By Ashley Nestler, MSW
Schizoaffective disorder — a disorder that is a combination of schizophrenia and, in my case, major depression — is a big part of my life. I find that often, my symptoms dictate what I am able to do in my daily life. Fortunately, I have developed certain coping mechanisms that make the days easier and allow me to find some reprieve from my illness.
My hope is that if you struggle with schizophrenia yourself, the following coping mechanisms might give you some relief from your illness as well.
One of the best steps I have taken to improve my mental health is to get an emotional support animal, a cat named Fat Louie. Owning a cat has some strictly practical benefits; having a living creature around helps me understand whether the hallucinations I experience are real or not. If Fat Louie acts like he can see what I am seeing, then I know can know that it is real. And if he doesn’t, this can be a strong indicator that I am experiencing hallucinations.
Equally importantly, he helps to comfort me when I am experiencing major depressive episodes. When I am struggling, I have the joy of experiencing complete and unlimited love. Without Louie, daily struggles would feel almost insurmountable. I fully understand that Fat Louie has been a lifesaver in helping me live a manageable life — and I hope animals can bring a similar comfort to others.
This coping mechanism might come off as simplistic, but I’ve learned that even the smallest tasks can be lifesaving. I have a collection of different “fidget putties” and dough that help ground me when I am hallucinating. When I am hallucinating, I often feel like I am floating or that I am not completely in my body. But when I have some putty or dough to fidget with, I feel more securely rooted in my body, and I am able to stay present and grounded. Using putty and dough also help me when I am experiencing intense anxiety, as the use of my hands allows me to direct my energy toward a specific task.
Like the putty and dough, having a heating pad helps when my hallucinations become irritating or debilitating. Often, my hallucinations — and resulting frustration — interrupt my ability to stay present and evaluate my reality. Heating pads (or warming stuffed animals) with lavender bring me a sense of comfort and stabilization that allow me to function on tough days.
This coping mechanism, while seemingly contradictory to the coping mechanism above, can be just as helpful. When I am experiencing strong hallucinations and severe anxiety, almost nothing can relieve me from the distress; however, dunking my face in a bowl of cold water helps to “zap” me out of what I am experiencing. The introduction of an extreme temperature allows me to reset and pay attention to what is happening in my body. In times of severe distress, I typically need strong measures, and this particular coping mechanism has helped me on many occasions.
I experience auditory hallucinations that cause me a lot of irritation and distress, but I have found that watching comforting shows or listening to music that I enjoy often helps to bring me some relief when I am having an episode. I also discovered that focusing on the plot of a show and the feeling of the music can help to drown out the voices and grounding me in reality.
Schizophrenia is a severe — and often debilitating — mental illness, but I have discovered small actions that can aid me through many of my episodes. My hope is that learning more about my coping mechanisms will help people without a mental illness to understand schizophrenia from a lived experience perspective. But more importantly, I hope that my experience will provide people living with schizophrenia with tools to help them cope. Living with this illness can often be difficult, but there are ways to manage the symptoms and live a joyful life.
Ashley Nestler, MSW is a survivor of multiple mental illnesses. She works as mental health specialist, author, empowerment coach and bibliotherapist. She is the creator of The Ignite & Rise Academy and Releasing the Phoenix.
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