Effective Coping for Emotional Distress

Earlier today I offered some reflections on what people-of-faith need to know about depression.  I promised that I’d offer some additional thoughts on effective coping for emotional distress.shutterstock_203291770

Effective coping strategies enable a person to gather their psychological, emotional, spiritual, and relational resources so that they can respond to the problems they are facing.  By contrast, ineffective coping strategies simply allow a person to escape, withdraw, or numb themselves for a time, but when the “break” is over the person using these strategies finds him or herself no better positioned to address the problem-at-hand.  Examples of common, but largely useless and ineffective “coping strategies” include things like isolating, watching TV, drinking/drugging, withdrawing from spiritual support, excessive sleeping or eating, blaming, and other behaviors that attempt to give you distance from the problem but don’t give you any new directions, resources, insights or supports.

Here are some examples of effective coping strategies for dealing with emotional difficulties…

 -Drawing Closer to Others:   It is not good for man to be alone (Gen 2:18).  In times of trial, drawing closer to the people who share our life, asking for help, going out with friends (even when we don’t feel like it–especially then) is critically important.  Satan is a “roaring lion” (1 Ptr 5:8) waiting to devour you.  Be like the smart antelope.   When you are dealing with emotional distress, don’t let yourself get separated from the herd.  Instead, ask yourself, “When I feel better, what do I usually do/enjoy doing with others?”  Then do those things whether or not you feel like it right now.  I know you don’t want to be a burden, but talk about your struggles with others.  Give people the gift of letting them use their gifts to bless you.  In the long term, you’ll be glad you did.

-Draw Closer to God:  Ask yourself, “When I feel good, how do I pray? How do I experience God the most?”   Cling to those things now.  No, you may not get the same thing out of it you do when you’re in a better place, but his grace will still flow freely and you will begin gathering important spiritual resources.    People who actively engage in personally meaningful spiritual practices are more resilient than those who do not have or take advantage of spiritual supports.

-Participate in Healing Rituals:  People who are depressed or anxious or dealing with other emotional problems should definitely take advantage of Anointing of the Sick.  It is an important healing sacrament. Confession can also be helpful for banishing both obstacles to grace and the guilt that separates you from God’s love.  Don’t hesitate to ask your pastor to bless you or to ask others to pray over you and for you.  Sacraments have the power to effect the healing the signify, but all spiritual rituals have real power to propel healing.

-Make Meaning:  Research shows that “meaning making” or asking what value you can draw from a difficult time in life is a very powerful coping strategy.  One of the most depressing aspects of emotional distress is the apparent meaningless of it all.  In my book, The Life God Wants You to Have, I discuss many ways we can make meaning out of pain.  When we ask questions like, “How can I respond to this in a way that will make me a better person, glorify God, or, for that matter, make Satan sorry that he ever decided to pick on me?”  we begin to see the significance hidden with the moment.  We discover how to use everything life throws at us as an opportunity for growth.

-Recall Your Past Victories Over Struggle:  Write out a brief description of the last half-dozen or so times you thought you were doomed but things ended up working out somehow.  Focus on how, specifically, God delivered you from these trials.  Is there a pattern?  Do you see that pattern at work now?  How did you respond to those struggles when they were at their worst?  Was all the drama worth it?  Are you creating the same drama now?  Is the drama any more worthwhile this time?

-Gratitude Journaling:  Superficially, this sounds trite, but a large body of research supports the assertion that the simple act of writing down 3-5 things you are sincerely grateful for every day can increase your baseline experience of happiness by about 25%.  One’s happiness set point is very difficult to change.  The fact that this exercise can have this powerful an impact on one’s basic experience of happiness is near miraculous and it should not be overlooked by anyone looking for better ways to cope with emotional distress.

-Exercise:  A very large body of research shows the effectiveness of exercise as a coping strategy.  Exercise changes your body and brain chemistry.  It helps wake you up, focus your mind, engage your creativity, and tolerate pain (both physical and emotional) more effectively.

