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44 Unexpected Coping Techniques for When Mental Illness Feels Like Too Much

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Managing symptoms of mental illness can be incredibly challenging, especially if you’re caught up in the chaos of life. Sure, a bubble bath sounds like a nice way to soothe myself from the powerful emotions I’m feeling, but what if I don’t have the motivation to clean the tub? All the doctors I’ve been to say exercise helps, but what if my small reserves of energy are best spent doing what seem to be like more important tasks? And sometimes I can’t just sit and meditate through moments that simply feel too intense.

Although self-care and coping strategies, like mental illness, are different for everyone, it’s important to find what works for you. That’s why we asked our Mighty mental health community to share with us unexpected coping techniques they have used.

Here is what they had to say:

1. “I started a massive fractal cross stitch a year ago and when my mind is racing I pull that out and sew for hours. I can’t just watch TV or a movie anymore, I have to do something with my hands. It is massively calming and the intense bright colors make me happy.” — Cait F.

2. “If I am really in trouble I get in the truck, go for a ride with the windows shut and just yell. As loud and long as I can. People look at me and wonder what is up, but eventually I start to laugh and calm down because then I start to feel silly.” — James W.

3. “I buy a stack of cheap glass plates whenever I am out and when I am anxious or angry or depressed, I write everything that is on my mind that I want to let go of on the plate with a sharpie. Then I take the plate outside on the concrete and smash it into tiny pieces. The breaking is very therapeutic for me and the fact that all of my frustrations a visually broken in front of me brings me a sort of relief.” — Kristin B.

4. “Cleaning and music. Crank up some of my favorite music and clean the house. Something about cleaning makes my anxiety level go down knowing I accomplished something. Music helps my anxiety and depression.” — Mira N.

5. “Movies and/or TV shows. I used to always get teased for how much I was invested in them, know actors names etc. But there’s something about escaping reality, not being engulfed in my own thoughts for just a few hours, maybe a whole day.” — Abbie K.

6. “To-do lists. I get really overwhelmed by the thought of how much I have to do. Having it in writing always makes it seem like less of an impassable mountain and more like something I can manage. Plus being able to check things off and see my own accomplishments is really reassuring.” — Fiona H.

7. “I draw to escape my anxious feelings. Most of the time my drawings are of inspirational quotes that really have helped me in the past. By doing this, it calms me down and gives me courage. Sometimes I even listen to some relaxing music to block out outside noises. In that moment in time, it’s just me, the paper and my pencil. No anxiety.” — Alexis V.

8. “Knitting! When anxiety is troubling me, knitting helps keep my hands busy, so I don’t pick at my nail beds, and it helps me calm down and focus. It also gives a sense of achievement because I’m making something.” — Karoline B.

9. “I take a shower. It sounds simple, but it’s something I have complete control over while my mind and world are in chaos. I control the pressure. I control the temperature. I control when it ends and it begins. It’s a grounding/coping mechanism I have used most of my life.  A second mechanism has always been reading cheesy novels. It’s something my mind doesn’t have to work hard to comprehend and I can get out of my own head for a bit.” — Brittany K.

10. “Winston Churchill has famously referred to his depression as “the black dog.” I like to imagine leashing the biggest, scariest black dog I can think of and taking it for a walk. It reminds me that I’m in control of my depression and not the other way around.” — Nicole D.

11. “I walk every day and I pick up litter, recycling everything I can. It helps me to feel like I am still relevant, contributing something good to my community and to the planet and restoring beauty to an ugly act and order to chaos. It has helped me enormously with PTSD and led to me writing creatively about both.” — Jon A.

12. “I make myself cry by watching things that are cute and sweet and adorable. Later I feel so much lighter, like I just needed to get some of it out to have room for happiness. Also just finding something to do so I don’t stay in bed and think all day/week/month. Something as simple as a book, a podcast, a two minute walk, buying groceries. Just distracting my mind.” — Synne R.

13. “I rub lavender oil into my hands and practice breathing techniques. And then I either read or take a nap. It’s very helpful to me. I also like going for a drive. With no particular destination. It distracts me and I end up seeing pretty landscapes and discover things I didn’t know. And I can cry in my car without worrying about someone seeing me.” — Emily L.

