The (Sometimes Harmful) Ways People Cope with Depression

Serious woman sits in window looking outDepression can be difficult to tolerate. It can run the spectrum from a gnawing feeling of low and constant fatigue and worry to feeling hopeless, despairing, trapped, and desperately alone. When depression is at its worst, the prospect of suicide can feel like the only way to get beyond the pain.

If you experience any or all of this, you have a lot on your plate.

Unfortunately, many people struggling with depression complicate matters by (mostly unconsciously) employing coping mechanisms that actually work against them and compound the suffering. In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll identify some of these unhelpful coping mechanisms and explore a possible better path.

How We Cope with Emotional Pain

All human beings, to some degree or another, develop ways of dealing with pain very early on. It is an innate capacity we all have to adapt and survive, not only physically but emotionally as well.

Just as a plant shapes itself to its environment—sometimes having to twist, torque, or reach in order to get the sunlight and nutrients it needs—people adjust their personalities in order to protect themselves and to get what they need (love, belonging, etc.).

Unfortunately, many adaptations that serve people well as children or adolescents can become burdensome as adults as the external world of the child lives within them. These mechanisms in their common forms may include withdrawal, isolation, overeating, excessive video game playing, obsessive thinking (being “in your head”), or hypersexuality, to name a few.

More uncommon or subversive are the coping mechanisms that, on the surface, appear as symptom or fixed part of the personality, but underneath serve to protect and deflect from the pain of depression.

More uncommon or subversive are the coping mechanisms that, on the surface, appear as symptom or fixed part of the personality, but underneath serve to protect and deflect from the pain of depression.

Depression can be so difficult to manage and experience that it can recruit the most potent of defenses. Especially if you grew up in an environment where depression was in the air, you may have had to protect yourself from both the aloneness and the infiltration of the depression itself.

It is possible you unconsciously had to employ more subversive defenses. The more uncommon or subversive coping mechanisms, ones that were once life-saving, now can add stress if you are experiencing depression. I am thinking specifically of low self-esteem, self-deprecation, minimizing, or doubting thoughts that may seem like symptoms of depression but rather as serve as unconscious strategies. These mechanisms, seemingly depressive thoughts that may have at one time been protective, now are self-destructive.

It might be difficult to figure out if your more negative thoughts are a symptom of your depression or a way to cope with it. And it might be a disturbing (but perhaps ultimately liberating) realization that you could be harming yourself in that way. This inquiry requires quite a bit of curiosity, compassion, and honesty.

However, if you are depressed and feel desperate, it’s a worthwhile inquiry. Are you harming yourself in an effort to protect yourself from the deeper pain and aloneness you felt as a child? You can begin this inquiry in earnest on your own, but I highly recommend you find a therapist you feel comfortable with, one who is well versed in working with depression, and one with whom you can establish a good working alliance.

Ask Yourself These Questions

The following are some questions you can ask yourself regarding your negative thoughts. Write each question at the top of a page, and respond with whatever comes to mind. Write for 10 minutes and then see what comes to you.

  1. What are the negative thoughts I think most often?
  2. What happens when I think these negative thoughts?
  3. Are these negative thoughts a part of me?
  4. What function do these negative thoughts serve?
  5. Are these negative thoughts here to protect me?
  6. What are some alternative ways to help me with my depression?

If the negative thoughts are indeed a coping mechanism, it is best to get help from someone who knows both the subtlety of the unconscious and the vulnerability that resides in these particular defenses. A trained and sensitive therapist can be of invaluable support because a professional can reflect back the impact of these thoughts and offer a space where you can begin to feel into the feelings behind those thoughts. This is a way to see your inner world more clearly and, ultimately, learn to work with your depression in a more dynamic way.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 12 comments
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  • Stef

    Stef

    April 27th, 2016 at 12:28 PM

    Just trying to ignore what you are feeling or maybe in many cases what you aren’t feeling can be a sign that something is going on

  • Nat

    Nat

    April 27th, 2016 at 2:16 PM

    I am definitely the overeater. I wish that when I was sad and depressed I would lose my appetite like my mom does, but no. I am looking for anything and everything food wise that can make me feel better. Of course that never really helps, only makes me end up feeling worse, but it is always what I do.

