A Firsthand Lesson in Coping With Depression and Anxiety

By: Jayson Tripp, MD


My name is Sierra. I’m 23 years old. I live in Herriman, Utah with my cat Zola, and I have depression and anxiety.

It’s no secret that I’ve lived with depression  and anxiety  for years. To say I’ve struggled is to put things lightly. I’ve fought hard to get to where I am today as a fully functional, compassionate, strong, and hard-working adult, and I’ve had to learn a lot along the way. Today I’m not here to tell you about my struggles, but the lessons I’ve learned from them.

The top three hardest things for me to learn were:

1. It’s okay to admit you’re not okay.

It takes a special kind of strength to reach out and ask for help. I often say that we all like to feel powerful and independent, but the truth of the matter is, none of us can handle everything alone. For those who try to do it alone, as I did, the steep path to improvement is treacherous and unnecessarily difficult. Take the opportunity to learn from and lean on those who love you and are willing to help you.

2. I am not fragile because of my illness.

Whether you are experiencing depression and anxiety for the first time or the hundredth time, there will be times when life affects you in ways that take you by surprise. Because of what you experience, you will see things differently, and learn to do things differently. That doesn’t make you fragile, or less capable, or less valuable. It just means you’ve developed a specialized skillset specific to you and your situation. You are the only one who can make sure you are where you want to be, and this skillset will help you to find a new normal so you can learn to enjoy life again.

3. Speaking up is hard

Even after accepting that life will never go back to feeling as simple and smooth as before, you will want to hide your mental illness from the world. Fear that people won’t accept you or will accuse you of seeking attention will keep you from exposing your struggles. Do it anyway. Every single time I speak up, I love myself a little more, and while some people do leave, I know those that stay truly love me as I am.

Along with those three lessons, I was forced to develop a wide arsenal of tools to control my emotions and my life rather than remain subject to the whims of my anxiety and depression. While the list of tools is extensive, there are a few I find myself coming back to, again and again, that can be applied in almost any situation.

1. Square Breathing

If you haven’t heard of square breathing (also known as box breathing), it’s one of the most effective ways (in my opinion) to pull yourself out of an anxiety spiral or panic attack. You can find an in-depth guide on square breathing at the link above, but basically, you breathe in, hold, breathe out, and rest all for equal amounts of time measured by your counting. Square breathing works by slowing your thought process and shifting your focus to something other than your stressor. You can do it as long or as short as you need and can be done in almost any setting. I’ve even used box breathing while driving a time or two. Just make sure not to stretch the times too long so you get plenty of oxygen.

2. Grounding

Grounding can be used for both depression and anxiety. While there are thousands of ways to ground, I use two main grounding methods.

The first is touching an item. I wear a ring on my left hand for this purpose. If I can feel myself becoming overly negative or my anxiety taking over, I focus on my ring. I feel its ridges, its temperature, how it shifts on my finger, notice the colors, etc, and simply let my focus stay on something factual and physical in front of me. Once my mind has calmed down, I resume my normal tasks. Usually, the whole process takes 60-180 seconds. I use this strategy more than any other strategy in public places because it’s so unnoticeable. You don’t have to use a ring, you can use a keychain, a necklace (I did this for a long time), a bracelet, a bag, a water bottle, or even the seat beneath you.

The second is called the 5-4-3-2-1 method.  You’ve likely heard of it before. Starting at five, notice and name things around you based on your senses. For example, 5 things you can hear, 4 things you can see, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can touch, and one thing you can taste. This one usually takes a little longer for me so I only use it when I’m feeling especially stuck in my depressive thinking or stress. However, like touching something, it can be done in public without anybody noticing.

3. Volunteering

If you are in a position to do so, I always find that helping somebody else helps me feel better about my value as an individual and takes my mind off my negative thinking. Whether my anxiety is acting up or I’m feeling depressed, something as simple as baking cookies for the neighbor or sending someone an e-card really helps me to feel as if I’m contributing to the world and feel a little better about myself. In fact, before I started experiencing severe symptoms of mental illness, I volunteered twice a week at the local animal shelter for several years. I contribute a large part of the reason I was able to go so long without noticeable symptoms to the fact I was focusing on others in need rather than on myself.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious, whether it is for the first time or the hundredth time, please remember you are not alone. There are so many people who care and people who want to help. Even if you don’t feel comfortable asking for professional help, talk to someone close to you, or text in anonymously to a hotline . In all likelihood, you know someone who has been living with mental illness and would be happy to be there for you and tell you what helps them.

If you’re ready to take the next step and ask for professional help, I see Serenity Mental Health Centers change lives for the better every day. You can find more information on what we do, as well as locations, hours, and patient experiences at https://serenitymentalhealthcenters.com. 

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