Lessons From Therapy: Learning to Cope

Years like 2020, have a way of bringing out the worst in all of us. With schedules and rituals disrupted, while daily comforts were stripped away, all of us turned to coping mechanisms to try and grasp onto some sort of comfort and normalcy.

I find it ironic that our high schools decided to put street names for illicit drugs in our health class curriculum, while choosing to leave out healthy behaviors and practices that would help us avoid coping via substances and addictions.

Thirteen years later, this is what I’ve learned about coping.

The Science Behind Coping and Happiness:

From a scientific level, there are three neurotransmitters and a hormone that are responsible for what we call happiness: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins, and Oxytocin. I would recommend a quick Google search to see what each of these four do.

Endorphins are released when your body is in pain thus explaining runner’s highs and overall euphoria after intense workouts.

Dopamine is most often associated with your body’s reward system but it also plays several other roles from retaining memory to motivation.

In a healthy individual, who relies on more natural ways of releasing Endorphins or Dopamine, the thresholds you must meet in order for your brain to release these neurotransmitters are much lower. Which in plain English means that there are sustainable behaviors and activities that make it easier for you to feel happy.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, negative coping mechanisms oftentimes release a SHIT ton of Dopamine at a severe and unsustainable cost to your body. Certain drugs, trick your brain into releasing much larger amounts of Dopamine than a natural activity would. This translates to an incredibly pleasurable high, but it also means that your brain becomes conditioned to only feeling happy when this unnaturally high threshold of Dopamine is met.

Outside of drugs, pornography which is generally combined with masturbation, when consumed in large quantities can achieve a similar effect. Basically, we are tricking our brains into releasing unnatural amounts of dopamine very frequently, which then builds our tolerance to Dopamine. Which means to reach the same high or level of happiness we need exponentially more Dopamine.

WHICH MEANS: negative coping mechanisms are identifiable by requiring exponentially more exposure or higher dosage to achieve the same level of a high.

This applies to a wide variety of drugs, pornography consumption, likes/interactions on social media, etc. If you are chasing an ever elusive oasis of satisfaction that requires more and more effort to attain, chances are, you are using a negative coping mechanism.

As a person, I am very anxious, very cynical, and I care way too much about what people think about me. Because of this, I am seldom happy. I’m constantly comparing myself to my married friends on social media, or the average 20-something year old that I met at a wedding once where we swapped Instagram handles. My old boss once said “comparison is the thief of all joy,” and they were on to something.

This comparison and anxiety is generally one of the biggest triggers for me to engage in negative coping mechanisms.

In 2020, shortly after the quarantine started, I went on a porn bender. We were stuck at home, my running shoes were worn out and so I couldn’t run without leg pain, and we were isolated from friends and family. One would think with a perfect storm like the pandemic/quarantine combo, my negative coping mechanism would spiral out of control and destroy me. Ironically, with nowhere else to go, I quickly discovered the inescapable fact that: porn left me lower than I was before I consumed it. In a world where I couldn’t see people and was trapped at home, the crushing loneliness that drove me to porn was only exacerbated by my consumption. In short, my problems were only magnified by using this coping mechanism.

When my birthday came around in the spring, I resolved that I was going to up my game and try to kick the habit yet again. I remember being three weeks in and being so hyped because life was different in very strange but tangible ways.

I remember getting lunch from one of my favorite restaurants while I was at work. As I opened the to-go box I got ridiculously excited and happy. As I took that first bite, I felt like Remy the rat discovering flavor composition for the first time. I literally was smiling ear to ear having a pretty darn close to orgasmic experience eating this spicy tuna bowl from Fukada.

I remember driving home from work and looking at the hills I was driving by and feeling the sun on my face and thinking to myself that it was such a beautiful day. Normal behavior for some I’m sure, but for me, the details were what were speaking to me.

I began to notice that writing and organizing my thoughts was easier. That reading and concentrating were not as touch and go. Music sounded better. My runner’s highs were comparable and much longer than highs I had experienced with edibles without the groggy feeling afterwards.

