will come a time when you have to take those skills that you have learned and put them to use.
And you can do it!
The point is that you have to learn how to cope on your own at times. Therapy can often be expensive, especially if you don’t have adequate health insurance.
I would also suggest reading self-help books that will teach you skills about how to get through those dark moments. Go to the self-help section of a bookstore and see what you gravitate toward. Or do an Amazon search. But don’t just read the books. You have to actually practice the skills they teach you. Books like these are a low cost way to learn new ways to cope with anxiety and depression. They are often written by experts or other people who have been successful in learning how to cope with these symptoms.
The important thing is that, at first, you have to sample a lot of different coping skills to find what works best for you. And you will find something if you try hard enough. A therapist can guide you along the way, but there will come a time when you have to remove the training wheels and ride the bike yourself.
And I know that you can do it.
One important caveat: These techniques work for low to moderate levels of distress. If you are having thoughts about hurting yourself, now is the time to reach out to your mental health professionals, like your psychiatrist and/or therapist, or find a way to get to the emergency room. Asking for help during these times is just as important as any of the other skills, and you should never sit in this sort of distress for too long.
Medically reviewed on December 28, 2022
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