  • Lottie

    Lottie

    April 28th, 2016 at 6:42 AM

    When feeling depressed all I want to do is shut down and not have that much to do with anyone. I am sure that if I could find a way to talk to someone then it would be so much more helpful to me but I just can’t. I never feel that at ease with other people and so therefore I just tend to keep to myself and hope that the blues go away as fast as they have set in.

  • Anne

    Anne

    April 29th, 2016 at 7:10 AM

    ugh those negative thoughts that you begin having about yourself are the things that will always do you in. They do nothing to improve your life and so why not start to discard them piece by piece?

  • Linda

    Linda

    April 29th, 2016 at 5:16 PM

    I just shut down. Sleep is my savior. I have no one to talk to. My family thinks I’m “crazy” such an awful word. My mother has had mental illness most of her life and has been in denial. She’s the one who really brings on the hurt and the depression. I try to stay away and not speak to her, but she seems to get through, she always has a ruse to get me to call. Lately I’ve avoided her voice mails. It’s all I can do to keep my sanity. I’ve spent the last three days holding back the tears. But my co-worker’s and friends see right through. It does get better. I just pick up a book and read, it helps.

  • Hope

    Hope

    April 30th, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    Why do we have such a difficult time even as an adult outgrowing and moving past the things that we did as a child to help get through tough situations? How is it that for many of us we get so stuck in doing one thing that we are never quite able to move past that, even though we know that as adults there are plenty of better options out there, but we are either unwilling to see that or maybe in some ways unable to try to do anything new.

  • Antonio

    Antonio

    May 1st, 2016 at 9:59 AM

    When I’m depressed o try and hurt myself by drinking…. and then become more depressed…yeah life sucks…

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 1st, 2016 at 7:02 PM

    Thank you for your comment, Antonio. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about self harm at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-self-harm.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Elizabeth

    Elizabeth

    May 1st, 2016 at 1:25 PM

    I’ve gone through a battle for 2 and half years with cps got them taken because of pot. I completed everything I had to but things never worked out with my husband. He doesn’t love me ..we both addmitted to cheating.
    I gave sole physical and legal cutody to the person that raised my husband. As soon as she got that I can’t see my kids or talk to them. I had twins girl &boy just turned 3 and a 4 year old. I feel like I have nothing to live for. There are moms in the world that don’t care about there kids but I do and there’s no hope at this point.

  • Ben Ringler

    Ben Ringler

    May 1st, 2016 at 7:52 PM

    Hello To Those Who Have Responded,
    All of your comments are very honest accounts of the pain you are all experiencing, and some of the ways you are trying to cope. Very difficult. I cannot stress enough the importance of seeking professional help. Reading this and other blogs is a good start, to feel like you are not alone, and to make a comment is a step, but it is only a first step. If you are perusing GoodTherapy site, I urge you to please search for a therapist in your area to help you find better ways to cope with your depression, and can help guide you if you might need additional support (medication, social worker, etc.). If you are considering hurting yourself, here are some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about self harm at
    https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-self-harm.html
    and additional information about what to do in a crisis at
    https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Please take care, Ben Ringler

  • Sally High

    Sally High

    May 7th, 2016 at 3:41 AM

    As a therapist in Orlando I have been working over 14 years with individuals and helping them to see what a major role their conditioning plays in their thought process and the way they view themselves and the world. We believe our thoughts as real and reinforce them by external messages defining who we think we are. It’s about challenging that irrational thought process and creating new belief systems that are healthy and honest as to the person you really are. All is well and each person is a miracle. highexpectationscounseling.com

  • Angel

    Angel

    November 11th, 2016 at 9:23 AM

    I have servir depression an anxiety and when I get mad of myself or do something wrong I litterly take my fist an beat my self until well the next day I have black eyes Ive been doing this for long time 20 years or so my last relationship he had tried choke me to death believe me wish I left the world that day I have no one in my life who even cares they muck say they do but I know they dont why do I have go tru all this an wat does it prove??

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