Basically, the little things were making me happy again. So weird. SO bizarre.

My therapist’s first task for me when I came into her office and shared my story almost three years ago, was for me to do the work of discovering what activities were life-giving for me. She encouraged me to incorporate those activities into my daily life in the form of self-care.

The lesson from therapy in this post is this: Discover or re-discover the lifegiving activities (aka positive coping mechanisms) that work for you personally before trying to get rid of the negative coping mechanisms.

I had tried for YEARS to kick my bad coping mechanisms, but it was never sustainable. It wasn’t until I had the “happiness comparison point” of incorporating running, playing videogames with friends, writing consistently, or creating videos on a more consistent basis that I began to feel the effects of things that made me happy without the laundry list of negative side effects that came with porn, drinking, or substances.

Now when faced with the choice of which coping mechanism to use I can compare the satisfaction level of the negative coping mechanisms versus the life-giving activities.

Now I’m not just trying abstain from doing something. Now I’m comparing and making an educated decision on what it is I want and choosing the behavior that best fits my end goal.

It is no easy task to walk away from the negative coping mechanisms that distract us into thinking we are happy. Oftentimes, we’ve come up with reasons as to why the negative coping mechanisms aren’t that bad.

“Porn can’t reject me”

“I’m not an addict, I’m not hurting anyone”

“I deserve this, I’ve had a shitty week, month, year”

My writing in the past has oftentimes come off as judgmental. But as someone who has looked for some sort of relief from the depressing realities of life in all kinds of terrible behaviors, I’ll be the first to tell you that there is a better and healthier way. Shame, guilt, and judgement really only serve to push us further into our entrenched behaviors.

My heart behind this mini series is that you would see some hope in your current situation. From someone who was screwing up his Dopamine reward system for 13 years, I hope that you know that it’s never too late to start taking steps towards a more satisfying and rich life.

This post would be quite pointless without some application so really quickly:

  1. Take five minutes and write down some activities that you enjoy or have enjoyed in the past before life got “too busy” for them. Painting, working out, maybe something social, writing, sketching, building something, etc.
  2. Find a way to incorporate bite sized increments of this activity into your life. Get as close to daily as possible even if the time increments are small. Maybe 15-20 mins a day. You’ll want activities that are sustainable both financially and socially so that you can easily repeat them. Take note of how they make you feel before and after you complete them.
  3. Once you have 2-3 activities that you have to choose from and you have implemented maybe one a day for a while and it seems sustainable, take a break from one of your negative coping mechanisms that you think is the most often used. I suggest a month, but even a week to two weeks is enough to start noticing a difference.
  4. Document your experience. With the inclusion of the life-giving activities in your daily life, abstaining from the negative coping mechanism should become easier as there isn’t just a hole where the negative coping mechanism was. The duration of time you choose will begin to rewire the neurological pathways in your brain associated with Dopamine release and “rewards” that your brain gives you. The combination of the two, should result in a gradual re-normalization of a healthy amount of dopamine being released even when you are doing simple life-giving things.

Our individual journeys are so unique and so we are each both the scientist and the test subject. What works for one may not work for someone else, and so we have to be both creative and resilient as we experiment with what works and what doesn’t.

Imagine a life where we aren’t addicted to the red notifications, the late night website binges, and the hits from our vapes.

More than that, imagine a life where colors are more vivid, the days are more awe inspiring, and the little things like food or time spent with loved ones are more vibrant and exciting.

It isn’t a pipe dream. And more often than not, we have the power to walk towards healthiness as we are all learning to cope.

If you have two seconds, if you can maybe fill out this survey regarding the “Lessons from Therapy” series I would greatly appreciate it!

2 thoughts on “Lessons From Therapy: Learning to Cope

  1. Thank you Paul for this blog. This is exactly what I learned on my mental health journey this past year. Isolation has made it hard to introduce or reincorporate some of the activities I had planned but I was able to add working out even while working from home and this blog reminded me of this long journey I’m on and to not be discouraged. So I will continue to take my bite size activities until I’m able to have a whole meal of them. Thank you my dude. 🙂


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