14. “Immerse myself in the kitchen. I make things. Turn on the radio to hear music I know words to so it forces me to sing along. With the little bit of focus I can muster up I start preparing food — meal prep, baking, organizing.” — Kristine A.

15. “I prepare for tomorrow as much as I can do reduce my anxiety the next day. For example, I’ll make sure my outfit is picked out already, the Keurig is pre-filled with water and everything that needs to be done by tomorrow is finished already. That way I’m not scrambling in the morning for fear of being late.” — Kyla M.

16. “I build forts out of blankets. It feels like a safe place when I’m upset. When I’m depressed or anxious, hiding in a fort so I can process things and write in my journal helps me release all the bad energy so I feel more certain and able to approach the issue outside the safety of my fort.” — Brittany S.

17. “I have a list of ‘zen’ things I do. I call them that so I can refocus. It could include simple things like: going to the gym, playing with my dog, trying to meet a friend for dinner. It could also be larger things like: going to the beach or horse back riding. Those two are my favorite zen activities. I try to find something to refocus my nervous energy, which can be difficult, but I’ve learned these things help recenter and refocus me.” — Jessica W.

18. “Self-reassurance. As odd as it sounds, I will have a full-blown conversation with myself. I talk myself through every intrusive thought. Basically babysitting my ‘adult’ self through my ‘inner’ self. I feel the words are more valid coming from me because it sets me in the now and I am able to better handle my episodes.” — Jordan M.

19. “The sounds of your typical office drive me nuts. I get too easily distracted by listening to music, so I’ll listen to podcasts or movies or something. Listening to something more extended allows me to drown out the noises that distract me and to get work done.” — Max T.

20. “I journal and use planners. It’s weird but I feel better when I’m jotting everything down on paper, even if it’s something as simple as showering or fixing a meal for myself. Not only does it help to remind myself to do self-care, but it helps me to stay focused and keeps my thoughts from getting too frantic.” — Joanna C.

21. “I have been a tarot card reader for 25 years, and when my depression and/or anxiety is hard, my preferred method of centering and coping is to sit and shuffle one of my decks. I don’t even lay out a reading. Simply handling the cards and mindfully shuffling them brings me peace and brings me back to center. I have a deck that I have had since I was 17, and even on the darkest days, handling it helps me feel more present.” — Susan H.

22. “Any kind of art (writing, photography, graphic art), playing/cuddling with our cat, remembering that we are all just a tiny speck of dust in this ever-expanding and violent universe and whatever is happening will soon pass (and won’t last forever). Anything out in nature. To-do lists. Music. Removing all news related apps and pages from my feed.” — Christina L.

23. “I repeat my motto: ‘I don’t like it, but it’s OK.’ Whenever something triggers my OCD, it helps me work through uncomfortable situations.” — Brittany A.

24. “I’ve started collecting Buddhas. I have two little ones on my desk at work, a purple one on my window in my kitchen, a Buddha bust on my bathtub, my house key is a cast iron Buddha, a set of three ‘hear/speak/see no evil’ Buddhas and a Buddha charm that I always wear around my neck. The image of the Buddha reminds me to let go of my earthly worries and to always be kind. It reminds me that, no matter how hard things may seem, it doesn’t mean I can’t be happy in the process and worrying will only make me sick. He reminds me to take care of myself.” — Amanda K.

25. “I call it ‘angry dishes.’ I learned the technique in culinary school. I just went in the dish room and started slamming out clean dishes. It gave me a pattern to follow and allowed me to use my anxious mind constructively to sort the dishes on the rack and push them through the machine. I use it to this day at my current job.” — Carolyn M.

26. “Being involved in an active online community for a shared interest, mine being the show ‘Twin Peaks.’ They have an active fanbase on Facebook and Twitter and they are some of the friendliest people. It helps on bad days to be able to chat with them about the show and what we love about it, and allows me to forget about the problems I’m dealing with. And it helps that we everyone in the community wishes to indulge in some damn fine coffee and pie and discuss our fan theories for the shows latest season. It’s all very wholesome.” — Lexie M.

