9 Ways to Cope When Bad Circumstances Stay the Same

The good news is it's not hopeless, and there are tools you can use to feel better.   

 minute read

Andrea Karr

Sadness and grief are normal parts of being human, especially during times of change and loss. You may experience a period of feeling low that’s triggered by a job loss, for example, then find that your depression symptoms resolve when you find new employment. But what happens when your mood is affected by an ongoing situation that’s unlikely to change any time soon? (Say, you’re the sole caregiver for an aging parent or you have a chronic illness.) Here are nine steps you can take to improve your mood and your outlook, even if your external circumstances remain the same.

1. Validate your feelings

“A lot of people have this knee-jerk reaction of telling people it will be OK and things will get better,” says Jennifer Hollinshead, the founder and clinical director of British Columbia-based counselling practice Peak Resilience. “And that can really invalidate people’s feelings and make them feel even more alone.” Instead, take a look at the details of the circumstance and how it’s normal to feel sad, hopeless or depressed in that situation. “If someone comes in and their mom just passed away or they’re caring for an elderly family member and they’re really stressed out, we’ll say, ‘This is really hard and you need reinforcements.’ And even just hearing that from someone external can make them realize, ‘Oh yeah, this actually is hard. I’m not crazy. I’m having these depression symptoms for a reason and I just need more help.’”

2. Practice self-compassion

Emotions are incredibly complex and it’s possible to have feelings about your feelings. For example, you might feel an extra layer of shame about feeling sad or depressed. “But would you be shaming yourself if you had a cold or the flu?” Hollinshead asks. “Practicing compassion is a huge coping strategy because, if you’re more compassionate with yourself, you’re actually going to reach out for help more when you need it.”

3. Honor the ways you’re already coping

You may think you’re spinning out of control and doing nothing to help yourself, but the opposite is probably true. “Maybe you call your friend and that helps sometimes, or you binge watch Netflix to get out of your head and that helps,” Hollinshead says. You may also turn to strategies that are harmful — like using substances or food as a temporary fix. “Obviously, we don’t want to have coping skills that have a lot of negative side effects. So let’s honor the fact that you know that alcohol helps you, then build in some other coping strategies that don’t have as many side effects.” For Hollinshead, it’s essential to honor people’s innate resilience and the ways they try to help themselves, and then build on those strengths. 

4. Shift your locus of control

If you believe that your successes and failures are ultimately in your hands, you have an internal locus of control. If you think that your successes and failures are the result of good or bad luck, that means you have an external locus of control — or no real control over the things that happen in your life. For people that have experienced trauma, which Hollinshead defines as “something that is outside of the person’s control that is extremely threatening physically, emotionally or spiritually, such as sexual violence in their history,” it can feel like the world is out to get them and nothing they do really matters. But shifting to an internal locus of control is important so that you can “believe, deep down, that what you do directly impacts your life’s circumstances,” she says. “If we can shift it to an internal locus of control, that bodes well for our clients because they feel like they have more choice, more control, and more power in how they live their lives.” 

5. Externalize depressive thoughts

One technique that can help to shift your locus of control is calling out the thoughts in your head like “only bad things happen to me” or “I have no control.” Hollinshead suggests labeling these thoughts as depressive thoughts and even building an alter ego to externalize them. For example, your alter ego could be Eeyore. Every time you think the thought “nothing ever goes right,” you can say it in Eeyore’s voice. “That way we lighten the mood a bit and see that, hey, this isn’t you thinking this thought. It’s a depression thought,” Hollinshead says.

6. Give yourself permission to set boundaries

Setting boundaries with people you love — and then enforcing them — is incredibly difficult. “I joke to clients about it because I hate enforcing boundaries, too,” says Hollinshead. “It doesn’t feel nice, and I was told my whole life to be a nice girl. We’re raised to be caregivers and do everything for everyone.” But having clear boundaries, and knowing what you do and don’t have the bandwidth for, is key for your mental health — especially when you deal with friends or family members that ask for a lot from you. You’re responsible for making sure you can function in your life, which means you can’t do everything and be everything to everyone all the time. “People think that saying no means they’re not responsible and they’re not helping,” says Hollinshead. “But when you say no to the things that you don’t have the capacity for, it’s because you’re actually trying to take responsibility for all of the competing things in your life.” 

7. Look at your lifestyle

Exercise is an important tool for alleviating depression — even just in small amounts. “If you’re struggling, literally walking around the block is a form of exercise,” notes Hollinshead. Diet also plays a role. “Some people eat too much or eat a lot of carbs and fats because those are the types of foods that our body wants to feel better,” she says. Try to have protein, carbs and fats at every meal, and avoid alcohol, which depresses the central nervous system. Doing a little bit in each area of your life helps to combat low mood from all sides.

8. Go to therapy

Sometimes, it can be really helpful to put yourself in a safe space where you can speak to a counsellor, therapist or psychologist about your feelings and try new types of thinking and behavior — especially if you don’t have the strongest social support system. Quality counsellors work to build a “therapeutic relationship that can feel a lot safer than relationships in the real world,” says Hollinshead. “Then [they] can start to challenge some of the patterns that the person has developed in their relationships and start to practice new patterns. It’s like a microcosm of the real world and, [practicing] things in a safer environment.”

But if you can’t make it into therapy, there are plenty of online assessment tools and courses that can be helpful. If you’re in Canada, a program by the Canadian Mental Health Association called BounceBack has phone coaching and online videos to help with low-to-moderate depression, anxiety, stress or worry.

9. Call in reinforcements

If you’ve struggled with low mood for a long time and it doesn’t seem to improve, or it prevents you from participating in your life and taking steps toward feeling better, it may be time to talk to your doctor about medication. “Or if you’re hesitant and don’t want to go the medication route — because some people feel weird about that — I’ll recommend talking to a naturopath or going to acupuncture,” says Hollinshead. “Something on the physical side of depression that can help chip away at it.” Set a deadline for yourself, possibly with the help of your counsellor or therapist. If you don’t feel better by a certain date, it’s time to start looking at other options. 

Hopefully, you’ve found a few tools that can help you get through difficult situations and periods of low mood. But it’s also important to remember that you can take every possible step to improve your mood, and your circumstances and life might still be hard sometimes. “You can talk about coping and you can try coping,” says Hollinshead, “but sometimes, no matter what mechanisms you put in place, life can be tough. It’s really important for mental health to recognize that life is made up of good times and not good times.” You’re not going to feel happy all of the time, and that’s a normal part of being human.


Photo courtesy of Wisnu Prayoga.

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