-Seeking Professional Help:  As I shared earlier, psychotherapy is a very effective means of learning new coping strategies.  Psychotherapy can be best thought of as physical therapy for the brain.  It has been shown to change brain chemistry and function and strengthen under-performing parts of the brain.    By beefing up brain function through cognitive and behavioral exercises as well as therapeutic conversations that support clients in thinking about old problems in new ways, clients learn to handle stress more effectively.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list of coping strategies, but its a great start.  Do you have other ideas?  Share them in the comments box!  And if you would like to learn more about how the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-counseling practice can help you experience a more abundant marriage, family and personal life, visit us online or call 740-266-6461 to make an appointment.


Dealing With Depression: Getting the Right Kind of Help Matters

The news of Robin Williams’ suicide has brought the insidious nature of depression front and center.  

I know too many Christians who believe that they should be immune from depression because they are Christian.   While research shows that some believers can be more resistant to depression and have a somewhat easier time bouncing back when they do get depression, it is also true that some approaches to religion can be associated with higher rates of depression and emotional problems.  When evaluating the power of belief to protect against emotional problems, the research seems to show that the question isn’t “do you believe?”  but rather what do you believe, how, and why?

The bottom line is that, by and large,  Christians experience depression at rates that are similar to the general population.  Twenty-Six percent of adults in the US have depression.  The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020 depression will be the second leading cause of disability after heart disease.

Does Treatment Work?

The good news is that depression is very treatable.  Sadly, many comments I am reading on the internet seem to suggest that seeking help must be pointless because if Robin Williams, who arguably had every resource in the world available to him, couldn’t get adequate care who can?  First, we don’t know all the details of Robin Williams situations and we never will.  Secondly, what we do know points to a much more complicated clinical picture than what most people experience.  Robin Williams’ history was not with depression but with Bi-Polar Disorder, which can be characterized by dramatic mood swings and is somewhat more difficult to treat than depression.  This, combined with his long struggle with substance abuse and the unique pressure a person in his position faces,  should remind everyone to resist the temptation to draw broader conclusions about the effectiveness of depression treatment based on the tragic outcome of William’s particular story.

What’s the Best Treatment?

As I mentioned, depression is very treatable.  80% of people who seek help report that they experience significant or even total relief from their depressive symptoms.  That’s a tremendous success rate.

What is the best treatment for depression?  Studies of evidenced-based approaches to treatment show that psychotherapy alone should be the primary method of treatment.  This approach has the highest success rate, the longest-term recovery rates,  the lowest negative effects and the lowest drop-out rate.  For patients who need additional support, adding medication to psychotherapy is the best approach.

Interestingly, despite what all the TV commercials tell you, research seems to show that the least effective approach is medication alone because of the relatively lower rate of effectiveness (about 50%), lower rate of symptom relief (about 30%), higher side-effect profile, greater likelihood of post-treatment relapse, and greater treatment drop-out rate.  Bottom line?  If you have been diagnosed with depression and are not in ongoing psychotherapy, you are not undergoing the best course of treatment. Period.

How Do You Know If It’s Time to Seek Help?

Everyone experiences sadness, but its important not to dismiss depression as mere sadness.  If you are experiencing a period of sustained sadness that lasts for at least 2 weeks and is accompanied by any of the following: a change in eating habits (either eating more or less), sleeping habits (either more or less), withdrawing from social engagements, decreased enjoyment of previously enjoyable activities, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, or especially, thoughts of dying, death, or harming oneself, it’s time to seek help.

How Do We Cope?

Our ability to resist depression or recover efficiently from it tends to depend a great deal on the coping strategies we use to deal with stress in general.  In my next post, I’ll look at healthy versus unhealthy coping styles and offer specific suggestions for coping more effectively with all the challenges in your life.  For now, just know that if you or a loved one is struggling with feelings of sadness or despair that you think might be depression,  getting help early is key.  If you aren’t sure if it’s depression, that’s a good enough reason to get an evaluation (i.e., If you have to ask…). Talk to your doctor or contact a licensed psychotherapist who can help you clarify the nature of the problem you are facing and the best means of resolving it.  Getting help early is the best way to increase both the likelihood of a full recovery and your ability to experience the life God has given you as the gift that it is–even when that gift gets complicated.

For more information on faithful approaches to treating depression and other emotional problems, check out the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s Catholic Tele-Counseling Practice by visiting us online or calling 740-266-6461 to make an appointment to speak with a professional Catholic counselor.  Let us help you integrate the wisdom of our faith with contemporary insights from counseling psychology to help you develop the most comprehensive response to the challenges in your life.