27. “Emergency dance party. When I feel an episode coming or my anxiety is too high, I plug in my speakers, turn up the volume to max, and put on my emergency dance party playlist. I then proceed to wild dancing, trying not to think about anything but the music until I’m exhausted and sweating. I’m a horrible dancer and end up not caring and just laughing at myself. I feel a bit more alive when I hear my heart pounding from dancing around instead of anxiety.” — Sandra V.

28. “Animals! No matter if it’s horses, dogs, cats — they always show their true emotions. They mirror your behavior and feelings. And cuddling them helps calm me down, feel safe and reduce anxiety.” — Nadine H.

29. “I’ll wash my hair and sometimes I’ll also do my skincare routine if I have time because it takes a while to double cleanse, exfoliate, tone, use masks and moisturize. There is probably nothing I love more than having clean, soft, nice smelling hair and clean, soft, bright skin.” — Beth G.

30. “I listen to other people. I speak less so that I can hear different life points of view. I change routine. And when I sleep crying and wake up with my eyes looking horrible, I put on make up so that when I look in the mirror through the day, I find myself looking beautiful, feeling like I won this time.” — Israa E.

31. “I take a piece of paper and write with each pen I own, even if it’s just my name. I’ll test out every single pen and pencil and it’s so calming to me, it’s also very distracting since my mind is only focused on the writing and how pretty each color looks.” — Breeana G.

32. “Visualization. I close my eyes and imagine stripping myself of all jewelry and clothes (or anything that binds me to the reason I’m feeling anxious). Then I vividly imagine transporting myself somewhere other than where I am. Usually out in nature, like on a mountain or near a river.” — Jo A.

33. “Writing. It’s really the only thing I enjoy anymore and it allows me to escape into my own little world for a while. When I can concentrate, I also love to draw. It’s very relaxing and you feel like you’ve achieved something.” — Victoria W.

34. “The thing that can usually calm down my anxiety for a moment is painting my nails nice and slowly. As silly as it sounds, it makes me focus on one thing that’s real and in front of me, rather than the millions of worries and thoughts running through my head.” — Sarah J.

35. “Makeup. The creativity of deciding what shades and techniques to use and the soothing repetitive movements and facial touching all take my mind off the past or future and root me in the present. Plus it boosts my self-confidence” — Amy S.

36. “One of my favorite mindfulness practices (an important part of dialectical behavioral therapy) is to pour a large mound of flour on a plate and mindfully run my fingers through it. It may sound strange but the texture is amazing to me and so captivatingly unique!” — Heather G.

37. “Cuddling my husband. I know he’s not always there, but it’s refreshing to have a nice cuddle session every now and then. Kind of helps reset me and makes me feel happy. Like everything is going to be OK.” — Gracyn L.

38. “I try to focus on something in the present, like a picture in the room I am in, or my dog. Just bringing me back to where I am now, not in the past where my mind wanders.” — Tanna M.

39. “I sit and make jewelry it helps me to stop thinking about things and I just go into a zone where no one can talk to me until I talk to them, and it helps me a lot. I have made loads of earrings and charms, and after a few hours I start to feel better about being myself” — Anna-Marie B.

40. “Bon fires. Just the satisfaction of being able to start a fire from scratch and then becoming mesmerized by the glow of the firewood. My nervous energy is put into something with great results.” — Eileen D.

41. “Having some fresh air outside while driving slowly with windows down, stopping by anywhere I feel safe and calm. If I’m not crying, I call someone who I trust just to talk about their day and make them feel better if possible — it gives me positive vibes. The night wind that crawls to my skin makes me feel like I’m actually living.” — Anis S.

42. “Karaoke. I’ve been singing since I was a kid. There is something very comforting in belting out some Janis Joplin. It allows me to express a ton of emotion through music. I always feel better after going out and singing.” — Autumn G.

43. “A hot water bottle. Honestly, I use it as a comfort technique — on my stomach to ease the nausea I get with depression and anxiety, and on my chest during a panic attack. It’s all probably just comforting associations, but it helps.” — Lucy J.

44. “I really enjoy watching funny videos on YouTube for both my depression and anxiety. When I’m depressed, the laughs I gain make me forget I was feeling sad. When I’m anxious I get distracted by the videos and just focus on them.” — Kaylyn R.

What coping mechanisms would you add?

Thinkstock photo via Joshua Earle

Originally published: November 7, 2017
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